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Hawks players prioritizing improvement as 2018 off-season begins

Everybody is looking to get better but who’s focusing where as the Hawks enter the summer?

NBA: Washington Wizards at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Picture the scene: you’ve finally got the time away that you’ve wanted, you go somewhere comfortable to relax for a few days. You grab a cup of your favorite hot beverage, take a deep breath and look out beyond the great horizon... Thoughts will rush to your mind, usually of reflection, as you decompress.

In professional sports (and many other professions), there is performance-based element that is tied to your job security, and in moments of reflection — whether you are doing well but not where you want to be (perhaps in comparison to others) or if you are struggling — you will ask yourself, ‘How can I improve? How can I get better? What do I need to do to get where I want to be?’

And so is the case for the Atlanta Hawks.

Once April 12 rolled around, the season was over for 14 of the 30 NBA teams, and the rest of the league will be following suit gradually from here on out as one-by-one they are eliminated from the postseason.

As that happens — and even beyond the NBA Finals — there is a whole lot of time between now and the beginning of the new season. The NBA summer can be a time where complacency sets in, but most NBA players understand the concept of ‘If I’m not putting in the work, there’s someone else that is.’

The summer grind for many NBA players is relentless; whether it’s an already established player looking to get better (Kent Bazemore is a good example here), a young player looking to continue his development, a player on the outside of the rotation looking or a player who’s fighting for their NBA career (these are some examples) — everyone is looking to get better.

A frequent question asked during teams’ exit interviews is, ‘What’s your off-season focus? Where are you looking to improve?’

Atlanta’s season has been over for a few weeks now and their exit interviews have already taken place, and questions of improvements over the summer were certainly asked. So, what areas are members of the Hawks looking to improve in? Many (but not all) Hawks players were asked during their exit interviews on April 11.

Let’s go through what they said (at least the ones that were asked the question).

Dennis Schröder

Starting point guard Dennis Schröder had a mixed season in general, but had a particularly rough year shooting the three-pointer as he shot 29 percent from three on 3.9 attempts per game — his worst year shooting from distance since his rookie season when he shot 23 percent from three (though on 0.9 attempts per game).

Courtesy of NBA.com

A further look into the numbers only shine further light on the problem. Schröder shot 26.9 percent on his pull-up threes and — unlike some players who can at least redeem themselves somewhat in catch-and-shoot three-point shooting if their pull-up/jump-shooting three-pointer percentages are lowly) — shot an equally poor 28.3 percent on his catch-and-shoot threes. To cap it all off: of all starting guards who played at least 50 games and attempted one three-pointer a game, Schröder possessed the sole worst overall three-point shooting percentage at 29 percent (Lonzo Ball was next closest at 29.4 percent).

Of course, if you watched the Hawks for any prolonged stretch this season you won’t need any of these numbers to tell you that Schröder did not have a good year shooting the long-ball and is not a good three-point shooter.

So it’s no surprise that it’s one of the areas he wants to improve on.

“I want my three-point shot to be like my pull-up,” said Schröder. “Shooting it the same way from everywhere and getting stronger in the weight room. I think those are the two most important parts for me this year.”

In that quote, Schröder also talked about his desire to strengthen his body, which might enable him to absorb additional contact and, by extension, could help him finish at the rim where he shot a below par 52.7 percent from less than five feet, 54.5 percent in the restricted area (the league average, according to NBA.com, is 63.1 percent) and possibly in the paint too where Schröder shot 39 percent in the paint (not including the restricted area).

If Schröder can indeed add a bit of muscle and improve that three-point shooting, it would prove to be a big addition not only to his own personal offensive game but the Hawks’ too.

Kent Bazemore

Kent Bazemore emerges from this season having had a successful bounce-back year after a mediocre 2016-17 season. He improved upon his shooting percentages all across the board, his defensive instinct and his leadership, which is something he really placed a priority on this season.

“... (I) took this season to learn how to become a leader, both with your play and verbally. I learned a lot there...” said Bazemore during his exit interview.

Bazemore was a player that a lot of players looked up to this season as one of the team veterans and it was a role Bazemore embraced. But what’s on Bazemore’s focus heading into next season? Strengthening his body and increasing his number of trips to the free throw line, which Bazemore believes is key to controlling the tempo of the game, particularly in the fourth quarter.

“Work on my body, get a lot stronger, looking to get to the free throw line a lot more next year,” said Bazemore on his off-season focus. “Kind of control the tempo of the game like the best players do. James Harden, DeMar DeRozan... Those guys get to the free throw line so much. Down the stretch, they really dictate the game...”

For each season Bazemore has been in the league his free throw attempts per game has increased, most recently from 2.3 attempts per game in 16-17 to 3.1 in the 17-18 season — 19 percent of Bazemore’s points last season came from the free throw line.

