Atlanta Hawks

Strength is the key to unlocking Kevin Huerter’s game

Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter dazzled with high-level shot-making in his first season. To take the next step, he must address two key areas.

Among the host of wings selected in the teens of last year’s NBA Draft, none was more impressive than Kevin Huerter this past season. Circumstances played a role in that — Huerter avoided injury and started 59 games while his contemporaries battled health or the depth chart on playoff teams. But his performance also largely warrants the claim. He shot 38.5 percent on 353 attempts from 3-point range, delighted with secondary playmaking chops and displayed impressive team defense instincts, often a rarity for first-year players.

Many have even pegged him as the Atlanta Hawks’ second-best prospect behind Trae Young, despite John Collins averaging 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on 62.7 percent true shooting last season. While I’m not sure it’s that concrete, there’s certainly a case to be made for Huerter and it largely hinges on his versatile shooting stroke.

He ranked in the 73rd percentile (1.07 points per possession) on spot-ups and was in the 90th percentile (1.063 PPP) on off-the-dribble jumpers in the half-court. Among 124 players with 100-plus attempts off the dribble, Huerter finished seventh in PPP. That duality allows him to operate off the ball next to Young or patiently survey the court with a few dribbles before creating airspace to jack up long balls.

One of the most valuable parts of Huerter’s game is his boundless range. Some young players, especially those at a strength deficit like him, wrestle with their exterior excellence translating to the NBA’s 3-point arc. Huerter didn’t have any issues there and even showed a level of comfort at Atlanta’s “4-point line,” regularly bombing triples from *insert obscure Atlanta suburb here*.

The merits of Huerter’s shot-making don’t extend inside the arc, though. He knocked down just 45.7 percent of his 2-point attempts, which ranked 57th among 72 guards (minimum 300 attempts). It’s not like he’s buried deep on that list simply because of his rookie status, finishing 12th among 14 first-year players in 2-point percentage (min. 300 attempts). Further evidence of those struggles is the fact he shot 37.7 percent on pull-up 3s but only 32.8 percent on pull-up 2s.

His substandard productivity inside the arc stems from two primary factors: a lack of strength and functional handle (notably with his left hand). Both influence his interior scoring. He shot 56 percent at the rim (34th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass), which composed 23 percent (35th percentile) of his total field goals.

Fire up the tape and Huerter’s flaws manifest themselves, especially when he aims to put pressure on the bucket. Exacerbating these challenges is seemingly mediocre touch. Jolt him off balance and the success rate plummets.

Huerter will be just 21 years old when the 2019-20 season starts. It’s quite realistic that he makes advanced strength gains to the point of enhancing his dribble-drive arsenal. But he’s missing short-burst athleticism on horizontal and vertical planes, which enforces a definitive ceiling on his finishing at the rim.

Developing a floater package provides a counter to that issue, yet Huerter’s failed to show consistency or signposts of potential in that department. Last season, he shot 73.2 percent from the free-throw line (56 attempts) and finished in the seventh percentile on runners (51 possessions), per Synergy.

Those are small samples though, and it’s worth sifting through his collegiate profile. Spanning two seasons at Maryland, Huerter was a 74.8 percent free-throw shooter and only attempted 22 floaters (albeit, he was in the 89th percentile on 17 possessions as a sophomore). That second-year efficiency on floaters is obviously good but the small usage — 22 attempts in 65 games — doesn’t convey confidence in the shot type.

Emphasizing the need for Huerter to implement floaters into his repertoire is a current inability to shoot off of forward momentum. Whether it’s an inefficiency derived from true ability — like underwhelming core strength — or a lack of comfort is tough to discern. I lean toward the latter and it’s apparent in his off-the-dribble approach. Huerter makes a conscious effort to not shoot pull-up jumpers off of forward momentum.

Throughout the season, Huerter displayed a capability for seamlessly launching into space-creating step-backs and the first clip exemplifies that. It also underlines his aversion to pull-up jumpers. When he winds around the screen, the big is camped in the paint and provides a runway for the walk-in triple. Instead, he retreats into a longer, more difficult look.

The other two clips reveal Huerter’s 1-2 footwork — meaning he brings one foot forward then the other rather than hopping into the shot with both feet simultaneously. As such, it’s harder for Huerter to quickly set his feet in tight spaces, notably with a defender trailing close behind and often in pick-and-rolls. If he neutralizes himself as a threat in ball-screen action, that diminishes some of his potential as a creator.

Aforementioned indicators of Huerter’s poor touch make it problematic that he prioritize floaters ahead of jumpers. They’re fine to use as an efficient alternative if that’s what they are: efficient. Right now, they’re largely just wasted possessions. He’s going to be a nuclear jump-shooter. Lean into that skill-set whenever possible.

Huerter’s dissonance as a pull-up shooter can be corrected by added core strength and newfound comfort in his load-up process, the latter of which helps him maintain balance when quickly decelerating. For the time being, those setbacks limit his ceiling as a shooter. If the source of the issue is largely tied to rhythm, his scoring versatility is bound to expand with more opportunity and repetition. Functional strength, however, is harder to apply — albeit still very possible — and generally occurs on a lengthier time frame.

Broadly speaking, bulking up will unveil Huerter’s path to becoming an above-average defender. He’s equipped with discipline, astute off-ball awareness and good positional size at 6-foot-7. Those traits ensured he was only a slight negative on defense last season, as he ended the year with a minus-0.60 Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus. For long stretches, his defensive IQ belied his rookie moniker (1.1 steals per 36 minutes, by the way).

Cursed with a 6-foot-7 wingspan and restrictive lateral quickness, Huerter won’t mature into a two-way destroyer of worlds. His appeal is as a secondary creator who absorbs some of the usage Young is tasked with on a nightly basis. Like many rookies enjoying significant table-setting responsibilities, Huerter generated a steep turnover rate in on-ball contexts, plagued by overzealous reads and second-late decision-making.

His 19.1 percent turnover rate ranked 87th among 105 players with 150-plus pick-and-roll possessions. Atlanta views him as central to its offensive identity moving forward and likely encourages him to experiment with the depths of his playmaking acumen. Discretion often improves over time for young ball-handlers, especially those holstering these types of bullets in the chamber. Huerter has an advanced grab bag of tricks that includes live-dribble skip passes and threading the needle with impromptu reads.

The first true year of the Hawks’ rebuild was a resounding success. Offensively, their core players complement one another about as well as one might reasonably expect.

Young busted out of an early season shooting slump to close out his rookie campaign on a tear. He and Huerter established impactful synergy together founded upon their dynamic shooting gravity. Collins preserved elite scoring efficiency on increased usage and continued his emergence as a 3-point shooter.

Next: Why can’t find Jeremy Lin find a new NBA home?

Huerter was the most pleasant surprise, comfortably outperforming his draft slot (19th overall) and making the All-Rookie Second Team. He appears to be a genuinely special outside shooter and his decision-making as a passer will only sharpen moving forward — he’s flashed too much ability and smarts to suggest otherwise. To amplify his versatility off the bounce, Huerter must improve his core strength and footwork off of forward momentum. Tightening his handle would also unlock new avenues as a shot-maker and facilitator.

His baseline as a high-level shooter with keen defensive IQ and ancillary creation skills sets an encouraging floor but he could be one of the league’s most dangerous offensive guards. There’s no guarantee it happens and truthfully, I’m moderately dubious that his flaws are easily correctable. Regardless, it’s an exclusive opportunity for a non-lottery pick.

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