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Hawks’ strong finish in December led by Schroder

Strong finish to the calendar year points to a bright outlook for 2018.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

(Note: this article was written before the Hawks’ Tuesday night loss to the Suns in Phoenix in which Dennis Schroder managed finished five assists and five turnovers, including three turnovers in the fourth quarter, a deviation from the way he played most of the month of December)

Though the Atlanta Hawks have played hard all season, the results on the scoreboard and in the standings have been slow to follow. A roster that is much younger than it was a season ago, as well as a group of unfamiliar players, presented a challenge from the beginning. Thus, a slow start to the season was not unexpected. But in late December, the Hawks found a rhythm and earned some marks in the win column to show for all of that hard work.

On Dec. 15, the Hawks fell to 6-23 after losing a heart-breaker in Memphis 96-94, a game the Hawks perhaps should have won given the NBA officiating review confirmed Ersan Ilyasova was fouled on a late three point attempt and should have been awarded three free throws and a chance to win the game for the Hawks. After the loss in Memphis, the Hawks posted a 4-3 record for the balance of the month including a three-point loss in Oklahoma City.

During the late December stretch, the Hawks received contributions from players up and down the roster. Taurean Prince is playing at his highest level since breaking into the NBA a year ago. Coach Budenholzer has deployed a two point guard bench unit playing Malcolm Delaney and Isaiah Taylor off the bench together - a move that is yielding results. Other players are making an impact as well, but a key ingredient in the Hawks’ improved play in the month of December was the improved play of starting point guard Dennis Schroder.

A New Season, A New Opportunity

Last season was Schroder’s first as an NBA starter. On the offensive end, his style of play seemed to often clash with that of center Dwight Howard. Schroder’s strength on the offensive end is getting to the middle of the floor and scoring around the basket. With Howard on the floor, that space was often clogged by Howard and the defensive traffic he brings with him.

Schroder spent more than 70 percent of his minutes last season with Howard on the floor with him. When they played together, the Hawks played slower, committed more turnovers and shot with less volume and less efficiency from the three point line - a formula that is directly inverse to success in today’s NBA game. After trading Howard to Charlotte in the off-season, the 2017/18 season presented a new opportunity for Schroder to put his full offensive arsenal on display.

From the beginning of the season, the young point guard looked free and aggressive. He was filling the stat sheet with shot attempts, points and assists. But point guards carry a heavy responsibility. They are expected to carry a load in terms of offensive production, but they are also expected to make the players around them better. Early in the season, Schroder was succeeding at the first and seemed to be struggling with the second.

Through the month of November, Schroder seemed to be making an attempt to transform his game towards balancing his aggressiveness on offense with an effort to distribute the basketball. The short-term result was shooting inconsistencies and increased turnovers. But as the calendar flipped to December, the numbers ticked upward.

Schroder played exactly 14 games in November and 14 games again in December. A look at his stats show his scoring was almost identical in those two months. But in December, his assists were up and he cut his turnovers by more than half. His game on the defensive end has improved as well.

Let’s dig into to how Schroder’s game has improved over the past few weeks.

Making good decisions with the ball

During the month of November, Schroder averaged 6.6 assists (11th most in NBA) and 3.4 turnovers (9th most in NBA) per game. The result was an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.9, which ranked in the bottom third of NBA starting point guards for the month.

During this stretch, he struggled in the PNR (pick-and-roll) actions when his first option (scoring at the basket) and second option (passing to the screener) were not available. Not all of the blame can be placed on Schroder as he must rely on the players around him to find the open spaces when he breaks down the defense. But Schroder still must take care of the basketball and limit live ball turnovers that result in easy transition scores for the opponent.

November 11, 2017 - Schroder’s pass is deflected and stolen by Bradley Beal resulting in an easy score for the Wizards. Notice his head is down as he attacks the rim and commits to the pass before finding an open teammate on the perimeter. The Hawks turned the ball over 24 times in this game and lost 113-94.

In December, Schroder’s game changed as he nearly cut his turnovers is half. Importantly, he didn’t cut his turnovers by playing more passively. His scoring continued to be strong, his assists increased from 6.6 per game to 7.0 per game and he turned the ball over just 1.6 times per game. The result for December, and assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.3, which ranked first among NBA point guards who started more than five games in December.

December 23, 2017 - in a play similar to the turnover in the November 11 game versus Washington, Schroder gets to the area under the basket without and an opportunity to score or pass, but this time continues his dribble, shows patience and eventually finds Miles Plumlee for the easy dunk.

Playing point guard is similar to playing quarterback. Sometimes, you have to work through to a second, third or fourth option to make the right play. Sometimes, you have to look off a defender the way a quarterback looks off the safety. The point guard game is in the nuances and the details.

December 27, 2017 - in a rematch with the Wizards, Schroder gets the ball to Ilyasova for the easy dunk. Notice his eyes are up, he first looks and pumps in the direction of Kent Bazemore getting Beal to leave his feet and forcing Tim Frazier to defend Bazemore on the wing which creates the easy two-on-one opportunity. This is pure point guard play from Schroder. The Hawks turned the ball over just 11 times in this game and won 113-99.

