- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Paul Hewitt saw it almost immediately. The head coach of this summer's United States Under-19 national team, Hewitt informed some of his players that Connecticut star Jeremy Lamb would be the focal point of their offense.
Some players accepted it. Others shrugged it off. Tim Hardaway Jr. couldn't do either. The Michigan sophomore guard used it as something else.
"It definitely ticked him off," Hewitt said. "I know it did. He may not admit it, but I know it ticked him off. I kind of chuckled about it, because it made him work harder.
"I know it ticked him off."
Hardaway wanted to prove to the coaches he could be a focal point, too. But he needed to work on what his father, former NBA All-Star Tim Hardaway Sr., and his Michigan coach, John Beilein, had stressed to him before he left for the U-19 tryouts.
Work on your defense. Use your body to take players off the dribble more. Try to grab more offensive rebounds.
"I had a little smirk on my face here or there," Hardaway Jr. said. "I made it from a negative to a positive."
For the first time in years, Hardaway Jr. came off the bench -- a decision made by Hewitt after the player missed a couple of pre-Europe practices and a pre-Europe scrimmage with a concussion. Instead of being a star, he turned into the U-19 team's spark off the bench.
That won't happen at Michigan, where the sophomore is expected to be a focal point and leader after a freshman year when he became one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Michigan saw this potential early.
At Michigan's first open gym before Hardaway's freshman year, he showed up and fit in immediately. Usually, junior guard Josh Bartelstein said, freshmen take a few sessions to feel their way through.
Not Hardaway. After the first open gym, Bartelstein called his father while driving to Potbelly with then-junior guard Zack Novak and told him what he saw.
"I'm like, 'He's going to be big time,' " Bartelstein said. "First open gym, a bunch of freshmen coming in here and they are going to get rid of the ball and are timid. He just attacked.
"And he hasn't stopped from there."
By the time Michigan went to Europe for an exhibition tour in August 2010, Hardaway had emerged as a likely starter and one of the Wolverines' best players. By midseason, he shared the bulk of the scoring with point guard Darius Morris.
When last season ended, he had become one of the best freshmen in the country, averaging 13.9 points, 3.8 rebounds and shooting 36.7 percent from the 3-point line.
"He had a better freshman year than anyone would have expected," Beilein said. "But overall, we saw he had a really high ceiling."
There were bumps along the way. For the first two months of the season, Beilein implored Hardaway to drive to the basket more instead of spotting up to shoot. After Michigan lost to Minnesota, 69-64, on Jan. 22, he had enough, pulling Hardaway aside and imploring him to feel the game more. Hardaway's instincts were there. He just needed to trust them.
Hardaway did -- scoring in double digits the last 16 games of last season, leading the Wolverines to the third round of the NCAA tournament.
In Latvia on the U.S. U-19 team, Hardaway made only 27 percent of his 3-pointers but 43.3 percent of all his shots. He surprised Hewitt with his defense -- what Hardaway said he improved the most during the championships -- and U.S. team assistant Cliff Warren with his athleticism. He wanted to keep playing after he scored 21 points, including the game-winning basket, in a 78-77 win over Australia in the fifth-place game.
The game gave him even more confidence.
"After that game I really felt as if I could be that guy coming in this year to lead this team," Hardaway said. "But it's not about one man, it's about the team."
A team on which he is a major part. Teammates noticed the international experience changed him. Hardaway became more vocal. Beilein noticed more leadership.
He had taken what his dad showed him, what Beilein showed him, and what Hewitt and Warren taught him, and added to his game. He elevates on his shot higher than any Michigan player, cuts better than almost anyone, and makes his teammates better.
He has become Michigan's most versatile player. Bartelstein said opponents take away his first three moves, force him into the shot they want. Then he makes it anyway.
"He really worked on his mid-range game, and the kid finishes as well as probably any player I've seen on the college level," senior guard Stu Douglass said. "He's really started to adapt his game to different areas. He's probably one of the harder players for other teams to scout that I've played with."
Despite that, Michigan's players and coaches were hesitant to declare Hardaway the Wolverines' focal point like NBA players Manny Harris in 2009-10 and Morris last season.
But Hardaway has the potential to be. If anyone doubts it, he'll do what he did this summer: Smirk and laugh. Then, he'll just keep working to show everyone he can be the player his teammates and coaches think he can be -- one of the best players in the country.
Michael Rothstein covers University of Michigan sports for WolverineNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @mikerothstein.
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