The 2014-2015 NBA season is rapidly approaching (!), and because the Atlanta Hawks have endured a roller coaster ride in recent weeks for things unrelated to real, live basketball on the court, it is refreshing to be discussing the on-court product. In this space, we will explore and preview the six members of the backcourt for this year's edition of the Hawks, and as you may expect, we will begin with the team's point guard, Jeff Teague.
This is a big year for Jeff Teague. Honestly, I am confident that I expressed the same sentiment prior to last season in some form or fashion, but after Teague made some significant strides in the first season under Mike Budenholzer's tutelage, if he is going to make "the leap", the time is now.
In general, Teague was productive during the 2013-2014 season, posting career-bests in scoring (16.5 ppg, 18.5 points per 36 min) and PER (17.1), but if there was an area in which he took a dip, it was in knocking down shots. The now 26-year-old point guard struggled from deep, converting only 32.9% of his three-point attempts, and that contributed to a decline in his overall shooting, with just 54.1% true shooting for the year.
Teague's assist numbers also took a minor hit (7.5 per 36, down from 7.9 in the previous year), but in all honesty, much of that can probably be attributed to Al Horford's injury and absence. Teague will likely never be the "typical" pass-first point guard that many desire, but he is fully capable of distributing if given the opportunity, and if there is an area in which fans can bank on vast improvement, it will be in the pick-and-roll with Horford on board.
Aggressiveness is always the key for Jeff Teague, and this season is no different. The hope would certainly be that something "clicks" with him as a potential leader from that position, but even if that never takes place (and I would imagine that it doesn't), Teague could make big-time advancements if he were to eliminate his occasional disappearing act, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
His defense has been a point of contention for many (including myself), and it is more maddening than anything. Teague possesses lightning quickness that should enable him to be a quality on-ball defender, but he often struggles in that area due to his slight frame, and off the ball, he is a disaster at times, repeatedly falling asleep and losing his man to open jump shots and back-cuts. Slight improvement would be huge, even if he will never be a lock-down defender.
The ceiling for Teague this season is probably somewhere in the 12 to 15 range among NBA point guards, but if he is the exact replica of the 2013-2014 version, he'll be nothing more than average when compared to starters around the league.
Kyle Korver may be the safest player on the Atlanta Hawks roster from a projection standpoint. In short, he will be an incredible shooter, he will play high-end defense and he will take nothing off the table in Mike Budenholzer's system.
In 2013-2014, Korver led the NBA in three-point shooting at an amazing 47.2% clip, and while expecting that to recur may be aggressive, there is no reason to think he won't be somewhere in the mid-40's for the upcoming campaign. It is a mistake to peg him as a "pure" three-point specialist, however, as Korver has become adept at knocking down mid-range jump shots from multiple angles, and occasionally, he has proven effective in creating his own offense given a variety of up-and-under moves. That combination allowed him to lead the league in true shooting percentage (65.3%) last season, and frankly, he was incredible with regard to efficiency.
Defensively, there is some controversy surrounding Korver (motivated by our own writers at Peachtree Hoops). The casual fan generally assumes that he is a "bad" defender, and while it is easy to see why that stereotype exists (he is a white shooter, etc.), it is simply wrong. Korver is an average on-ball defender (at worst) who is capable of easily handling the opposition's second wing option, and more than that, he excels in team principles, always occupying the right position with length and athleticism (yes, athleticism) that frustrates opposing perimeter players.
Many surmised that the Hawks would be limited with Kyle Korver as a full-time starter on the wing. Those people were wrong, and while he is escalating in age (now 33), I have little fear with regard to a significant drop-off.
It wasn't a fantastic rookie year from Dennis Schröder. The first round point guard averaged just 13.1 minutes per game for the full season, and he was soundly beaten out by Shelvin Mack in what was an unexpected turn of events. Schröder's weaknesses with his jump shot (38.3% FG) and experience level showed over much of his debut season, but on the positive side, there appeared to be great strides in his game throughout his time in Las Vegas this summer.
To be honest, Schröder's role is a bit unclear at the moment. The team invested in Shelvin Mack over a period of seasons, and while that does not close the door on Schröder having a role for this season, it does provide Mike Budenholzer with an additional option should the rising sophomore point guard struggle again in year two.
