When Tyler Dorsey conducted his media day interviews back in September for the first time as an NBA rookie, he wasn’t 100% sure what to expect of the 2017-18 season that lay ahead before both himself and the Atlanta Hawks.
Dorsey said he had didn’t have ‘expectations’ — as well as being unsure — when it came to his role heading into the season. He didn’t disagree with the notion that it was going to be a potentially tough season for the Hawks but as a rookie, what he was sure of was what he brought to the table.
“I know I can bring shooting, space the floor and also be a back-up ball-handler as well,” said Dorsey on media day. “Playing the pick-and-roll, making reads, making decisions, running plays as well.”
But a fair question heading into the season was ‘would Dorsey see time to display any of these traits’, being a rookie and the such?
The role of a rookie in the NBA is a very open-ended role.
Very rarely do the likes of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell and Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons go on to have starting and starring roles and make the playoffs in their rookie year. Some rookies will come in, start and they might produce but the team success will be lacking — Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen comes to mind, as does Dallas’ Dennis Smith Jr.. Other rookies might go on to have steady roles on playoff/lottery teams and others might get the short end of the coach’s stick and have inconsistent roles — as is the case with a lot of rookies.
That, of course, depends entirely on the coach in place. Some coaches have very strict approaches when it comes to handling/playing rookies.
Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has a reputation when it comes to rookies — everything is earned and rookies seem to have to jump over the moon to earn minutes/maintain minutes as Budenholzer is known to have a quick leash when it comes to rookies and young players... He certainly makes you work for your opportunity — it takes time.
But for Dorsey — a second round pick with the Hawks and Budenholzer — a steady role to begin the season was, realistically, never going to happen.
On opening night against the Dallas Mavericks, Dorsey was the only player amongst the listed active players that did not feature (a DNP-CD).
This was somewhat predictable, not only because Dorsey is a second round rookie wing (on a team that already possessed a ton of wings/ball-handlers), playing for a coach that makes rookies work for it but he had already been singled out (to a degree) by Budenholzer in the preseason with regards to his defense.
In a preseason victory against the Memphis Grizzlies, coach Budenholzer had this to say when asked about the grouping of Dorsey, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins, Mike Muscala and Malcolm Delaney:
“Those guys had some good possessions on both ends of the court. Tyler’s learning defensively. There’s a couple of team defensive things where he has to be sharper, but those other guys were pretty good...”
So, straightaway Dorsey had already been singled out to a degree — before the regular season had even started. One thing we (collectively) know about Mike Budenholzer from his history is that he values defense, and if you can’t defend you’re going to find it tough to earn rotation minutes.
All of that in addition to the already strong wing depth (Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Marco Belinelli, DeAndre’ Bembry and even Luke Babbitt) meant that Dorsey struggled to see minutes outside of garbage time for the first three weeks of the season (bar one outing against the Houston Rockets where Dorsey saw 17 minutes of action and scored 10 points) and on November 12th he was assigned to the Hawks’ G-League affiliate, Erie Bayhawks.
In his exit interview on Wednesday, Dorsey acknowledged that he had had a rough summer league and that, added with an average preseason, meant that he began the season behind where he felt he should’ve been.
”I feel like when I first came I had a rough summer league, (had an) OK preseason so I was behind the 8-ball a little bit...” said Dorsey.
Dorsey spent six games with Erie in his first G-League assignment and would be recalled a week later as cover after Isaiah Taylor injured his eye. Dorsey, however, was not called upon in that particular game against the San Antonio Spurs, spent more time in the G-League in December and continued to see extremely sparse minutes when he was with the senior team — despite DeAndre’ Bembry struggling with injuries — as 2017 rounded to a close.
By the time the calendar year had turned, Dorsey had featured in just 11 games, averaging 5.7 minutes per game.
But with a new year came a new opportunity. Though Dorsey didn’t feature in the Hawks’ first game of 2018, he would go on to feature in every Hawks game from January 5th onwards.
At first, the minutes that Dorsey saw weren’t extensive but as January continued to progress the minutes increased and he began to show what he was about.
Dorsey anticipated that he could be to-ing-and-fro-ing between the Hawks and the G-League but kept working on what the coaching staff asked him to and Dorsey remained patient.
“It’s been part of my journey, going back and forth between the G League and here,” said Dorsey later on in January via the AJC. “The message is getting better, working on the things they want me to work on and staying patient.
“I knew coming into it, it could be like that. I was mentally prepared and physically prepared to do that. Right now, I’m getting more time and more minutes and I’m being ready to perform in however many minutes I get and taking advantage of the opportunity.”
Dorsey previously said on media day that one thing he could bring was his shooting, his spacing. In the month of January, while Dorsey shot a below par 36% from the field, he shot 43% from beyond the arc, highlighting what Dorsey had been saying up to this point.
Dorsey shot 41% on catch on shoot threes in the month of January, an effective skill to have in the NBA:
As February rolled in, Dorsey continued to see rotation minutes and his path to a consistent rotation spot (not something that rookies commonly enjoy) was all but cemented when Luke Babbitt was traded (Dorsey had basically supplanted Babbitt from the rotation anyways) and Marco Belinelli secured a buyout from the Hawks on February 9th.
Despite these things going in Dorsey’s favor, he endured a tough month shooting the ball: 35.7% from the field and 26.7% from three — his worst shooting month of the season, including a 1-of-11 shooting night in Los Angeles against the Lakers in 25 minutes.