Bazemore had regressed from the free throw line in 2017 in terms of percentage (shooting 70.8 percent having shot 81 percent in 2016) and had a good bounce-back year shooting 79% in 2018 but will have to continue to improve his free throw percentage further if he wants to place himself near that Harden-DeRozan echelon when it comes to free throws (who shoot 85.8 percent on 10 attempts and 82.5 percent on seven attempts per game respectively from the line).

John Collins

After a strong rookie season for John Collins, the former Wake Forest product is looking to improve in multiple facets, starting in the weight room.

“Obviously (I) want to get stronger, put some weight on in the weight room,” said Collins of his focus for the off-season. “(I want to) expand my game outwards, be able to shoot the three-ball more consistently at a higher clip, be a playmaker, guard multiple positions, just expand my game away from the rim. I’ve done a lot of my damage in and around the rim being able to block shots and score in and around the basket, especially at my size expanding away from the rim.”

There’s quite a bit to break down here...

The body-building aspect is fairly self explanatory: all young bigs in the NBA want to add that muscle as they continue to grow into their sizes/frame and Collins is no exception.

In terms of ‘expanding his game outwards’ and shooting the three-pointer at a ‘higher clip’...

For the season, Collins shot 34 percent from behind the arc on 0.6 attempts per game but post All-Star break Collins shot 35.7 percent on 1.6 three-point attempts per game. By the end of the season, Collins was already expanding his game by attempting (and making) three-pointers at the top of the key as well as his well-practiced corner threes. I think it’s possible that Collins will not only continue to work on his three-pointers but also in the mid-range.

Most of Collins’ attempts came at the rim or in the paint — not a lot of two-pointers outside of the paint:

NBA.com/stats

Only 5.4 percent of Collins’ two-pointers came in the mid-range (whereas 71.3 percent came in the paint), so look for that to change next year.

Collins isn’t the only Hawks big that is looking to become more of a playmaker (more on that in a bit), and he is already on his way. After the All-Star break, Collins averaged 2.4 assists per game as his feel for the Hawks’ offense and his own basketball IQ continues to improve.

In terms of guarding multiple positions, I imagine Collins is just looking to be able to guard on switches from power forward to centers. If Collins is successful in adding muscle over the summer, this something that should be achievable but still needs to continue to improve his fundamentals on the defensive end if he wants to guard not only his own position to a decent standard but other positions too.

Mike Muscala

John Collins mentioned that he wanted to work on his ability to be a playmaker; it’s something Mike Muscala also wants to work on, taking particular inspiration from former teammate Al Horford, who was able to bring the ball up the floor and make plays — as well as looking to get better all-around.

“Honestly, what comes to mind for me is to just be a better basketball player all-around ... I want to work on my ball handling a little bit where I’m able to bring the ball up in some cases,” said Muscala. “Playing with guys like Al Horford who was able to do that: get the rebound, start the break. It’s hard for teams to match-up when you do that. I think just (improving) all-around, I think by doing that my shot — which I tend to over-analyse sometimes when it’s not going my way — I think it will just flow better for me. ”

Paul Millsap was someone who could do this as well as Horford, and it can cause opposing teams to get muddled on the defensive end as they try and match up.

Muscala is a willing passer in the Hawks’ offense (he’s someone that I’ve continued to say does his utmost to always run the Budenholzer offense when he’s out on the floor: moves often, screens, makes the right play/pass etc.) and he has got a good feel for the game.

I think it’s possible Muscala can make some plays going up the floor (maybe not on the level of a Millsap or a Horford, which was a pretty high level to begin with) but will he receive the opportunity to do so with the Hawks and the personnel they have, some of whom like to pound the ball into the ground at times?

I’m not sure (as much as I’d love to see it)...

Tyler Dorsey

A second round pick out of Oregon, Tyler Dorsey had a solid end to the season after he finally broke through into the rotation in January, going through the usual rookie ups and downs along the way.

As you could probably imagine with a second round pick, Dorsey wants to improve all facets of his game as he looks to establish himself as a mainstay both with the Hawks and in the NBA.

“Just becoming an overall better athlete,” began Dorsey on his list of off-season focuses. “Work on weight room stuff, (improve my) 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, (I’ve) just (been) getting better since the beginning of my rookie year.”

Judging by his comments, you can see that Dorsey is really focusing on improving his defense.

Which, of course, makes sense as Dorsey was not exactly a defensive plus for the Hawks last season — the Hawks held a defensive rating on 107.8 when Dorsey was off of the floor which was slightly below their overall defensive rating on the season (108.2). Dorsey himself posted an overall defensive rating of 109.4 which, again, is higher than the Hawks’ defensive rating of 108.2. Opponents also shot 3.3 percent better from the field when guarded by Dorsey.

