Cam Reddish just can’t escape the fate of being a “third wheel.”
Despite being the third-ranked high school player in the country in 2018, Reddish decided to link up with the only two high schoolers in the nation ranked above him at Duke. In Durham, he ceded control of the offense to RJ Barrett and Tre Jones, without even mentioning the record-breaking efficiency of starlet Zion Williamson.
Fast forward a year, and Reddish is drafted by an Atlanta Hawks team with an established duopoly of Trae Young and John Collins. He even fell down to third priority in the wing rotation for Atlanta, starting in all but two of his first 17 career appearances, but came off the bench in just about half of his games — 22 of 41 to be exact or around 54% — down the stretch of the season.
Notably, shoulder and core injuries clearly plagued his development early in his professional career. An acromioclavicular (AC) joint sprain in his left shoulder that hindered his play at Duke continued to be a factor and a core muscle surgery caused him to miss out on the 2019 Summer League campaign.
There is no need to rehash what transpired for Reddish in 2019-20. His initial stumbles and subsequent upwards trajectory over the season was deeply chronicled by many. But in the wake of an abrupt ending to the Hawks’ season and the longest offseason imaginable, how can Reddish continue the promising momentum he created in the latter half of the previous season?
The easy answer is to build off of the positive habits he created by burying the negative ones that translated from Duke to his rookie season.
His shooting was an immediate worry upon arriving in the NBA, as a disappointing 33.3% shooting mark from three and 45.9% eFG in college indicated. This was all despite the immense gravity a star-studded Blue Devils lineup presented.
The results were chalked up as him being in a role he wasn’t used to in high school or AAU ball: spacing the floor off the ball. However, that narrative just wasn’t supported in 2019-20.
Reddish actually had a pretty good rookie season catching-and-shooting, tracking with the same upwards trend of the rest of his game. He recorded a solid 51.9 eFG% on shots without a dribble per NBA stats, which accounted for almost half of his attempts (43.7%).
So how exactly did Reddish finish with exactly the same 45.9 eFG% as he did in college? Plainly, his live dribble shooting held him back.
There were specific areas on the court, especially above the break from three and toward the right side of the floor, where he’s on his way. But overall, it was tough to climb out of the hole created by his early season shooting woes.
Here’s what it looks like in graphical form.
In order for Reddish to unlock his full potential as a two-way wing, he will need to optimize these opportunities when part of plays near the elbows and above the break. The story was told throughout the progression of his decision-making while conducting side pick-and-rolls.
Take early in the season, for example. Domantas Sabonis is a lot of things as a very skilled big man, but a rim protector he is not. In this road matchup with the Pacers, a drop coverage with the other three defenders on the opposite side of the court presents Reddish with a decision. Should he drive here, he may be able to get an easy attempt in the paint or find an open Hunter or Young around the arc.
Sadly, this was in the midst of a rough shooting slump to begin his career. Instead of choosing to get downhill, he takes a tough mid-range shot.
His typically mild-mannered demeanor can’t result in passivity here. Certainly, he had ample space but as an unproven shooter from that distance, that’s just no way to get your rhythm going.
Teams will continue to drop on screens and dare him to shoot unless he provides real improvement in his mid range pull up shooting. To counter, his aggression will be his best tool to get to spot when the defense is on their toes and get the rim when possible.
The January win in San Antonio was a signature win in an otherwise forgettable season for the Hawks, both for breaking an away losing streak that had stood since 1997 but also for being a breakout game for Reddish.
Here, Reddish is able to snake the pick-and-roll opportunity, even with an extra help defender present, and finish with a floater.
Defensively, there were generally more positive indicators than negative. He already has a good ability to anticipate swing and outlet passes and jump in front of them.
Creating havoc off the ball is a major plus going forward for Reddish with his massive 7’1” wingspan. Totaling his blocks, steals, and deflections for this past season gave him a havoc rate of 5.3 disruptive plays per 36 minutes. 3.2 of these were deflections as logged by NBA stats. This placed him in the top 20 in the league for all players with at least 1500 minutes played, and the highest among rookies.
Again, it is instructive to illustrate this in a pick-and-roll sequence, this time with Reddish as the primary defender on a double screen. He fights well to stay on the hip of the ball handler, Bryn Forbes, then sags back toward the rolling Jacob Poeltl in conjunction with the hard show by Damian Jones. What I like even more than the live ball turnover forced here is pushing the ball in transition forcing the Spurs to foul.
Still, the defensive motor came and went along with the rest of the young team. