Trae Young was the story of the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks. After struggling mightily out of the gate, the electric point guard from Lubbock was the ringleader of one of the NBA’s most exciting teams. Despite sitting at the bottom of the standings, Young’s theatrics kept viewers glued to their screens.
With Young on the floor, all manner of flashy passes and 40-foot bombs were in the cards. Along with Young, John Collins emerging into a productive machine inspired hope in many Hawks fans. Last season, these two took the brunt of the praise from Atlanta and the greater NBA community.
Going into the offseason, the Hawks and Travis Schlenk sat in a prime position to improve their roster. In mine and the opinions of many others, Atlanta botched the offseason, with a nightmare draft and questionable free agency period. Because of this, many outside Atlanta’s fanbase are down on the Hawks in 2019 after being the love child of many just a year prior. Last season, one Hawk flew under the radar. On a team with John Collins, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, Atlanta’s second-best prospect, Kevin Huerter, deserves more recognition.
On the surface, the 6’7 Maryland rookie didn’t seem to do anything overly impressive. Posting 9.7 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists shooting 38.5 percent from three with a 53.3 true shooting percentage. These counting stats don’t scream “special” or even anything above average. Looking deeper, Huerter performed like few rookies did last season in an all-time rookie class and is on a fast track to offensive stardom.
Kevin Huerter’s greatness begins with his nuclear shooting profile. Few NBA players have a greater level of shot diversity than Huerter. He can shoot off of any and every imaginable action, from spot-ups to pull-us. As a rookie, Kevin Huerter is on his way to becoming a pull-up dynamo. The pull-up three is the deadliest shot in basketball and Huerter already nears mastery.
Last season, he placed in the 90th percentile on jumpers off of the dribble; only six players placed ahead of him in points per possession, those being Steph Curry, Rudy Gay, DJ Augustin, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin and Damian Lillard (minimum 100 possessions). With a quick release, Huerter can get his shot off from anywhere and in a hurry. A quick in and out dribble flummoxes Mike Muscala and Huerter smoothly pulls up from well beyond the line:
He routinely flashes special off-dribble potential, the type of shots few NBA players can consistently nail, like this cold-blooded stepback triple over Doug McDermott:
Along with his own off-dribble creation, Huerter can fire threes in an array of different on-court scenarios. Aside from catch and shoots and pull-ups, the Hawks love to run dribble handoffs for Huerter and let him shoot when the slightest window opens. Placing in the 60th percentile on hand-offs, Huerter’s flexibility in the air helps him square to the basket and make these shots:
Like every elite shooter, Kevin Huerter already knows and exploits the best way to get open shots, relocation. After a drive and kick, quickly returning to the three-point line nets countless open shots when defenders relax for just a second or two. As a rookie, Huerter already has this drive-kick-relocate pattern down to a science:
While he is a blazing shooter, Huerter wouldn’t have reached the offensive impact he did without more to his game. As a rookie, he impacted the Hawks’ offense as few can. He was one of four players aged 20 or under to post a positive Offensive Player Impact Plus-Minus, along with fellow Hawk Trae Young, Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic.
With Huerter on the floor, the Hawks were 6.6 points better on offense and 6.6 points better overall. Their offense with Huerter on the floor sat at a respectable 112 offensive rating, which would have ranked eighth in the league. When he sat, their offensive rating plummeted to 105.3, which would have tied with the Suns for the 28th worst offense in the league.
Aside from his dynamite shooting, Kevin Huerter’s passing is the second major component of his offensive game and what makes him such a perfect potential secondary creator on a winning team. Given his degree of shooting goodness, Huerter’s vision and timing as a craft is an invaluable skill. How many 6’7 shooters as lethal as Kevin Huerter can fire a bullet to the corner out of the pick and roll when the tagging defender commits?
Not many is the answer and this is what makes Kevin Huerter so much more than a shooter and what makes him so rare and valuable. For a 19-year-old, Huerter flashed an advanced level of craft and timing as a pick and roll ballhandler. Here, he’s patient and penetrates deep into the lane to give Dewayne Dedmon enough time to roll to the rim. A subtle up fake sends both PNR defenders flying, opening a window for a pass to Dedmon for the easy finish:
At this point, Huerter struggles overall in the pick and roll, so the Hawks best maximize his passing in an off-ball creator role. Using screens and misdirections to help Huerter separate, the Hawks get the most out of his passing in space. Kevin Huerter sprints off of a dribble handoff, drives middle and bounces a pass around Looney to an open John Collins:
Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks fully grasp the benefits of pre-pick and roll motion, which gives the ball handler and roller even more room to operate. The Hawks love to run Huerter off of motion before flowing into the PNR, where he can slice into the lane and thread a pocket pass to the roll man:
Double screens across the top of the key are one of Atlanta’s most frequent actions. Not only do they act as screens for Trae Young to perform his wizardry, they also facilitate Huerter’s shooting and passing as well. Huerter flows from a dribble handoff into the two screens and shows veteran craft here, faking to the popping Dedmon before bounce passing to the rolling Omari Spellman:
Aside from his shooting, Kevin Huerter struggles as an on-ball creator at this point in his career. He placed in the 33rd percentile as a pick and roll ball handler, turning the ball over on 19.1 percent of his possessions there. Much of Huerter’s warts as a PNR creator come from his inability to get to and finish at the rim. Last season, he ranked in the 19th percentile around the basket, shooting a poor 48 percent. His game lacks physicality overall; his 0.85 free throw rate is abysmal. Huerter isn’t an explosive athlete and his lack of strength and vertical pop made finishing at the rim difficult; Rudy Gobert doesn’t break a sweat rejecting this layup attempt:
I have hope for Huerter’s self-creation improving, despite his struggles last season. As a rookie, Huerter was a 19-year old whose body had not fully developed. Per a story by the Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Huerter has already packed on seven or eight pounds of muscle. The added strength will help him better hold off defenders on his drives and absorb contact at the rim.
