Atlanta Hawks rookie, Kevin Huerter, stands out because of his aptitude from deep. But it’s the less celebrated aspects of his game that make him so intriguing.
The Atlanta Hawks, in the year 2019, are understandably not a frequent topic of discussion. The Hawks sit at 11-27, reaching such heights only on the back of scorching 5-5 record in the team’s last 10 games, and occupy the No. 12 seed, seven games out of playoff position in the NBA’s inferior conference.
Also, understandably, when people do take a minute to talk Hawks, they focus on Trae Young. Young, the fifth pick in the 2018 NBA Draft (and primary return for the third pick, which became rookie sensation Luka Doncic). Young has had his ups and downs this year but he’s a passing virtuoso, and his game is predicated on the threat of his Curry-lite range and effectiveness as a jump-shooter. It is, therefore, problematic that Young’s shooting 29.3 percent from 3 on the season and, whether it’s to marvel or mock, it makes sense that he’s the most obvious thing to focus on.
If not Young, the focus of Hawks dialogue right now is likely John Collins, who is having somewhat of a breakout sophomore campaign. After missing the first month of the season with injury, Collins boasts averages of 18.3 points (on an outstanding 62.6 percent true shooting percentage) and 10.3 rebounds per game. Whether to laud Collins’ production or consider his limitations as a rim protector, Collins talk comprises the majority of non-Young Hawks conversation.
Under-discussed, then, is rookie Kevin Huerter. Taken No. 19 in last summer’s draft, Huerter is a sharpshooting guard/forward out of Maryland. As such, you’ve probably seen some highlights of him doing this:
Unlike Young, Huerter’s had little trouble translating his marksmanship to the NBA. Huerter’s connecting on 37.7 percent of his 4.1 3-point attempts per game. Where Young’s early struggles from deep have overshadowed flashes of brilliance elsewhere on the court, Huerter’s success has been similarly obfuscating: Huerter is much more than just a shooter.
This year, 18 percent of Huerter’s offensive possessions have come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per Synergy. Now, I won’t lie to you, his success has been limited. At 0.467 points per possession, Huerter finds himself in the fifth percentile among qualified players. He’s turning the ball over on a ludicrous 28.3 percent of those possessions and shooting 26.2 percent on the rare occasion that he doesn’t turn the ball over.
Yet, Huerter’s usage speaks to the organization’s conception of him as a player. Klay Thompson, a four-time All-Star and common upside comparison for Huerter, for example, has never shouldered the pick-and-roll usage Huerter has as a rookie. Golden State, under Steve Kerr, has never been a high-volume pick-and-roll team, but Thompson dedicates just five-to-seven percent of his possessions to pick-and-roll handling (with the exception of 2014-15, when he spiked to a career-high 14.3 percent), per Synergy. None of this is to say anything outlandish, like the Thompson comparison undersells Huerter. But Huerter is a different player, who appears on track for a much larger playmaking role than the traditional sharpshooter.
Like any truly useful shooter, Huerter can attack a closeout, but it’s in this routine behavior that you start to see flashes of something more:
Great as Kyle Korver is, you’ll struggle to find clips of him delivering wraparound strikes or flipping the rock behind-the-back to a diving big man. Huerter has ability and confidence as an on-the-move passer that simply isn’t there for even the best “just” shooters.
And you see some of that translate into his pick-and-roll possessions:
Huerter waits for possessions to develop and benefits from his 6-foot-7 frame, which allows for passes over the defense (something he needs to do more of, because he tends to really on bounce passes into congested areas, causing a lot of those pesky turnovers). And while Huerter’s pick-and-roll passes tend to be simple and to the roll man, he’s flashed the ability to dime up shooters:
Huerter is not a good pick-and-roll ball-handler right now. His handle is pretty susceptible to pressure. He needs to see the floor a lot better. But compared to a lot of young wings, even those drafted at the very top of the lottery, he has a decent foundation. And despite coming out of school as a sophomore, Huerter is younger than freshmen Deandre Ayton and Mo Bamba, who went first and sixth in June’s draft. He has time to grow and develop as a decision-maker and ball-handler, and he’s starting from a higher baseline than most.
With a potentially special lead ball-handler already in place in Young, Atlanta’s offense will be that much more dynamic when Huerter does build on that baseline. Huerter will be a secondary or tertiary option on a play, but when the ball swings to him, Atlanta will know it has another competent handler to make a play. Huerter will run off a screen, ready to flare if his defender shoots the gap, but equally comfortable curling into the lane to spoon-feed his big man.
Kevin Huerter isn’t as dazzling as Trae Young or overwhelmingly productive as John Collins, but he’s a reason talk about the Hawks more. As a lethal shooter, Huerter’s already giving Atlanta quality starting minutes, but where he’s struggled, as the secondary creator flanking Young, he shows promise to be a lot more than just a shooter.