Down years in a franchise’s life cycle are the perfect time to develop young players and let them make mistakes, as the absolute wins and losses aren’t nearly as important as they are once the team is good again. For the Atlanta Hawks, they’ve mostly leaned into the youth movement, throwing Trae Young into the starting lineup from Day 1 and constructing much of the offense around his preternatural abilities on that end of the floor. In addition, second-year big man John Collins has been the team’s best player and looks to be one of their franchise cornerstones moving forward, though there are still questions surrounding his defense and contributions to a winning team. Rookie wing Kevin Huerter rounds out the Hawks’ Big Three (for now) and with less than a month remaining in the season, it’s time for Atlanta to give him as many reps as possible as a lead ball handler, because there is no certainty that he’ll be able to get pressure-free reps in the future.
Making the transformation from a secondary wing who can shoot to a primary wing who can run an offense isn’t easy. It’s usually a multi-year process that takes patience on the parts of the player, his coaches, and the front office. When it pays off, however, the results can be fantastic, as with two other key ball handling wings in the Eastern Conference: Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine.
Both Beal and LaVine entered the league as off-ball shooters with little in the way of pick-and-roll creation for their teammates but due to their respective clubs being close to the bottom of the standings, they were given the opportunity to orchestrate the offense for long stretches in their first year or two in the league. Those reps have paid off, as Beal and LaVine are now fully capable of running an offense by themselves, raising their value tremendously and becoming all-around offensive forces that are nearly impossible to stop. Neither guy would be where they are today without those early-career pick-and-roll reps and their development can be a blueprint for how the Hawks handle Huerter over the last month of his rookie season.
By all accounts, both Beal and LaVine were abjectly awful when asked to helm their respective teams’ offenses during their rookie years. Beal finished in the ninth percentile in 2012-13 in overall pick-and-roll efficiency and it wasn’t until his fifth year in the league that he put together an above-average season in that area. LaVine put it together a bit quicker than Beal did, leaping to an average mark in 2016-17, his third year in the league.
The common thread between the two of them, however, is their pick-and-roll usage early in their careers: LaVine averaged 0.27 pick-and-roll possessions used per minute played over his first three years in the league, while Beal averaged 0.21. Huerter, meanwhile, sits at 0.15 pick-and-roll possessions per minute this season, having run just 257 pick-and-rolls in his 1686 minutes, despite his efficiency on these plays in his rookie season eclipsing both LaVine and Beal through their first three seasons.
Now that Beal (through injury to John Wall) and LaVine (through the Bulls have virtually no other capable ball handlers) have been thrust into the spotlight for their teams, they’re thriving. Washington has seen Wall go from iron man (he missed just 12 games in a four-year stretch from 2013 to 2017) to hardly available (he’s played fewer than half of the Wizards games the last two years), but have been able to turn to Beal to keep the offense afloat. In fact, the offense has been better over the last two seasons with Beal in the lineup without Wall than it has been with the two of them together or with Wall alone. LaVine is in the 63rd percentile league-wide in pick-and-roll efficiency despite playing for a Chicago team mostly devoid of offensive talent, though they’ve been better since the arrival of Otto Porter at the trade deadline.
Beal and LaVine (at least on the offensive end) can be the mold for Huerter’s development over what remains of this season and the next few, as the team begins to turn the corner back toward contention. In today’s league, having a do-it-all wing like Huerter could become is invaluable. If the Hawks are looking toward a future with Young and Huerter as their starting backcourt, they’re going to have to be phenomenal offensively, as it’s unlikely that pairing will ever be a particularly strong defensive combination. Throw in Collins and his concerns on that end of the floor and Atlanta is clearly (at least so far) all in on offense.
The problem is that Huerter hasn’t gotten the pressure-free usage Beal and LaVine got during their first few years in the league. When it was between giving the ball to Jeremy Lin and Huerter, it at least made more sense, as Lin is a veteran point guard who could buoy the offense while Young was out of the game. Huerter has seen his usage tick up slightly since Lin departed for Toronto and now runs about one extra pick-and-roll per game (50 over the ten games in which he’s appeared since Lin was bought out vs. 207 in the 52 games prior).
The extra usage is encouraging for one of the Hawks’ core developmental prospects, but there’s more they can and should do. Jaylen Adams is currently getting the lion’s share of the backup point guard minutes and, while he’s had his moments as the team’s primary creator, the club simply doesn’t have the long-term investment in Adams that they have in Huerter. Adam has run 45 pick-and-rolls himself in the time since Lin was waived, averaging 0.29 pick-and-rolls per minute on the floor. Huerter’s mark over that same period is down at 0.19, slightly higher than his season-long average but not nearly as high as it could be if they Hawks were to give him the reins to the offense.
It’s not about the results; as we saw with Beal and LaVine, they were below-average pick-and-roll ball handlers throughout the first few years of their career. It’s about getting Huerter as many reps as possible and letting him work through mistakes now, while the team isn’t fighting game in and game out for playoff positioning and can afford to, for lack of better phrasing, throw those possessions away. Huerter’s shown enough with his passing and decision making in the possessions he has used that the Hawks can be reasonably certain he can make a leap as a ball handler if given the opportunity, but it’s up to them to put him in the right positions to develop that aspect of his game.
All statistics, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of Synergy and are updated through games on March 10, 2019.