One of the many areas in which the Atlanta Hawks have struggled offensively this season (and there are a lot of them) is finding a balance between Trae Young and the rest of the team. Young’s usage is through the roof, even for a point guard. As the team develops him as their starting point guard of the future, this sort of strategy makes sense – throw him into the fire from the jump and give him as many opportunities to sink or swim as possible, knowing that the results of the 2018-19 campaign aren’t the chief concern.
Growth is more important than winning games in the second year of the Hawks’ rebuild and after spending significant draft capital on Young in the most recent Draft, the club’s management and coaching staff correctly wants to give him every chance to show what he can do. It’s been an up-and-down rookie year for Young, who has struggled with his three-point shot but is already one of the elite passers in the league. However, the rookie’s evolution as an off-ball threat for Atlanta has been muted by his sky-high usage and the fact that he is, at this point, not particularly aware of where he’s supposed to be when he doesn’t have the ball.
Many, many point guards go through this early in their careers and some never outgrow it at all. When a player is so used to running everything for his team for so many years, from AAU to high school to college, it can often be difficult to coax them into giving up the ball.
During preseason, I wrote about how the Hawks could unlock Young’s threat as an off-ball shooter, an area in which he’s excelled in a small sample this season. Despite his immensely poor three-point shooting numbers, he’s about average as a catch-and-shoot shooter; it’s all those off-the-dribble threes that tank his overall percentage through the floor. Being so reliant on Young has also made it more difficult to develop the other perimeter threats for Atlanta, most notably fellow rookie Kevin Huerter.
Huerter’s biggest draw is his outside shooting prowess, which by nature lends itself to a lesser usage rate. However, he’s also shown a good ability to handle in pick-and-roll and create for his teammates, which makes his low usage more difficult to understand. It hasn’t mattered in what alignment Huerter has played, he’s just simply not using as many possessions as one would expect for a rookie on a team like Atlanta’s.
Before he took over the starting shooting guard role, Huerter’s usage in his bench role was 13.9 percent, hardly what you would want from a secondary ball handler. For example, Robert Covington’s usage rate in Minnesota is 14.1 percent and it’s still an open question as to whether Covington can actually dribble a basketball more than once before it caroms off his foot out of bounds.
Things have only declined recently, as Huerter’s usage rate is dived to 11.6 percent in the intervening seven games since he was moved into the starting lineup. It also hasn’t mattered whether or not Huerter was out there with Young – when he and Young share the floor, Huerter’s usage is 13.16 percent.
Without Young, it’s essentially the same at 12.41 percent. Even in the limited minutes he plays with no true point guard on the floor, he’s still not asserting himself in the offense, to the tune of a 9.76 percent usage rate in those 66 minutes. Admittedly, that’s an extremely small sample of minutes, but when that small sample shows a consistent theme across all of Huerter’s minutes, there may be some validity to it.
The Hawks’ coaches have noticed Huerter’s propensity for disappearing as well and inserted a group of plays specifically geared toward unlocking more of his creativity. These plays also double as an opportunity to move Young off the ball when the two play together, knocking out two birds with one stone (or feeding two birds with one scone, as a certain animal rights organization would like me to say).
Specifically, Atlanta has been running more “Chest” series, also known as “Stack Exit”, depending on whom you ask. Chest opens in a similar formation to Horns; the point guard handles the ball in the middle of the floor, two shooters are in each corner, and two players are near the free throw line.
From there, one of the players near the free throw line will loop around the other toward one wing. Once he does, any number of things can happen, but the main variation is for the point guard to hit that player, who runs a quick pick-and-roll with the big man who set the initial screen for him to get to the wing.
It’s not a particularly complex set, but it’s an effective way to get Huerter touches when he’s struggling to make an impact as a creator. Overall, Huerter’s pick-and-roll numbers are poor, but as I’ll continue to preach throughout this season, results aren’t nearly as important as the process by which those results come. He shows good patience in pick-and-roll and has the vision and passing acumen any general manager would be happy to have from a secondary creator.
In the above clip, Huerter takes what the defense is giving him; when Stephen Curry jumps over the Collins screen, he takes the open lane toward the baseline before dropping an inch-perfect pass around the trapping Kevon Looney to John Collins.
For now, running the side pick-and-roll with Huerter and a big man is the vast majority of Atlanta’s offense out of Chest series, but there are plenty of variations the team can integrate as the season continues. Perhaps the most prolific user of Chest action is the Boston Celtics, who run several plays out of this playbook each game, mostly for sophomore sensation Jayson Tatum.
As the Hawks evolve their Chest offense, they’ll be more aware of the reads they can make out of the various actions and can do a better job putting their guys in the best positions to succeed. When teams pick up on Atlanta’s tendencies, they can switch it up by moving toward a flare screen for Huerter after the Chest action, as Boston does here with Tatum:
Tatum makes the same cut he always makes, but this time Kyrie Irving doesn’t hit him on the wing. Al Horford steps up into a ball screen for Irving and Tatum flares off a Jaylen Brown screen to the corner. His defender loses track of him and he hits the wide-open 3.
In this variation, Tatum doesn’t run a pick-and-roll with Horford, but instead Horford moves into two screens off the ball: an up screen for Irving after he hits Tatum on the left wing, and a down screen for Gordon Hayward to come toward the middle of the floor with a live dribble. Imagine this same action with Kent Bazemore in Hayward’s spot – with Young spaced to the right corner and Collins setting screens all over the place, Bazemore would be moving toward his stronger left hand and have the opportunity to score himself, hit Collins on the roll, pitch right back to Huerter for a right-hand drive, or find Young in the corner if his man comes to help on Collins’ roll, as is his duty in this particular move.
Atlanta hasn’t experimented too much with Young setting ball screens to this point in the season, but Boston’s High Staggered variation would be a way to make that happen. Watch below as Irving hits Hayward on the cut and then steps forward into the first of two ball screens:
Despite his size, Young can be an effective screener due to his gravity as a shooter; his man can’t help elsewhere because of the immediate threat of him catching and shooting from distance. That would leave Huerter’s man to navigate two screens or execute perfect communication in switching to ensure that Young is covered as well as Huerter driving and Collins rolling to the rim.
Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff have already shown an acumen for adding new set plays and new variations, something that not all teams have the practice time to do during the grind of the regular season. As the team gets more comfortable with the standard Chest action, they’ll be able to add wrinkles and counters to take advantage of defenses who suspect what’s coming and try to get ahead of the move.
Huerter’s patience as a ball handler comes in handy in these situations, as he’s adept at crossing back over toward the baseline and wriggling his way free to find a layup or a pass to the rolling big man. In time, he’ll learn the reads in new variations the Hawks introduce and will become more dangerous than just your average catch-and-shoot threat from the perimeter.