As the Atlanta Hawks have a rare three-day break in the final 15 games of the NBA season, it’s a good time to check in on the development of the two rookies the Hawks drafted in last year’s draft. Taurean Prince came to the Hawks as a result of a three team trade that resulted in Jeff Teague being moved to the Indiana Pacers and Dennis Schroder being entrusted with the starting point guard position. The Hawks used their own draft pick to select DeAndre’ Bembry in an effort to add a potential playmaker.
Prior to diving into the analysis, I think it is useful to consider the context of how underwhelming the 2016 NBA draft class has been. It’s so bad that the Milwaukee Bucks second round draft pick Malcolm Brogdon is legitimately in the conversation for the Rookie of the Year Award. Injuries have certainly impacted the field of players in consideration for the award, but it is still extremely unusual to not see at least a top ten draft pick separate himself from the field with an impressive level of play. Since 1988, there have only been two players to win the award that were not drafted in the top 10 selections of each player’s respective draft: Mark Jackson of the New York Knicks in 1988 (drafted 18th overall) and Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers in 2014 (drafted 11th overall).
I think it is also important to reflect upon the fact that Prince and Bembry are the first real draft picks of the Hawks current decision making hierarchy. Two years ago the Hawks first round draft pick was traded for Tim Hardaway Jr. So in looking at what the Hawks are doing with the two rookies it provides some insight into how this organization might value certain types of players in drafts going forward. While the addition of a dedicated D-League team might alter the philosophy with which the Hawks approach future drafts (perhaps an increased appetite to draft younger players). Looking at what the Hawks coaching staff has done with each of the rookies could provide some insight as to what type of role and upside the Hawks see in both players.
Prince entered the league with a more NBA-ready body as compared to Bembry. And that could be one factor that has resulted in him getting nearly twice as many minutes than has Bembry so far this season. Prince has been elevated to a legitimate rotation role over roughly the last month and he has rewarded the Hawks with some impressive production. In one of the most impressive wins of the seasons for the Hawks, a 16-point road win over the Boston Celtics on February 27, Prince contributed to a strong defensive team effort and secured 12 rebounds in 30 minutes of action. In a recent blowout victory over Memphis Grizzlies Prince had his best offensive performance of his young career scoring 17 points on just 8 shooting possessions, including hitting 3 of his 4 3-point attempts. He is converting 43% of his 3 point attempts since being entrusted with regular rotation minutes, a more than acceptable make rate for any player in the league.
But as to see to try to see the more subtle implications of what the Hawks coaching staff is doing with Prince, we have to press a little deeper. I think the most critical aspect of the Hawks development plan for him at this point of the season is that typically Prince’s initial assignment from the bench is to replace veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha, who almost always draws the toughest defensive assignment on the perimeter in each game. But most interesting to me is that Coach Mike Budenholzer seems to be very intentionally making that substitution prior to the opponents’ primary scoring threat exiting the game for the first time. It seems to me that the coaching staff wants Prince to get a 3-4 minute run with that primary assignment. For example in the Hawks recent loss to the Indiana Pacers, Prince was substituted for Sefolosha with 3:09 remaining in the first quarter; the Pacers’ leading scorer Paul George almost always plays the entire first quarter. In the recent narrow loss at home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Prince was subbed in with 3:44 remaining in the first quarter and played the 2:04 of the second quarter; Lebron James typically rests toward the end of the first quarter and plays the initial minutes of the second quarter. Prince got a similar opportunity in the Hawks win over the Toronto Raptors to match up with All-Star DeMar DeRozan for brief stretches in each half of that game.
The pattern seems clear from game to game. It will be very interesting to see if the plan remains as the Hawks prepare to shorten the rotation as the post-season approaches. My best guess is that it will continue to be the plan unless and until the Hawks potentially reach a critical point in a playoff series. In looking at this it is clear to me that Thabo Sefolosha will not be with this team next season and that the Hawks coaching staff is giving Prince appropriate doses of serious defensive responsibility as to grow him as much as possible into what might be a pretty sizable role next season.
As mentioned, Bembry is not getting regular minutes. And his offensive game is not nearly as ready as Prince’s is as to entrust him with regular play. Bit a similarity can be seen in how the Hawks are approaching Bembry’s development this season. Apart from garbage time Bembry is getting very narrow opportunities but ones that are built around very specific defensive assignments.
In a January 13 two-point loss to the Celtics, it is clear to me that the Hawks coaching staff worked with Bembry to game plan specifically to defend Jaylen Brown. The Celtics rookie entered the game with 2:05 remaining in the first quarter; Bembry would get to watch a few possessions from the bench and then entered the game with 28 seconds remaining in the quarter with the assignment of defending Brown. Both players would play until the 6:08 mark of the second quarter with Bembry holding Brown to 1 of 5 on field goal attempts during this stretch. I think this sample can be considered a clear success for Bembry; Brown never entered the game in the second half, neither did Bembry.
Bembry would catch 5 DNP-CDs in the next 9 games that he was with the team(he missed on game in assignment to the D-League) but the Hawks and Bembry would build upon this success with a similar specific defensive game plan for a February 2 matchup with the Rockets and their MVP candidate James Harden. Bembry played more than 21 minutes of this game with a large majority of those minutes matching up with Harden. In this game Bembry entered the fourth quarter with 9:31 remaining and the Hawks trailing by 18 points. The result? James Harden played nearly 7 ½ minutes of the fourth quarter (nearly all of it defended by Bembry) and produced just 6 points and 2 assists with a individual net rating of -19 for the closing stretch. Bembry matched Harden’s 6 points and 2 assists in the quarter and his individual net rating of +21 in the quarter was certainly a primary factor in the outcome of the game. The Hawks outscored the Rockets 40-22 in the fourth quarter in an impressive rally to achieve an impressive victory.
Bembry has only seen about 20 minutes of play since the All-Star break as Thabo Sefolosha has resumed his normal workload in his return from injury. But it will be interesting to see if there are a couple of matchups down the homestretch that the Hawks look to take advantage of as to prep and use Bembry in specific defensive assignments.
Both rookies have flashed encouraging play at times with Prince obviously being trusted with more responsibility at this point in the season. But in looking at both players we can see how much priority defensive assignment s get in the development plan of both players as they navigate their first season in the league.