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Why Kevin Huerter is the perfect backcourt mate for Trae Young

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A look at how a pair of rookies fit together on the court after their first half-season.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Tuesday night, when the Oklahoma City Thunder came into State Farm Arena, few could have expected what happened to take place. Atlanta exploded for 142 points in an upset win, with 67 of them coming from the “big three” of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and John Collins. For the second time in five days, the Hawks’ young core did the heavy lifting in a take-down of one of the NBA’s elite franchises, and for a night, looked elite themselves.

When the Atlanta Hawks selected sophomore shooting guard Kevin Huerter out of the University of Maryland with the No. 19 selection of the 2018 NBA Draft, I’m not sure anyone truly knew exactly what to expect from the lanky nineteen-year-old. Sure, Huerter had some good tape out there from his time as a Terrapin, but the reality is, there is a certain degree of uncertainty with any draft pick in the NBA, especially one that comes outside of the lottery.

Pegged as an elite shooter, much like his first-round mate Trae Young, many analysts and fans made jokes that the Hawks’ front office and general manager Travis Schlenk were trying to build a second-rate version of the Golden State Warriors (Schlenk’s previous employer), with (sigh) Young being their Stephen Curry, Huerter being their Klay Thompson, and, yes, some people actually compared Omari Spellman to Draymond Green. These comparisons quickly grew exhausting yet somehow managed to linger through the NBA Summer League and even into the early days of the training camp.

Eight months removed from the draft, with most of the jokes and comparisons faded, it appears Atlanta has in fact found their backcourt of the future (and present) in Young and Huerter. While Young struggled with his shot out of the gates, halfway into his rookie season he has fully taken the reins of the team as the point, where his passing ability has outshone most of his other skills.

At 7.2 assists per game (11th in the NBA), Young has proved to be the play-maker the Hawks’ roster was greatly lacking, making those around him better. Look no further than second-year big John Collins and the increase in success he has had offensively this season to see part of the impact Young has made on the group.

Huerter, while his per-game statistics reflect the erratic playing time & injuries he worked through early in the season, has proven to be everything that made scouts value him as a first-round pick and then some. The 6’7 wing has shown flashes of elite playmaking ability for his position, the as-advertised smooth jumper, and has also been one of Atlanta’s most competitive defenders.

Most importantly, Huerter and Young both possess skills that make the game easier for each other as well as the frontcourt players. Both rookie guards possess the court vision and playmaking ability to find the open man, as well as the capacity to play off of the ball and knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers, mid-range or three-pointer. In the event that the defender closes out quickly on the pass, both of these young players have shown they are more than capable of putting the ball on the floor and making something good happen for themselves or for others.

On the defensive end, Huerter’s length and raw talent pairs well next to the undersized Young. The rookie wing has shown great defensive instincts, and defended his position as well as any other Hawk this season, if not better. Young’s biggest weakness is the aforementioned lack of size, and naturally finding a good match-up. It has been a tough challenge for first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff to help Young on defense any way they can, so it’s absolutely imperative that his backcourt mate possesses the ability to hold his own and then some on that end. So far, it appears Huerter is going to be able to be that guy.

Statistically, both Young and Huerter need the second half of this season to pad their per-game stats and overall percentages, as the expected rookie growing pains were present early in the season. Despite the early struggles, Young is still averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 assists per 36 minutes, while the shooting percentages (39.7 percent on field goals and 29.5 percent from three-point-range) have been improving since early December. In 13 December games, Young shot 43.1 percent from the field (53.0 percent true shooting) and 34.7 percent from deep.

Considering his usage rate (26.1 percent) is higher than every rookie with at least 30 games played other than Luka Doncic, I think the low percentages were somewhat to be expected. As far as facilitating is concerned, Young is eighth in the NBA in assist percentage (36.6 percent) among players who have played at least 25 games. The players ranked in front of him are J.J. Barea, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, John Wall, Chris Paul, Nikola Jokic and Ben Simmons. Not the worst of company for a rookie.

