Dennis Schröder was handed the keys to the Atlanta Hawks after last season when the Hawks’ management shipped Jeff Teague out of town for the pick that became Taurean Prince before last year’s NBA draft. Schröder, after three years as Teague’s backup, had outshined his predecessor in the 2016 playoffs, paving the way for Teague’s departure. Teague also was set to be a free agent at the end of the 2016-17 season, whereas the team still had Schröder in the final year of his rookie contract. Before the season, Schröder and the Hawks agreed to a four-year, $62-million extension, which will begin next season. While the team would probably have better last season with Teague at the helm, there’s no doubt that five years of Schröder at a reasonable price outweighs one year of an already-unhappy Teague.
Schröder is everything Teague wasn’t for Atlanta; he’s electric and he plays with a fire and speed that can hardly be matched across the league. On the other hand, he’s unpredictable and unstable, simultaneously a thorn in the side of Mike Budenholzer and the energy that makes the team go. Just 23 years old, the sky is the limit for him, provided the plane doesn’t crash before it gets to 10,000 feet. Hawks University has churned out multiple wings who had been discarded by the rest of the league, but it’s an entirely different challenge to develop this hard-headed but well-meaning German point guard.
At his best, Schröder is a top-tier point guard, capable of getting to the rim with impunity, knocking down pull-up jumpers, and spotting up around Paul Millsap in the post. Though he’s not respected around the league as a shooter and his overall three-point percentages certainly support that reputation, he’s an accomplished shooter and driver in spot-up situations, scoring 1.238 points per spot-up possession, a better mark than 93% of the NBA and one that put him in the company of some of the league’s most lethal shooters. His ability in catch-and-shoot situations has always been one of the best parts of his offensive game, going back to his days in Germany and in pre-draft workouts.
Pull-up jumpers, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. Schröder struggles mightily when teams hang back in the paint and allow him to shoot. Part of the frustration Budenholzer has with him is that Schröder is far too willing to take the bait and fire up that shot, but it’s that same fearlessness and confidence in himself that drives the rest of his game. In molding Schröder into a more complete, all-around player, the Hawks will have to be careful not to extinguish the flame that can make Schröder a terror to defend.
Teams instruct their defenders to let Schröder shoot from outside, but if he can continue to put up good numbers on spot-ups and improve his pull-up jumper, they’ll be forced to close out harder and go over those screens, which will open up drives to the rim. And oh, how Schröder loves to drive to the rim! Only Boston’s Isaiah Thomas had more drives per game than Schröder and while his efficiency on these drives was below average for a high-usage ball-handler, these possessions are better than most that the Hawks were able to produce last year.
Schröder’s development into an above-average shooter would be a boon to an Atlanta offense that can struggle to find good opportunities, but the most important improvement he must make is in his decision-making, passing, and ball-handling. Of 33 ball-handlers who ran at least 400 pick-and-rolls this season, Schröder finished dead last in turnover percentage on these plays, giving the ball to the other team one out of every ten times, almost twice as often as John Wall, his opponent in the first round of the playoffs. Point guards can be solid contributors without ever developing a reliable three-point shot, but point guards who turn the ball over like Schröder did last year rarely make it to a high level.
Defensively, Budenholzer and his staff can’t have many complaints with Schröder’s effort and execution, especially given his age and the new role thrust upon him this season. It says a lot about his personality and willingness to sacrifice for the team that he played more than ten minutes per game more than he had ever done in his career and was able to maintain his frenetic defensive style. Schröder frequently picked up opposing point guards in the backcourt, pestering them all the way up the court. This strategy works for guys like Houston’s Patrick Beverley and Milwaukee’s Matthew Dellavedova because their offensive role is so limited, but for Schröder to be able to pick up his mark 80 feet from the basket and run the Hawks’ offense on the other end is an enormous load. As he ages, it will be interesting to see how often he deploys that aspect of his game; his youthful exuberance may be buoying his effort level at 23, but it remains to be seen how long he can keep that up. Regardless, that extra effort was a big part of why the Hawks defense finished as well as it did last year. Combine that dogged effort with a 6’7” wingspan and some of the quickest feet in the league and it’s not hard to see why the Hawks are so high on Schröder’s defensive potential.
Schröder certainly has room for improvement but Atlanta has to be happy with how he’s performed in his first season behind the wheel for the Hawks. There were always going to be bumps in the road with a first-time starter operating in a new offense—he came up in the pace-and-space Hawks led by Millsap and Al Horford, so playing with Millsap and Dwight Howard was a huge change for him—but he met the challenge head on and will continue to round off the edges of his game as he ages into his prime as a basketball player. Some of the youth will wear off; we won’t see him pick up opposing point guards in the backcourt as often and some of his explosion to the rim may fall off, but he’ll replace that with the experience and knowledge of a veteran point guard.