In a less-is-more approach, Dennis is showing more restraint by trusting his teammates on the floor and making the easy pass to the shooters on the floor with him. Sometimes passing up a decent shot for himself, he is finding better opportunities for his teammates.

December 30, 2017 - The Hawks have a 3-on-2 transition opportunity, when Shabazz Napier and C.J. McCollum both defend the the cutter, Miles Plumlee, Schroder passes up an open mid-range jumper and finds Bazemore for the open three in the far corner. Notice his eyes are up and his feet are calm the whole way, using minimal physical effort to find the best scoring opportunity for his team.

Taking over in the second half

As a point guard learns to show restraint and work through his team, he must also be prepared to take the lead in critical stretches of the game—learning when to play more as a distributor and when to play with more of a scorer’s mentality. Sometimes, young point guards struggle to know when to turn the aggressive scoring mindset on and off. One terrific formula is to work through the team early in the game to get everyone involved and get the shooters in rhythm, then later take more of a scorer’s workload. Schroder has recently demonstrated this ability.

In a Dec. 23 win over Dallas, Schroder had a rather quiet first half, He scored just six points but he did have five assists compared to just one turnover. In the second half, he took over on the offensive end scoring 27 points to tie a career high with 33 for the game. In the second half, he had just two assists with two turnovers but his scoring in the second half propelled the Hawks to a 112-107 win.

December 23, 2017 - Schroder uses his ability to get to basket and score giving the Hawks a 1-point lead late in the game versus the Mavericks. With the shot clock running down, he puts his head down and makes a strong move to the basket.

In Saturday’s win over Portland, Schroder was again quiet in the first half. Struggling with his shot (2-for-9 with just 4 points in the first half), Schroder managed to again deliver five assists with one turnover int hat half. In the second half, he found his shooting rhythm (18 points on 7-for-8 shooting) and managed three assists with no turnovers.

December 30, 2017 - Schroder gives the Hawks a 16-point lead just inside the four minute mark. Notice here, with plenty of time on the shot clock, his head is up working off the dribble-hand-off. He uses a hesitation dribble and a quick look to Ilyasova to control the defense and create the space for him to get to the basket, more quarterback-like play from Schroder at point guard.

Improved Play on Defense

This season has been a struggle for the Hawks in general on the defensive end of the floor. Through the end of November, Atlanta ranked 26th in points allowed per game, 29th in points allowed per possession and 27th in defensive rating. During the month of December, the Hawks defense was better: 23rd in points allowed per game, 20th in points allowed per possession and 18th in defensive rating. Again, the defensive improvement was a team effort but improved defensive play by Schroder was an integral part.

Through the end of November, Schroder posted a defensive rating of 114.9, the worst defensive rating among all NBA point guards. In December, his defensive rating improved to 107.2 which ranked him in the middle of the league among NBA starting points guards. While the Schroder’s defense, and the Hawks’ defense in general, still must get better, December was certainly a step in the right direction.

Early in his career, Schroder was known for his tough on-ball defense. Carrying the work load of a point guard and leading scorer on the offensive end while being expected to play tough, physical ball pressure defense on the other end is a lot. But if Schroder is to become a upper tier NBA point guard, this is what he must do.

December 30, 2017 - Schroder works under the screen to continue applying tough, physical defense forcing the turnover resulting in a transition opportunity that led to two free throws for Kent Bazemore. The Hawks held Portland to 17 points in the third quarter, a pivotal turning point in this game.

Schroder has an exceptional wingspan for a 6-1 point guard. There is no reason he should not be the among the team’s leaders in deflected passes and steals. Last season, he was ninth on his own team in deflections per 36 minutes and this season, he ranks just tenth among Hawks who have played at least ten games. He has the tools to be a disruptive player on the defensive end and this is an area where he can do much more to help his team.

December 9, 2017 - Schroder uses his length to deflect the back door pass to Magic point guard Elfrid Payton, forcing a turnover, one of two steals for Schroder int he 117-110 Hawks’ victory.

Looking Ahead

Schroder’s play in December should be very encouraging. There are only eight players in the league averaging more than 15 points per game and at least 6.8 assists per game and among those players, Schroder has the fewest turnovers. Continued excellence in the assists/turnover areas should lead to more positive results for the Hawks.

While Schroder’s shooting has slumped of late, it could be chalked up to playing more with his head up and dividing his visual attention between the basket and the players on the floor. Over time, he should get more comfortable with this approach and his shooting should creep back to his career norms.

While his defense improved in the month of December, it still must get much better. The effort and focus must be more consistent on a possession by possession basis. Schroder has the tools to continue growing into one of the league’s better point guards. Continuing to generate offense while limiting mistakes with improved play on the defensive end could land Schroder among the league’s best at his position which right where the Hawks envisioned he could be when the drafted him and again when they traded Teague and eventually signed Schroder to a contract extension in 2016.