Translating Summer League into NBA play is a dangerous proposition, but Schröder did appear to be significantly more comfortable with both his jump shot and operating an NBA-level offense with leadership, and that is encouraging. Dennis easily projects the highest defensive upside of any point guard on the current roster, and if he can parlay that ceiling with even league-average offense from the point guard spot, things will be just fine.
At this point, it is pretty aggressive to suggest that Schröder will "beat out" Shelvin Mack for the backup point guard position, but at the same time, I believe it is safe to assume that he will garner some time in the early going in an effort to foster his development.
I was openly critical of Shelvin Mack's inclusion as a member of the rotation last season, and I was wrong. The now 24-year-old combo guard was quite effective in his first season in Atlanta, averaging 13.1 points, 6.5 assists and 3.9 rebounds per 36 minutes of court time, and his presence was much-needed as a shooting guard, thanks to the spell of injuries throughout the roster.
The two-PG lineup with both Mack and Jeff Teague on the court was relatively successful at times last season, but with the addition of Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore to the fold (and the projected improvement of Dennis Schröder), we should likely see a dip in that duo's playing time. Still, Mack was effective despite making only 31.7% of his 3-point attempts on the season, and if we project some reasonable improvement in that area, he would have been a league-average player from an efficiency perspective.
Mack's three-year contract certainly suggests that the organization values him highly as a commodity, but at the same time, it is also relatively easy to see a scenario in which he is leap-frogged by an ascending Dennis Schröder. Either way, having Shelvin Mack around is incredible insurance should Teague suffer an injury and/or Schröder flounder in his second season, and at worst, we're talking about a solid backup point guard option on both ends of the floor.
Nothing is flashy about Shelvin Mack, but if he is your fourth/fifth guard, everything is just fine.
2 years and $4 million seems like a bargain for Kent Bazemore, especially if he can fill a role as the backup shooting guard. In the recent past, the Hawks have rotated small-ish players like Lou Williams and the aforementioned Shelvin Mack as primary backups to Kyle Korver at the 2-guard spot, but in Bazemore, the team has a big-time athlete who happens to be 6-foot-5.
The jury is firmly out on whether Bazemore is actually a good NBA player, but in a very small sample when given starter-level minutes with the Lakers last season, he certainly looked like one. The 25-year-old averaged 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game over a 25-game stint with LA, and he shot better than 45% from the floor and 37% from 3-point range while playing 28 minutes per contest.
28 minutes a night is not in the cards for Bazemore in Atlanta unless injury disaster strikes, but he is capable of defending shooting guards in a quality way, which is a step up from last season's backcourt conundrum. "Upside" is a term thrown around surrounding Bazemore quite often, but even if he doesn't fully break out in what should be a limited role, his energy and length will be a welcome addition, and his fun personality should keep us all awake.
If there is a member of the current, 15-man roster that is on the chopping block, it is John Jenkins. In my estimation, the only reason why Jenkins is still a member of the Atlanta Hawks is that his 2014-2015 team option was picked up prematurely, and from what we saw in Las Vegas during Summer League, his health is very much a question mark.
On the bright side, the former Vanderbilt sharpshooter is still only 23 years old, but back surgery forced him to miss all but 13 games during the 2013-2014 campaign, and he was unable to play anything resembling a full workload in Las Vegas. Even when he has been on the court in his short NBA career, Jenkins has been underwhelming, contributing virtually nothing aside from high-end shooting, and struggling badly in all aspects during his short stint last season.
At the moment, Jenkins is firmly behind Korver, Bazemore, Mack and Thabo Sefolosha (who will be covered in our preview of the forwards) at the shooting guard position, and I simply can't see a path to playing time for him in Atlanta this season. Because of his relatively small size (6-foot-4) and highly limited athleticism, Jenkins profiles as a pure shooting specialist, but even when he was knocking down 38.4% of his threes as a rookie, Larry Drew felt it tough to deploy him based on his limitations in every other aspect.
I am genuinely curious to see what John Jenkins could do if healthy, but this isn't the team for him to shine with at this stage, and a change of scenery is his best hope at saving what is a fledgling NBA career.