Huerter shot poorly on runners last season (7th percentile) and while I doubt he is this bad at the shot, I do have worries about his overall touch. Dating back to college, his free throw percentage has always hovered in the low-mid 70s, which isn’t an indicator of elite touch. Because of this, there is some worry his shooting effectiveness has a hard cap, but he showed enough shooting prowess in his rookie season to inspire confidence in his shot overall. Looking at Huerter’s free throw percentages and his great efficiency at the rim and from mid-range in college, his touch definitely isn’t bad. If his difficulties at the rim persist, developing a money runner will be key for his on-ball equity:
Huerter can also rely on his pull-up as a fallback out of the pick and roll. Compared to a player like D’Angelo Russell who shares his struggles at the rim, Huerter’s deficiencies there aren’t as damning because he will spend most of his time off of the ball, where his pull-up can shine in spurts:
Despite not being the quickest player, Huerter has a functional handle, good enough to get to his spots and open up passing lanes. He loves the in and out as he showed in the first clip; here, he freezes two defenders in succession with the move. On the baseline, he blows by Jeremy Lamb before doing the same to Cody Zeller, before passing to the open corner shooter:
More than being a fantastic player himself, Kevin Huerter’s synergy with Trae Young raises his ceiling. Few teams feature two players as dynamic of shooters and passers as Young and Huerter. Both of these players have the shooting gravity to bend the defense to submission and the passing gene to exploit the windows each other creates. Young is in an exclusive group of shooters who pull the defense far beyond the line with his range, with Steph Curry and Damian Lillard being the other two prominent ones. His vertical spacing opens up the floor for the rest of his teammates, generating a myriad of easy shots.
Watch how high up the Jazz have to guard the Trae Young pick and roll; they check Oklahoma product beginning at the logo. Because of Young’s gravity, John Collins has acres of space to roll into. Because Huerter is also a designated sniper, Donovan Mitchell is reluctant to leave him, creating a dunk for John Collins:
One of Atlanta’s most frequent offensive sets is this double drag screen for Trae Young right as he crosses half court. Usually ran with two bigs, the Hawks bust out this creative wrinkle with Huerter as the first screener. Instead of simply popping like the first screener typically does, Huerter flows into a screen with Dedmon, springing him wide open for three. Mitchell bites on his pump fake, Huerter passes to Young and he drives and dishes to the rolling Dedmon:
Defensively, Huerter needs to improve. His lack of strength and lateral quickness has him struggle on the ball against the many potent wings of the NBA. Without great physical tools, Jimmy Butler dislodges Huerter without a problem:
Off of the ball, he lapses too often, which leaves him vulnerable to sharpshooters running around screens:
He does show flashes of competence as a team defender and there’s a good chance he improves here due to his passing feel. Very few 19-year-olds are good team defenders, so there’s no reason to be too concerned about his off-ball defense right now. Huerter shows good awareness here, rotating to the driving JJ Redick and throwing him off:
Kevin Huerter’s intersection of shooting, playmaking, ballhandling and feel for the game with the development of passable defense makes him one of the most valuable non-initiator assets in the NBA. Teams can only feature so many players who dominate the ball and the Hawks look to have found their future engine in Trae Young. Not only is Kevin Huerter a perfect secondary creator to Young because of his seamless fit off of the ball, his chemistry with Young accentuates the goodness of the pairing.
Secondary creators like Huerter are far more scarce than athletic rim runners, which makes Kevin Huerter a far more valuable prospect than John Collins, who is a very good player in his own right. With a Summer to mesh with his teammates and improve himself, Kevin Huerter is a prime candidate to burst onto the national scene in his second season as Trae Young’s running mate.
Though the Hawks likely won’t win enough games this season to sniff the playoffs, their future is shimmering with the dynamic duo of Young and Kevin Huerter terrorizing opposing defenses.