You get the idea...

As I’ve previously discussed when it comes to Dorsey, he’ll need to improve his ability to finish in the paint and at the rim, and just improve his shooting numbers across the board in general as he registered an effective field goal percentage of 47.1 percent and a true shooting percentage of 49.4 percent — both of which are brutal.

There’s a solid foundation in Dorsey but there’s plenty of work to be done this summer...

Miles Plumlee

People will obviously be curious about where players like John Collins and Kent Bazemore or Dennis Schröder are looking to improve, but no one will really care what Miles Plumlee is going to work on over the summer.

I honestly thought Plumlee gave one of the most interesting responses when asked what he was going to work on this summer: a desire to make himself more playable in (now-former) coach Mike Budenholzer’s system.

“Really continuing, as a big, to work on things that fit in the system,” said Plumlee. “It’s a little different than other teams...spread. I just want to work on skills that’ll make me more friendly in the set. That would include a perimeter shot, really getting to know our defense better and being more instinctual. I want to play a lot of pick-up this summer because, really, before my injury I haven’t played ball up and down for almost over a year coming into playing this season. So, just getting back to instincts, feeling natural out there is big, I think.”

Most players will go off and improve what tailors to them (which normally help the team regardless) but I thought it was really interesting that Plumlee — as his focus — wanted to fit his summer improvements around what the Hawks run so that he can better fit that and try make himself more usable in the system.

Now, look...we know Miles Plumlee has limitations to his game compared to the other bigs the Hawks have. He’s a more traditional big: screen setter, pick-and-roll roller, more at home in the paint, a little more lead-footed (not massively) when it comes to movement and his offensive game mostly limited around rim. Unlike Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala, Tyler Cavanaugh and now even John Collins, Plumlee doesn’t spread the floor, something that Mike Budenholzer really valued in his bigs, as it allows him to try more lineups and combinations — which he likes to do.

I don’t expect Plumlee to come back with a refined three-point shot but even if he could expand his game beyond the paint somewhat — even if he could hit those 15 footers — that would be a successful summer in terms of expanding his range. At the moment, as you can imagine, 86.9 percent of Plumlee’s points last season came in the paint and just 1.7 percent come from mid-range.

Plumlee also talked about improving his instincts and getting to know the Hawks’ defensive scheme further. Plumlee’s defensive numbers were actually fairly decent — posting a 106.2 defensive rating on the season (which is a better rating than the Hawks’ overall defensive rating) and opponents shot 2.6 percent worse when guarded by him on all shots and 9.6 percent worse from less than six feet from the basket. The film might not necessarily agree with those stats — he had his ups and downs defensively. Of course, being one to not really stray from the paint, he struggled with opponents whose game is more perimeter based — opponents shooting over 9 percent better from behind the arc when guarded by Plumlee, largely because they were probably just left open.

The other thing Plumlee will have going for him this summer is that, as he mentioned, he’s actually healthy heading into the summer and his desire to play is still strong, even just in pick-up. I’m, personally, interested to see what kind of Miles Plumlee we’ll see when he — presumably — arrives back for training camp. I think you might be surprised...or maybe not. Probably not. But we shall see...

While the Budenholzer departure puts a wrench in his express plans, the future should be interesting. bud

Isaiah Taylor

Isaiah Taylor enjoyed a campaign where he felt he really cemented his place in the NBA — his dazzling speed and quickness were on display for most of this season. His ability to get to the rim was fun to watch and most of his scoring was done in the paint: 59.3 percent of his points coming in the paint (mostly off of those drives). Taylor averaged 6.7 drives per game, ranking 10th in bench players who played at least 55 games this season and attempted at least three drives per game (though, only converting 44 percent of his drives into points).

But one thing that was missing from Taylor’s breakout season was a perimeter shot: 25 percent from three on 1.2 attempts per game was Taylor this season. But the issue isn’t just from behind the arc but it extends to jump shooting in general as Taylor shot 28.6 percent on all jump shots.

Unsurprisingly, the jump shot is what Taylor wants to work on this summer.

“I think if I’m hitting a consistent jump shot, I’ll be tough to guard,” said Taylor.

If Taylor can add even an average jump shot it would help open up some additional driving opportunities as the defense might need to play Taylor a little tighter, allowing him blow-by opportunities created by his speed — defenses don’t feel the great need to chase Taylor behind the arc (and they shouldn’t right now).

Tyler Cavanaugh

This season marked a breakthrough year for Tyler Cavanaugh as he took advantage of a number of injuries to cement his place in the rotation for that time being and earning an NBA contract.