Huerter hasn’t had the super high usage rate like Young, so his per-36 minute statistics aren’t quite as eye popping from a pure volume standpoint. The most impressive numbers in regards to Huerter are his overall plus minus of -1.2 and his net rating of -1.7, both second to only John Collins on the Hawks roster among players averaging more than ten minutes per game. These numbers reflect that the team is better when he is on the floor, which is one of the best things you can say about a player.

Huerter’s true shooting percentage of 54.0 is fifth among rookie guards with at least 25 appearances, and his 26.9 minutes per game are fourth for rookie guards, behind three top-10 picks from the 2018 draft; Doncic, Collin Sexton and Young. In regards to shooting, Huerter has been solid from the jump, with a three-point percentage of 39.1 for his rookie campaign to date. Plenty of what Huerter has shown this season is sort of hard to find on a stat sheet, so let’s jump into some of the film to get a better look at how Atlanta’s new shooting guard has faired so far in his first professional season.

Defense

In addition to being an all-around player on the offensive end, Huerter has shown defensive versatility as well. Here he fights over a screen and gets back in to solid guarding position.

This time, just moments later in the same game, Huerter fights through multiple screens, gets back into position, cuts off the baseline drive and forces a turnover.

More solid defensive work from Huerter and the Hawks here, forcing a tough look at the end of the shot clock with a good close-out, then he gets out in transition and buries a momentum-shifting three-pointer that gave Atlanta a 13-point lead with just over five minutes left in the game.

Passing

Huerter has shown flashes of exceptional playmaking this season. Here, he uses the Alex Len screen and then finds Collins on the weak side for a wide open three.

Here, the rookie wing finds Collins again for the alley-oop in transition.

Huerter has also shown the ability to beat defenders off of the dribble. Here, he pulls out the hesitation dribble before finishing the play with a nice drop-off to Collins for the easy lay-in.

Young and Huerter working together for a good look as the clock runs down in the quarter.

Here’s Young with a sharp pass to the weak side to Huerter, who fires it back inside to Collins as the defense is still processing the cross-court dart from Young.

Dewayne Dedmon slips the screen and Huerter hits him with a smooth pocket bounce pass for the easy basket.

Huerter circles to the corner, but was unable to lose the defender. Instead of freezing and getting rid of the ball, he keeps moving and puts the pressure on the defense, then finds Dedmon with the drop-off dime.

Huerter fields a wild pass from Dedmon, pump-fakes then fires the baseline bullet around the defense to Collins for the corner three.

Shot-creating/scoring

Huerter’s prowess as a shooter has been well documented, but an underrated part of his game is his ability to get to the rim and finish. Here’s Huerter using a screen then finishing with a floater over the big after the switch.

Huerter pump-fakes Victor Oladipo then drives to the rim for the power right-hand finish.

Young kicks out to Huerter who blows by the Luka Doncic close-out to the rim for the lay-in.

Young and Huerter collaborate to create a wide open look from three.

Huerter uses the screen to get the switch, then promptly takes the bigger defender to the rim and executes a fading six-foot jump hook. Probably not what Maxi Kleber was expecting here.

Huerter has also shown that he can shoot from multiple releases, and that he is more than a catch-and-shoot wing on the perimeter. Here’s a step-back with a rhythm dribble in Boston.

Huerter faces up and pulls the three in Celtic’s stopper Marcus Smart’s face.

Here’s Huerter with a timely back-cut down the middle for the easy basket in the paint.

The rookie wing fills the lane in transition the hits the acrobatic layup around the defense.

Huerter drives and lays up a soft floater before the defense can close.

The Atlanta two-guard drives right and finishes through the contact.

Huerter attacks the basket and lays in the smooth right-handed finger roll.

These clips are just a taste of the good work the new backcourt has put on display this season, and coming fresh off of another big win against Oklahoma City on Tuesday night, the ceiling for what they can do together with other the young pieces seems to keep getting higher game by game. The results are never going to be all great all of the time with rookies in the Association, but these two have shown enough to inspire promise. With potentially two top-10 picks on the way to Atlanta this Spring, the sky is the limit for this young group.

All statistics compiled from NBA.com/stats and Basketball-reference.com.