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Atlanta Hawks 2019-20 Player Preview: Kevin Huerter

A core member of the Hawks’ future, Huerter looks to progress on his strong rookie season

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s weird to think that one game was the difference between Kevin Huerter becoming a member of the Atlanta Hawks and another team, with the play-in match between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves ultimately deciding whether or not the Timberwolves made the playoffs or not.

Of course, we know what happened: the Wolves won, the pick conveyed to the Hawks and, with it, selected Kevin Huerter with the No. 19 overall pick.

Huerter enjoyed a strong rookie season, one in which he became a starter and a member of the Hawks’ promising backcourt of the future, partnering Trae Young in that regard.

For a rookie wing who shot the ball well in college, Huerter’s shooting numbers translated well in his rookie season: 37 percent from three-point range for a high-volume shooter is impressive, attempting 4.7 threes per game.

Throughout the year, the coaching staff continued to encourage Huerter to let it fly, even if he was struggling on a given night. It was this that allowed Huerter to continue to grow.

“...I just kept getting the opportunity,” said Huerter during the Hawks’ exit interview in April. “There are so many rookies who just haven’t gotten the same opportunity, being on teams who have guys at their position already, teams who are trying to win, trying to make the playoffs that year. The best thing I got this year was opportunity to just keep getting my rhythm back and prove myself.”

Heading into his second season, the objective for Huerter is very clear, one he outlaid himself during his exit interview: his desire to get stronger.

“...the summer will be [about] getting stronger and trying to get better,” said Huerter.

Huerter’s ability to take contact and finish around/near the rim is the next step to unlocking his offensive game, with his outside shooting likely to improve heading into his second season.

A look at Huerter’s shot chart from his rookie season outlines why it’s a particular area of focus this summer.

In an interview with Alex Kennedy of HoopsHype at the beginning of September, it would appear that Huerter has enjoyed a productive summer working to improve in this regard.

“I’ve been working on a lot of finishing,” said Huerter. “Just taking hits and bumps and still being able to finish through contact. I’ve been working on my footwork and different finishes around the rim...”

Huerter did show moments around the rim last season, his size and length help in that regard as he displays on this play:

He also showed some bounce that would’ve surprised people, as shown by this dunk against Chicago:

If Huerter is able to take contact more effectively and finish around the rim more efficiently, it helps open up Huerter’s game that little bit more — he’s not an elite slasher and screens help him to get the rim but if he can improve in his efficiency at the rim, it’s a plus for everyone.

It would also open up a few more opportunities such as this one, where the defense gives Huerter enough space to go to a push-shot to score on this play:

If Huerter’s summer work translates onto the court this season and he can improve his efficiency near the rim it would also, more than likely, help boost Huerter’s free throw rate — attempting just 0.7 free throws per game last season and getting to the line a little more often would certainly help boost Huerter’s points per game total. Every bit helps.

Huerter’s lack of free throws was something Lloyd Pierce spoke about during the exit interview’s saying that Huerter’s total of 56 free throw attempts on the season was “not enough”.

Of course, Huerter has also been working on his shooting throughout the summer.

“...I’ve also worked on shooting off-the-dribble, catching-and-shooting, shooting after running off screens, shooting off of handoffs – a lot of different looks to get into my shot,” continued Huerter. “I want to get better at every type of look that we might be using in our offense.”

After shooting a strong 37% from three for a rookie wing, the next obvious target for Huerter to hit with his outside shooting is the widely-considered successful clip of 40% from three.

It’s certainly a realistic goal for Huerter to reach. His volume of attempts outside is already pretty high, shooting 4.7 threes per game in his rookie season and while that may increase, it probably won’t increase a ton, giving Huerter’s percentage plenty of room to grow if, again, the summer work translates to the court.

But Huerter is looking to be more than just a shooter in this league — he wants to be known as something more than just a shooter.

“As a player, I want to be more of a complete package rather than just being known as a three-point shooter,” said Huerter to HoopsHype. “Coming out of college, I got the Kyle Korver and JJ Redick comparisons pretty quickly. Those guys are unbelievable, but, for me, I’m looking more toward guys like Bradley Beal and Gordon Hayward and Klay Thompson since those guys do a little bit more off-the-dribble than Kyle and JJ and they have more of a complete game. I look at those guys and try to study their different moves, how they get shots off, where they get their shots and things like that.”

An interesting quote, and the Hayward comparison is interesting seeing as Hayward is a 36% career three-point shooter (including 33% last year as he came back from his gruesome leg injury) and, you would imagine, that Huerter will become a much better pure shooter than Hayward, though Hayward’s offensive game outside of shooting is far more advanced than Huerter’s — not a comparison I would’ve rushed to but alas...

However, the one thing in common nearly all of those players Huerter mentioned by name is that they all basically shoot above 45% from the field, whereas Huerter shot a hair under 42% in his rookie season — that will have to improve in year two.

And it might be a little harder to achieve than 40% from three.

While Huerter’s three-point attempts may not increase dramatically (making any possible percentage increase more achievable, in theory), his 8.8 field goal attempts per game more than likely will increase, and an increase of field goal percentage in conjunction with a considerable increase in field goal attempts might be difficult to achieve.

Regardless, the fact is that Huerter’s game does gear more towards your Bradley Beal’s and Klay Thompson’s (on a lesser scale, those are both All-Stars/All-NBA calibre players) than a pure shooter like Kyle Korver, because Huerter — as we saw — has the ability to make plays and tally assists, 2.9 in his rookie season.

Huerter showed good feel and ability, and you would imagine the Hawks want to tap further into this in the upcoming season. If Huerter can further his ability to make plays — or the Hawks even just enlarge his playmaking responsibilities — it gives the Hawks the option to deploy Young more off of the ball and gives the Hawks some different offensive options should they want to explore different avenues, should they want to do that.

Huerter’s assist-to-turnover ratio is positive: 1.96 with an assist percentage of 13.9 percent and with the ability to make passes like this, it’s unsurprising why the Hawks would possibly look to involve Huerter more in a playmaking role.

This next play might prove to be an outlier for the season to come, as Huerter links up with John Collins in the pick-and-roll, finding Collins for the oop:

Again, we’ll see how the Hawks roll with Huerter’s playmaking in Year 2 but the capabilities are certainly there for Huerter to thrive.

All in all, there’s quite a bit of pressure on Huerter heading into his second NBA campaign. Expectations for the season are high and Huerter, like Young and Collins alike, is expected to make progress. The Hawks have a difficult start to the schedule and if Huerter struggles out of the gate, there will be those who won’t be satisfied, but that won’t necessarily reflect Huerter has put in this summer. It’s also important to remember Huerter just turned 21: still very young and there will be some growing pains, especially since his offensive role is set to expand.

Things change quickly in the NBA and sometimes everyone can get carried away with titles like ‘backcourt of the future’ (remember the Boston Celtics ‘backcourt of the future’ of Marcus Smart and James Young after the 2014 draft? Yeah...) but a strong season from Kevin Huerter would all but secure his status as a future running mate next to Trae Young in the Hawks’ backcourt of the future. Regression opens the door for someone else to step in but, as it should be, optimism surrounding Huerter is very high.

“I think I have a lot (of untapped potential),” said Huerter. “There were definitely certain games last year where I showed that. I’m honestly just becoming more comfortable in the NBA, gaining more confidence in myself and working on different stuff. I think I should continue to show that. This has been a great summer for me. I feel like I’ve worked on a lot and changed my body a little bit. I’m ready to build upon last year and make a bit of a bigger jump, for sure.”