The Atlanta Hawks begin regular season play in Dallas on Wednesday night. They will not play at home until their sixth game of the year when they host Paul Millsap and the Denver Nuggets next Friday. Expectations are low for this team although they understandably have higher expectations of themselves as compared to outsiders.
Dennis Schröder enters the season as one of only two returning starters from last season’s opening game. He’s coming off of a wildly successful Eurobasket performance. But here are a few things to keep an eye on in early play to see if he is able to carry any of that success over to this regular season.
Has Dennis Schröder become a more efficient player?
Schröder had a career best shooting season last year, his first as a starter. And that is encouraging. But to power an offense that is heading in an improved direction, he needs to be more efficient in a number of areas. He was mediocre at best last season on shooting possessions during the regular season.
There is no reason he can’t take a step forward this season as a perimeter shooter. He was in good company finishing 11th in eFG% among guards in post-season play last year. But I am looking at two specific things in his play as the season gets started. Can he cut down on his turnovers? And can he get to the free throw line more regularly?
Last season, he was one of the more turnover prone point guards in the league. It was, however, his first year playing as a starter in a league that might have more elite point guard talent than it ever has. It’s also hard to know how the challenging spacing dynamics the team dealt with last season might have factored into to this. He did reduce his turnovers on a per 36 minutes basis in the preseason to lower than any season he has had thus far.
Last season, Schröder shot better at the free throw line than some of the league’s elite shooters but he just does not get there very often. When you have the ball as much does, he did lead the league in drives last season, and you see that players like Bojan Bogdonovic and Sean Kilpatrick visited the free throw line almost as often as Schroder did, it is obvious that an opportunity is there.
Just as with turnovers, Schroder had a better free throw rate in the preseason than he has had in any of his seasons thus far. And in his Eurobasket play, when he was defended by players that could not match his quickness he demonstrated an ability to either get an open shot at the rim of force opponents to foul him.
Schroder should not encounter one of the league’s elite defensive guards until probably their ninth game of the season versus the Houston Rockets. (The Miami Heat can throw a challenging group of players at him in their fourth game.) So it should not take long to see if seeking out and embracing contact on his drives to the rim is something he is working to add to his game entering this season.
Can he commit to using his value off of the ball to help the team offensively?
In 2016-17, Schroder was one of the 12 most productive players in spot-up action and his turnover frequency on those possessions was a fraction of what it was in his overall play. He was also a good shooter in catch and shoot opportunities.
It probably wan’t very challenging to play off of the ball last year when they were running the offense through Millsap or when Tim Hardaway Jr was having one of his explosive offensive games. Can he trust his new set of teammates to create offensive opportunities while he provides value on some possessions working off of the ball?
Coach Budenholzer deployed two-point guard lineups quite frequently in preseason action. And last summer the Hawks drafted DeAndre’ Bembry, who should get a lot of playing time this season, with the goal of adding and developing a secondary offensive creator. Also, Kent Bazemore has expressed an intent to be more secure with the basketball this season.
It will be interesting to see if Schröder can, for example, double the number of possessions on which he operates as a floor spacer. He certainly has the confidence to catch and shoot the ball despite a defender closing out on him like he did on this play last season when he hit a dagger to put the Hawks ahead of the Knicks for good in this game.
Can he recover his level of play on defense while still playing against opposing starters?
Schröder was viewed by many as a plus defender when he was playing on the Hawks second units prior to last season and, before he had to handle a starter’s workload, he would often pick up the opposing point guard in the back court and harass him an entire possession. You might recall a playoff game in which Isaiah Thomas got a little bit frustrated with him.
The actual path that Schröder has taken to this point as a defender is that he took a pretty big step forward from the 2014-15 season, in which he was one of the worst defenders in the league, to the 2015-16 season in which he basically performed at a starter’s level on the defensive end of the court.
Last season, he struggled defending starting point guards. And one of the reasons I advocated for the Hawks not making a significant financial commitment to Hardaway, despite my being one of his strongest supporters, is that he and Schröder are as bad of a fit defensively as you can get in a starting backcourt.
In the postseason series against the Wizards last season, Schröder asked for and got the matchup with veteran All-Star John Wall. And even though Wall smoked him at the rim on a few possessions Schroder never backed down from the match-up.
This season, while Schröder will likely have the same mentality, the two players he will likely share the backcourt with the most, especially when the opposing teams starting point guard is on the floor, is Kent Bazemore and DeAndre’ Bembry. Both of the Hawks shooting guards have the ability to switch it up on the defensive end and defend opposing point guards. This will offer some relief to Schroder that he seldom had last season in which Hardaway was consistently earning more playing time and Bazemore was playing more than half of his time at the small forward position.
Tauren Prince established himself as one of the better young wing defenders in the league last season finishing fourth among small forwards in defensive real plus-minus. His emergence should eliminate the need for Bazemore to play at the position at any time apart from short stretches against opponents second units and in highly favorable match-ups.
The Hawks will face an all-star quality point guard in just two of their first ten games. Schröder should have an opportunity to find the right balance of how much energy he is expending on each end of the court and work to stabilize his defensive play.
This is a key season for Dennis Schröder. He’s coming off of an impressive postseason match-up with the Wizards last season and a very successful run in Eurobasket play. If his goal is to convince the Hawks leadership, including new GM Travis Schlenk, that he is solidly a player that can be part of the core they are looking to grow, this is the season to make that happen. Beyond that, a fast start out of the gate could be a key factor into how the season goes for Schröder and this young Atlanta Hawks team.