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Loss in Utah raises larger concerns for Atlanta Hawks

The defense is not good. How does it improve?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Utah Jazz Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Walking into Salt Lake City’s Vivint Smart Home Arena is never easy for a road team, especially an Eastern Conference team in the middle of a road trip out West. Such were the conditions for the Atlanta Hawks on Friday evening, when they met the Utah Jazz after more than a week on the road. The trip has been a successful one for the Hawks thus far, even though Utah handed them their third loss in the five games that have been played thus far. Atlanta and Utah were neck-and-neck for much of the first half, trading runs like boxers trade body blows, but it was the Jazz who were able to deliver the decision for their hometown fans by a final score of 128-112.

In a performance mirroring the team’s game in Sacramento on Wednesday, it was the Trae Young show for Atlanta against Utah. The rookie point guard finished with 28 points on 9-for-20 shooting from the field, including 5-for-10 from beyond the arc, to go with nine assists to just two turnovers. It was one of Young’s best all-around games this season, from the confidence he had pulling up for threes to the pinpoint passes to which everybody has grown accustomed when they watch him. In contrast with the loss to the Kings, Young’s teammates were able to pitch in around him, though it wasn’t enough to overcome a very talented and deep Jazz squad.

Young’s passing was a sight to behold, as it almost always is when he steps onto the floor. Now more than halfway through his rookie season, it’s clear that Young is among the game’s very best passers. Given his size and experience disadvantage when compared to guys like LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and James Harden, Young’s ability to match them pass-for-pass, especially in pick-and-roll, shows a mastery of the game that few point guards have in their first years.

He had more than a few wonderful passes in this game, including these two beauties:

When it was his turn to shine, Kevin Huerter picked up where Young left off, notching seven assists of his own out of his secondary ball handler role. The Atlanta coaching staff has had to coax his aggressive side out of him this season, but when it arrives, it’s easy to see why the organization was so high on him after drafting him No. 19 last June.

Even when he’s missing shots, it’s important for Huerter to continue to be aggressive and hoist up triples, whether they’re in transition or step-back jumpers when matched up against an inferior athlete:

His ability and willingness to shoot will open up the rest of his game, the same way it does for Young. The percentages don’t even have to be all that amazing – Young is still shooting 30 percent from deep this season, but teams treat him as though that number is much higher. When he comes off a screen, panic ensues, which is the foundation of everything else he’s able to do on the offensive end of the court.

Huerter can be much the same way, if he stays aggressive in looking for his shot. It will manifest itself in a different way, because Huerter isn’t going to be running as much pick-and-roll and will instead be a key component of the Hawks’ drive-and-kick game.

When he is able to run some pick-and-roll, he’s shown that he’s fully adept in these spots:

He’s not on Young’s level as a passer (only a small handful of players are), but he’s also had far fewer chances to show what he can do and develop that aspect of his game this season. For a wing who will play as a secondary handler throughout his partnership with Young in Atlanta’s backcourt, Huerter’s passing gives the Hawks a great change-of-pace option from their offensive style.

Defensively, things didn’t go quite as well for Atlanta. They kept pace with the Jazz for about two and a half quarters, but as soon as the offense started to slip a bit, the defense wasn’t able to lock in and keep them in the game as Utah cruised to an easy victory.

Team-wide, defense is still such a mixed bag because they don’t have the anchor through which everything runs. Like a point guard on offense, a great defensive center can single-handedly elevate a team’s defense to great heights. Friday’s opponent is a perfect example — Rudy Gobert is the best defensive center in the league and Utah is consistently at the top of the defensive rankings league-wide.

The Hawks are still searching for their version of Gobert. Until they get him, or fill out the rest of their roster with above-average defenders at all positions, it’s going to be tough sledding for them.

Given where Atlanta is in their multi-year rebuild, it’s not all that surprising that one side of the ball is ahead of the other – general manager Travis Schlenk has clearly gone all-in on offense to this point in his draft process. Young, Huerter, Omari Spellman, and John Collins are Schlenk’s four first-round draft picks over the last two years and there isn’t an above-average defender among that group at this point.

If Young ever gets to even be below average, that would be a huge win for Atlanta. Huerter has size and length to be a bothersome presence on that end but doesn’t play with a ton of force (getting back to that aggressiveness issue from earlier) defensively. Spellman is, by his own admission, not in the best shape (though it’s visibly improving), which can show up on the defensive end.

Of these four young guys, Spellman’s ability to read the game and react quickly impresses the most, but he’s not where he needs to be physically to take advantage of those smarts yet. Collins, for as impressive as he’s been offensively and in the box score, will have to make immense strides to ever be considered a legitimately impactful defender. The idea of playing him at center will only work if he can hold up on defense, but there are few signs of that happening any time soon.

Nobody expected the Hawks to be all that competitive with the Jazz on Friday night (Atlanta was a double-digit underdog for a reason), but the way in which they lost this game is emblematic of larger issues – the team has to play so well on offense throughout the game to make up for their defensive deficiencies.

The good news is that this is a short-term problem. Schlenk will eventually add defensive pieces around this core and the players themselves will get better on that end of the court. Collins’ lackluster defensive performance this year is the largest concern, since he was supposed to be able to get his rookie lumps out of the way last year, but there’s absolutely no reason to panic there. They’ll have time to work with him and have him grow within head coach Lloyd Pierce’s system over the next few years.

Now 10-12 in their last 22 games, Atlanta has put together an impressive stretch of games over the last six weeks. They’ll take that momentum into their last three games before the trade deadline, at which point the makeup of their team could be very, very different.