For players like Cavanaugh — whose future is far from certain not only with the Hawks but in the NBA also — the off-season is so critically important. And Tyler Cavanaugh knows exactly what he needs to work on to stick around in the NBA: shooting.

“...Just continuing to be the best shooter I can be because that’s how I’m going to stick in the NBA,” said Cavanaugh. “That’s what they (teams) need: stretch bigs who can shoot. Continue to improve my overall game as well but take some time, get healthy and then get back in the gym and start working out.”

Cavanaugh knows where his bread and butter is — 58.6 percent of his attempts came from three-point distance. Cavanaugh shot 36 percent from three on the season and most of his three-point opportunities came in catch-and-shoot scenarios: 59.7 percent of Cavanaugh’s total shots coming in catch-and-shoot situations from behind the arc on which he shot 38 percent from.

Cavanaugh is already a very solid outside shooter and given his size, and he’ll make a very interesting prospect going forward if he can further improve his shooting and his defense.

Jaylen Morris

Jaylen Morris was a later addition to the Hawks after the trade deadline but he came and made an impact in his 10 days before going down for the remainder of the season with an ankle injury he suffered just after he signed his second 10-day.

Morris is in a similar boat to the likes of Tyler Dorsey, Damion Lee and Andrew White where they just have to try and improve in all aspects as they look to try and nail down roster spots — and that’s what Morris is looking to do.

“Trying to improve in every area of my game,” said Morris of his off-season plans. “Jump shooting, being more comfortable with the ball in my hands, continue to be a defender, things like that.”

We know that Morris is a good defender but his offensive game certainly lags behind his defense, considerably too. He shot 48.3 percent both in terms of effective field goal percentage and true shooting percentage, which is pretty ugly. Morris’ offensive rating also seriously lags behind the team offensive rating — 87.7 offensive rating compared to the Hawks’ 102.4 offensive rating.

Obviously there’s a small sample size to work with when it comes to Morris (six games) but it was quite clear watching those six games that Morris’ offense still has some work to do. A steady perimeter shot — in addition to his defense — would go an enormous way to finding himself a role in the NBA.

Damion Lee

Damion Lee turned a number of heads as he was able to come in March and make an immediate impact, even getting to start a few games as the season drew to a close as he averaged 10.7 points per game on 40 percent shooting from the field.

Similar to Isaiah Taylor, there’s a stark decrease in percentages when you look at the three-point shot, something that disappointed Lee having began life with the Hawks shooting 46 percent from three in his first three gamesLee shot just 19 percent from three after those first three games and shot 25 percent from three on the season.

“Catch and shoot,” laughed Lee when asked where he wanted to improve on in the off-season. “Definitely catch and shoot. Of course getting stronger (in the weight room). Just the ability to not only create for myself but create for my teammates. I really think that’s probably the biggest downfall I could say from my performance this season was shooting it from behind the arc.”

Lee specifically mentioned wanting to improve his catch-and-shoot... He shot 34.6 percent in his catch-and-shoot opportunities from the field and 28.3 percent on his catch-and-shoot opportunities from behind the arc. Not great, but not as bad as his pull-ups — Lee shot 9.1 percent on his pull-up threes. Yikes...

The rest of his comment fits in with the rest of his game. We saw Lee handle the ball some (averaging just under two assists per game) and strengthening his body would further help his cause at the rim and in the paint where Lee — a multi-functional offensive player — scored 46 percent of his points.

Andrew White

Andrew White didn’t have the greatest time with the Hawks in comparison to the likes of Isaiah Taylor, Damion Lee and Tyler Cavanaugh. He had a rough season shooting the ball — 46.6 percent in effective field goal percentage and 46.1 true shooting percentage — and didn’t bring a whole lot else to the table, whereas someone like Jaylen Morris at least brought a good defensive edge to him despite struggling offensively.

White, at times, lacked the required burst to get inside and this, in addition to increasing his basketball IQ, is what he’s going to work on this summer.

“I’m going to spend a lot more time on my body this year,” said White. “Just (improving) lateral quickness, foot speed, probably going to try and shed five pounds just to be lighter on my feet. That’s kind of been my emphasis as far as my body. On the court, off the dribble, pick-and-roll... Going to do a lot of film study just to continue to let my IQ grow. Those are what I’m planning to focus on for the off season.”

White, realistically speaking, needs to improve pretty much everywhere across the board so I don’t have a ton to add — only that, in my mind, he’s behind that wing trio of Antonius Cleveland, Jaylen Morris and Damion Lee as they battle for future roster spots (though, Lee is a free agent this summer).


Everyone is looking to improve in a game that never sleeps. And come training camp — even Summer League for some of these guys — there’ll be no hiding place...

Time will tell.