Cam Reddish’s Rookie Year Was Better Than You Think

Eight NBA teams will not be joining their counterparts in “The Disney Bubble” as the league reboots. Their offseason has already begun.

As these franchises go forward, attention shifts to wholistic changes, themes and building blocks. Young players with the ability to become a foundation are the most pivotal to develop, and the marriage between a logical plan and sticking to it is crucial for a successful union.

Cam Reddish’s overall numbers from his initial pro season were fairly pedestrian. The Atlanta Hawks’ rookie swingman averaged 10.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists with 33.2 percent shooting from deep. His negative assist to turnover rate and putrid 42.8 percent shooting from inside the arch were further demerits.

A month-by-month breakout of Reddish’s season show that he was starting to really figure it out, however, so much so that in the ten games after the All-Star Break, he averaged 16.4 points on 50 percent shooting and 38.9 percent from 3.

It’s that performance that will be expected of the former Duke Blue Devil moving forward. It’s also why Reddish isn’t the type of player who can be judged solely by his overall numbers.

A lottery pick’s arrival in the NBA is similar to a high school valedictorian going to Harvard. These guys are used to being the big fish in a small pond, overwhelming their competition with just their natural ability. When they get to the league, everyone is a big fish, and they can no longer rely on the habits they built in high school.

They must change and improve in order to both fit in and succeed.

Early season Reddish looked like a kid trying to do exactly what he would have in high school. He toyed with the ball far too frequently, eyeing up defenders for one-on-one moves expecting them to wilt in his path like they did in prior years. He would jet for the rim in transition and figure he could physically handle any contact, only to be rebuffed by the grown men awaiting his move.

As the season wore on, he began to adjust to his surroundings and show the merit that got him accepted into the basketball world’s Ivy League. The shooting concerns were mechanically-driven, but his poor finishing and decision-making were mental challenges.

Those took priority in his development.

Mar 9, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Cam Reddish (22) reacts after a three-point basket in the first half against the Charlotte Hornets at State Farm Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Reddish is conscientious and attentive, driven but honest. His high school coach, Seth Berger, is among the most honest and direct communicators I’ve seen, and those traits rub off on Reddish in how he’s handled adversity thus far.

His path has been mired with obstacles that could bring doubt to his doorstep: He played fourth-fiddle at Duke, a role he wasn’t perfectly equipped for, out of necessity to the Zion Williams and RJ Barrett show. His numbers reflected that non-ideal fit, but his potential brought him to the Hawks with the 10th overall pick.

Sure, the offense is still a work in progress after that first-year trial by fire, but Reddish was taken for more than just his scoring upside. He’s the perfect complement on the other end to Hawks franchise pillar Trae Young.

Reddish is 6’8″ and a hell of an athlete with tremendous defensive instincts. He actually made an immediate impact on that end.

FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR rating system measured Reddish as Atlanta’s best defender. His Synergy profile doesn’t show elite stopping power, but it’s important to remember that he was a rookie garnering the opponent’s top assignment. There’s no way to quantify the impact of him taking that gig as opposed to some other Hawk.

Lining up across from LeBron James, Khris Middleton, Kawhi Leonard or Devin Booker, Reddish would guard these top-scoring wings or combo guards decently enough. As an isolation defender, his footwork and angles are solid.

He doesn’t click his heels but funnels the ball to the corner of the backboard. His arms are always up, ready to contest step-back jumpers or use his insane wingspan to have opponents shoot the ball right into his reach:

His understanding of angles and not giving up middle penetration separates him from other teenagers. Sure, Reddish isn’t physically at his peak and still has a lot to learn about NBA defense on a nightly basis. But few rookies get trotted out there to guard the world’s top scorers every game, and he’ll be better for it.

What about those teams who don’t have an elite scoring wing? Lloyd Pierce worked some magic and unleashed Reddish on high-scoring point guards, hoping to cut off the head of the snake.

A crossmatch like this can be tricky: It not only requires a player like Reddish to successfully guard smaller, faster guys, but there also needs to be an appropriate destination for Trae to be deployed. It won’t work based on every matchup, though Reddish has been incredibly successful when he gets to use his length and quickness over physicality on the wings.

Recently, we’ve seen an uptick in teams who routinely play two primary ball handlers in a backcourt.

The Charlotte Hornets let Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier run together while the Cleveland Cavaliers are hoping Collin Sexton and Darius Garland mature side-by-side. Teams like Portland, Denver, New Orleans and Toronto all carved out successful seasons with this formula.

That means there are more areas for a guy like Trae to be hidden. He and Reddish split the backcourt assignments, with the coaching staff diagnosing where they need more prudent defense by sticking Cam there.

It’s worked for long stretches and ended up shutting down the two-guard lineups of the New York Knicks in the fourth quarter. Down nine with 2:30 to go, the Hawks began to assert more pressure on the perimeter⁠—a customary strategy for teams trailing late in games. To counter, the Knicks played two handlers side-by-side: Frank Ntilikina and Elfrd Payton.

With Payton doing most handling duties, Trae was slid onto Ntilikina while Reddish would slide with the full-court assignment. The Haws ended the game on a 13-4 run to force overtime, and it was the one-on-one defense of Reddish on Payton that made that happen:

That was the last game of the season for the Hawks. By this point, Reddish was humming on offense so he could garner these late-game minutes. The dilemma between who to start between Reddish and Kevin Huerter is now a major point heading into next year.

But none of it matters in late-game situations when teams go smaller and add multiple handlers. Both can likely play, but Reddish’s presence is a requirement whether Huerter is also on the floor or not.

What is it that makes him so good against opposing point guards?

Imagine being checked by someone with a wingspan ten inches longer than you, who doesn’t lose a step of quickness. How do you separate against him? Reddish is simultaneously everywhere, and his standing reach prepares him well for a career in thievery.

Guys will be entering a dribble move or securing the ball by their side when Reddish just sneaks in and pokes it away. Quick hands, long reach and a propensity to take their lunch money? Good stuff:

This isn’t the 1990s anymore, though. Checking point guards isn’t just about crowding their dribble and playing them for 94 feet.

Now, top backcourt scorers are recipients of handoffs, entry passes and are given the ball in their desired scoring zones instead of dribbling there themselves.

Reddish’s quickness and length is tailor-made for disruption here. He jumps passing lanes by reading the ball with his great instincts. He jams guys as they get open like a cornerback reading a wide receiver screen. He knives into passing lanes and takes away handoff angles to disrupt the flow of offense, using his thin frame to slither between the two-man action.

He’s a disruptor, knowing how and when to pick his spots and explode into those moments:

Put it all together and Reddish is physically and mentally equipped to handle the league’s top assignments.

He can simultaneously bother guys before the catch and use his length to strip them once they drive it:

Reddish’ defensive acumen brings this back full-circle to his development on offense.

He is such an important and reliable defender for the Hawks that he’s going to be on the floor and drawing crucial assignments, especially in crunchtime minutes. Thus, that jump shot needs to develop.

The Hawks desperately need a competent secondary creator so Trae can play off-ball a bit more.

Reddish is and will be the guy for the job. This is why he was drafted: Theoretically, his fit in Atlanta is perfect. Now it’s on him and the franchise to continue to lay the foundation, brick by brick, so that he can stand on his own.