The 2018 draft class is turning out to be a doozy.
Luka Doncic and Trae Young are setting the world on fire, while DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marvin Bagley III have quietly turned in strong performances. Lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox, Mikal Bridges and Wendell Carter Jr. all showed enough upside to warrant legitimate building block status.
Since the turn of the calendar to 2019, Atlanta Hawks rookie Kevin Huerter has been averaging 11.5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and only 1.8 turnovers on 42 percent shooting, along with 38 percent from three. In February, Huerter averaged more per game than the likes of Bridges, Gilgeous-Alexander or Landry Shamet—all of whom have been praised for their strong play.
Huerter showed off his “sneaky athleticism” against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night in a thrilling four-overtime battle, slamming home one of the more impressive dunks of his young career:
Oh my, Kevin Huerter pic.twitter.com/gim4q2vFF4
— Will Gottlieb (@wontgottlieb) March 2, 2019
A relatively quiet performer because of his steady and non-highlight-esque performances, Huerter needs a little more praise than he’s been given throughout his rookie campaign. Trae Young is the alpha male and the Hawks’ top performer, while sophomore John Collins has taken phenomenal leaps forward in year two. Yet, Huerter’s development as a supplementary scorer and playmaker has been crucial to Atlanta’s late surge.
According to Cleaning the Glass On-Off Metrics, the Hawks are plus-7.7 per 100 possessions when he’s on the court. That differential is essentially the difference in 16 wins over the course of an 82-game season.
So why is Huerter the hidden key to their success, and what is it about his game that is so important?
Offensively, Huerter is the ideal 2-guard alongside Trae Young. He’s incredibly smart, and a capable catch-and-shoot threat. Few youngsters move as well without the ball and even fewer are as gifted passers on the move. His adjusted field goal percentage on wide-open catch-and-shoots is north of 64 percent, and he’s been one of the most consistent jump shooters the entire season.
But Huerter is more than just a vanilla, stand-still sniper.
When playing with a player as creative, quick and smart as Young, teammates must be ready to freelance and improvise. Huerter has demonstrated a propensity to make things up on the go, finding holes and nuances when all defensive eyes are on Young. He moves without the ball so well and trusts that Young will find him, particularly in transition when Trae is at his most dangerous:
In the half-court, Huerter is a much better passer than he gets credit. He’s third on the team in assists and has a host of highlights with great finds, on-target passes and fundamentally sound extras. When going to his right, he uses a variety of right-handed rocket-like hook passes to find the open man.
As a driver, Huerter is fairly one-dimensional. He’s not a fantastic finisher at full-speed (yet) and does not initiate a ton of contact or get to the free throw line. But if he continues to make perfect reads and passes like these while going left, he’s going to be in good shape:
Huerter’s passing acumen when going left is just as important, though it manifests itself differently.
The rookie struggles coming off screens or handoffs and getting his feet set to quickly shoot. To make up for that lack of polish and the fact the Hawks cannot run actions for him, Huerter runs through dribble handoffs at full speed and applies pressure on the defenses that respect him as a shooter. They cannot contain the pace, and Huerter needs less than one bounce to make the appropriate reads.
He drags out his dribble towards the sidelines and causes an opening around the hoop or on the back-side for teammates to emerge:
These are only a few of the best passes he’s made. Turn on any game and you’ll see at least one fantastic dime. Perhaps his skill is overshadowed by Young’s amazing passing, but Huerter’s one of the better facilitators in this rookie class.
Perhaps Huerter will soon get a little more freedom and action as a primary facilitator on certain plays. Trae Young is a more-than-capable catch-and-shoot threat, which would allow Huerter to have his moments. His improved play could lead to a longer leash, where we see the offense feature his skills a few more possessions a night.
Maybe we’ll even get to see him put the sauce on an All-Star, as he did to Ben Simmons:
Nothing about Huerter’s game is overly flashy. He’s a three-point sniper that makes simple and correct plays when he puts it on the floor. A very mundane defender with brief flashes of strong athleticism, he blends in with the crowd.
On a team with highlight reels of Trae Young and John Collins, the Hawks don’t need a guy that steals the spotlight or needs the ball every possession. Yet, Huerter is emerging as the ideal complement to the Hawks’ budding core.
He’s an impressive rookie contributing at a high level.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com stats, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 3, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.