Despite his, frankly, woeful struggles shooting the ball — and the, at times, lacking defense — Budenholzer stuck with him, wanting Dorsey to gain that extra experience you can only gain by playing games.
“Tyler has a knack for scoring,” said Mike Budenholzer said in February via Hawks.com. “We want him to continue to work on his defensive activity, getting better. The more he plays, the more he’ll have to learn to read and see the game. I like his aggressiveness, I like the way he’s playing.”
Thankfully for Dorsey, he was able to contribute in other ways as he averaged 2.2 assists per game in February (including a seven assist game against the Grizzlies) — a big increase on the one assist a game he averaged in January as his feel for the game and inside Budenholzer’s offense showed clear improvement:
Which means making the extra pass:
From a common DNP-CD, Dorsey was now often the first sub off of the bench — he was earning the trust of his coach. So much to the point that Dorsey made his first start on Valentine’s Day in Detroit: the last game before the All-Star break as Kent Bazemore was rested.
When asked what changed during the season to earn more trust during his exit interview, Dorsey said that he played hard in the few minutes he got and tried to build from there and tried to tae advantage of what he was given.
“...just coming in and building confidence whenever I had an opportunity,” said Dorsey. “Junk minutes, a couple minutes I was going hard in those and I think that built confidence at the beginning and when my opportunity came I just tried to take advantage of that, keep building that throughout the season. That’s how I tried to end my season off, just having the confidence to go out there every night.”
Dorsey began the month of March well as he played a key role (starting his second game) in the Hawks’ 113-112 victory against the Phoenix Suns — scoring 12 points and coming up with the clutch defensive stop on an already very accomplished offensive player in Devin Booker:
In isolation, against a good offensive player, for the win... High stakes but Dorsey managed to get that stop and the Hawks hung on to pick up that win.
Postgame, Budenholzer drew on the positives and the progression of Dorsey.
“Tyler is getting a lot of opportunities,” said Budenholzer of Dorsey. “I look at it more from where he was at the beginning of the season to now. I thought he had a great middle stretch, and now he’s starting to feel his way, learning things defensively, learning things offensively. Still a lot of positives. It’s great for him to play as much as he did against a guy like Devin Booker. He’s working.”
Dorsey was certainly working but struggled again in the month of March as he averaged 9.1 points per game on 35% shooting from the field and 32% from three, with his field goal attempts increasing to over nine shots a game — Dorsey definitely wasn’t shy when it came to shooting the ball and that became more and more apparent as the season progressed and Dorsey received more opportunities (not exclusively in March but in general).
But what also took place in March was that Dorsey stepped into the starting lineup after Kent Bazemore was ruled out for the remainder of the season with a knee injury. That lasted just three games, however, as Dorsey really struggled to produce (he was going through a rough patch even before he stepped into the starting lineup) and Damion Lee stepped in thereafter and Dorsey did not reclaim that starting role.
However, Dorsey did finish the season strongly in the shortened month of April, averaging 16.5 points on 48% shooting and 50% from three in six games. Dorsey recorded a career-high in scoring not just once but twice as he scored 19 points against the Orlando Magic (in a win) and quickly followed up with 22 points against the Washington Wizards in another win:
A strong finish for Dorsey in a mixed rookie season for the former Oregon Duck. It was good to see him progress from the rookie doldrums (the DNP-CD’s, the multiple G-League assignments) to seeing the game-time and the opportunities that he ultimately did.
Dorsey reflected on his season during Wednesday’s exit interviews: a season of learning.
“A journey for me,” Dorsey said of his first season. “I learned a lot since the beginning. Started and learned a lot in the G-League and then the second half of this season I learned a lot from a lot of players that were here and the vets that were still here as well, I just learned a lot from them. Learning how to become a professional and getting ready to get better for next year.”
In a season that has been generally filled with positives for Dorsey (considering how he started the season) his shooting numbers are definitely a concern — more so from the field than three. Dorsey finished with averages of 7.2 points per game on 37.7% shooting from the field and 36.2% from three.
36% shooting from three is a very good start to life in the NBA for anyone but especially a second round pick who plays on the wing — that’s a really solid building block to build upon heading into year two. The big thing on the offensive end that Dorsey will have to improve his overall efficiency and his ability to finish in the paint and at the rim.
For Dorsey himself, his off-season focus should help put him in a stronger position when it comes to finishing at the rim in his second season. That focus his body, but Dorsey is just looking to get better in all aspects.
“Just becoming an overall better athlete,” said Dorsey when asked what his off-season focus was. “Work on weight room stuff, first step defensively, knowing how to guard players that come off a lot of screens better, those little things. Also, just working on my all around game offensively and just becoming a better player. I’ll have that year under my belt, so I’ll have the experience knowing what to do in Bud’s offence, knowing how to pick my spots and just making the right plays. Defensively, just getting better since the beginning of my rookie year.”
While he’s unsure if he’ll play in Summer League as of yet (he more than likely will), there’s good reason to be optimistic about Dorsey’s future. He has a great opportunity to outperform his draft selection spot (No. 41 overall) but there’s plenty to improve upon and Dorsey himself knows it.
Proceed with caution but the potential that the Hawks have found themselves a solid rotation player, if nothing else, is certainly there.