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Kevin Huerter on health, Atlanta’s next step, and addressing the Hawks’ defensive issues

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Huerter spoke with media (via Zoom) Monday afternoon in the last of the “exit” interviews for the Atlanta Hawks following the 2019-20 season. He spoke about what the Hawks need to do to transition from rebuilding to winning, how he’s feeling health wise after battling a knee injury for much of the season, and why it was important to him to participate in the peaceful march this morning with head coach Lloyd Pierce.

Perhaps most notably on a personal level was how Huerter spoke of his own health and the impact it had on the way he played this season.

“It did feel like (the injury) put me behind especially for probably I would say the first half of the season...for really only 20 games there I felt good,” Huerter said. “(I) didn’t think I was playing around the rim more, wasn’t getting by people the same way.”

Huerter missed all of the 2019-20 preseason battling a knee injury, and came off of the bench in favor of rookie Cam Reddish in the season-opening road win over the Detroit Pistons. He would wind up playing 56 of the 67 games this season, starting 48 contests.

“I really think just all year I didn’t feel as explosive as I felt during my rookie year,” Huerter continued. “You try not to use it as an excuse, you try not to talk about it, even during the season. I kept saying if I was healthy I’m going to play. Once I came back from the shoulder injury, I didn’t miss a game and I was doing all of my rehab. I was proud of that, just being able to be on the court. It was a thing I was dealing with for most of the year”

Huerter also spoke about how his knee has continued to progress in his extended rehab during the downtime.

“We think, knock on wood, we think we found the reason why it was hurting and we found things that help,” Huerter said. “I’m almost a year into it now since the original injury and I think I’ve done a lot of really good things, changed a lot of things about my life... how I eat, how I work out, how I recover, get treatment... I feel the healthiest I’ve been since I got drafted.”

Huerter adds that, not only is he feeling as healthy as he ever has in the NBA, but he’s also testing better than ever before as a pro.

“Looking at some of the numbers we do in the weight room to check up on progression and I’m jumping better than I was when I got drafted,” said Huerter. “I felt I was jumping really well when I got drafted, felt great, then felt like it was declining a little bit with those injuries, and now just a couple weeks ago it finally tested really well.”

Huerter also spoke about what the club needs to do to gel together and grow into a winning program after back-to-back seasons near the cellar of the NBA in terms of standings.

“It feels like in a lot of ways, I don’t want to say a new team, but it feels like we brought together a lot of players that we haven’t had the full chance to put together and figure out what’s going to work for us,” Huerter stated. “That starts with Clint (Capela), getting Dewayne (Dedmon) back. Really just having a full team. Moving forward, I’d imagine we’re going to sign guys (too)... I think we’re really just excited to put together a full team moving forward that’s now been together a couple years and wants to remove the ‘young’ label and wants to win.”

Huerter believes the Hawks are moving out of the ‘rebuilding’ phase and into a stage where they feel they can be one of the competitive teams in the Eastern Conference. Pierce made playoff declarations for the 2020-21 season after a March practice and the focus of the organization appears to be crystal clear entering this extremely non-traditional offseason period.

“We found a way to get younger last year from our first year,” Huerter said. “We brought on three more rookies (last season)...I think that’s our game moving forward is to get out of a rebuild process...I think moving forward hopefully that will change. We want to be a team that is competing and trying to play in the playoffs.”

Huerter cited defense as a key area of growth for the group as a whole. In the past two seasons, Atlanta’s offense has been strong when healthy behind the efforts of Trae Young, John Collins and supporting pieces such as Huerter. Going forward, the young wing believes the defensive end of the court will be crucial for Atlanta’s transition into a legitimate threat. The Hawks had the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA when play paused in March, and also ranked 28th in defensive rating during the 2018-19 season.

“Obviously I think defensively, we’ve got to get better. It’s changing a mindset. It was very easy for us sometimes to just try to outscore people,” said Huerter. “We can score, I feel like with anybody... but we didn’t always go back and compete on the other end... I don’t think we took enough pride in it, we’d just go back and try to score more than them on the other end. In a lot of ways, it’s a change of mentality. Winning teams play defense. I think we’re definitely capable, we showed different times in different games, at the end of games when we can put together a good defensive stretch when we need to but it just wasn’t consistent enough.”

With this being the last of the scheduled exit interviews for the Hawks, this represents some form of closure on the 2019-20 season. Attention can fully turn to August’s NBA Draft lottery, as that’s by far the most important date for the franchise in the somewhat near future.

Stay tuned for plenty of NBA Draft coverage over the next few months, as well as any updates on NBA-sanctioned offseason activities for teams not invited to Orlando.