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Cam Reddish can hang his hat on defense

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

Cam Reddish has taken his fair share of criticism this season (including from yours truly on multiple occasions) for his work on the offensive end of the floor. He’s legitimately harmful to the Atlanta Hawks on offense right now, what with his 36.6 percent true shooting and sometimes-questionable shot selection. However, the chatter surrounding his offense masks Reddish’s best trait at this point early on in his rookie year: he’s already a rotation-level defender.

Due to roster construction and the continued unavailability of Kevin Huerter through much of the early part of the season, Reddish has been matched up a lot more often on smaller guards than it was thought he might be in the pre-draft process. Standing at 6’8 and weighing in north of 200 pounds, Reddish has the physical profile of a prototypical forward at the NBA level, but after Atlanta drafted De’Andre Hunter six spots ahead of Reddish, it wasn’t clear that he was going to have a path to play significant minutes at the 3 for the Hawks this season.

Rather than looking out of place against smaller players, Reddish has thrived in that role. He’s a smart help defender, knows the tendencies of his opponents, and has a slithery nature getting through screens that’s rare among players his size. There are still situations in which he overhelps, gets beat athletically, or slams headfirst into a screen, but the overall picture is much rosier for Reddish on defense than it is for a lot of rookies. For the most part, rookies are negatives on both ends of the floor, particularly as you get outside the top few picks each season, so for Reddish to be a consistent positive on defense bodes well for his long-term future.

Of course, it won’t matter all that much unless the offense comes around significantly, but there’s plenty of reason to think that it will. That’s a topic for another time, but he’s going to be fine… eventually.

The opening possession of Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers was a nice encapsulation of the good and bad of Reddish’s game on the defensive end:

Reddish’s primary matchup in the early going on Sunday was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, whom the Lakers like to use as a screener and spot-up shooter in their base offense. Los Angeles opened the game with a set that called for Caldwell-Pope to set a back screen for Anthony Davis to get a look at the rim, but Reddish was there to deter the pass.

As Damian Jones recovered to Davis under the basket, Reddish had to scamper back out to Caldwell-Pope on the perimeter, which he was able to do without giving up a wide-open catch-and-shoot three-pointer. From there, Reddish plays the scouting report, shading Caldwell-Pope to his left and toward the help in the middle of the floor. Through 20 seconds of the shot clock, Reddish did everything exactly right, but as soon as he lunged at the ball, Caldwell-Pope ripped to the baseline and blew right past him, forcing a rotation that led to an open 3 for Danny Green.

Nearly everything about this play shows where Reddish is as a defender right now. The help onto Davis, the quick closeout to Caldwell-Pope on the perimeter, and shading Caldwell-Pope toward his weaker left hand showed off his defensive IQ and lateral quickness in help-and-recover situations. The blow-by Caldwell-Pope put on Reddish is also a part of his profile – he’s not an elite quick-twitch lateral athlete and isn’t quick enough to stay in front of offensive players if he gets himself out of position.

“I’m trying to educate him about ‘you make a mistake at this level, you get punished, so how do you keep the game in front, how do you contain, how do you know the tendencies of your matchup’,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce told the media ahead of Saturday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. “He’s a good defender, he’s learning how to be an elite defender.”

When Reddish isn’t over-aggressive on the ball, he’s got enough quickness and strength to stay with just about anybody in the league. Later on against the Lakers, Reddish found himself in front of LeBron James after the Hawks didn’t have their matchups quite right. James smelled blood in the water and went right after Reddish with a right-handed drive to the rim, but Reddish stuck with him step for step:

James was able to flip a fantastic pass back to Davis, who missed the dunk at the rim, but the focus is on Reddish for our purposes: he went stride-for-stride with one of the best players in the world and if it weren’t for a ridiculous over-the-shoulder pass, James would have quickly run out of real estate as he got behind the backboard.

“I feel like I can guard 1 through 4, sometimes the 5,” Reddish told Peachtree Hoops before the Clippers game on Saturday. That particular line drew an inquisitive look from Evan Turner, whom Reddish sat next to in the locker room in Los Angeles, and a smile from Reddish. “As I get stronger and better on that end of the floor, I feel like I’ll be able to guard most players. It’s a work in progress, but I’m getting there.”

Reddish will rarely be the primary defender at the big man spots for the Hawks, but his ability to switch in an emergency adds a ton of value. Reddish wouldn’t have held up that well against James had he been the primary defender on him throughout the game, but in a scrambled situation, he held up very well.

The night before, Reddish found himself on Ivica Zubac in the post after switching on a ball screen for Paul George. The Clippers went to Zubac in the post with plenty of time on the clock for their big man to operate. In two dribbles, Zubac wasn’t able to get all that much closer to the rim, and when he went up for a shot, Reddish slapped down and got the ball out.

There are certainly areas of improvement for Reddish, but the outline of an above average NBA defender is plain to see. He’s already a good help defender who uses his defensive IQ to make the right play more often than not. Athletic and size limitations may keep him from being the sort of high-end forward defender capable of matching up consistently with the Kawhi Leonards and Giannis Antetokounmpos of the world, but he’s developing into a pesky wing defender.

The high-end comparison for Reddish on the defensive end of the floor is a mix between Paul George and Robert Covington – George is perhaps the league’s premier wing at getting through screens and Covington is one of the NBA’s leading help defenders among perimeter players. Of course, it’s still extremely early for Reddish to draw comparisons to those players, but if he were to continue on his current upward trajectory, he has quite a lot of upside to explore as a key member of a strong defense.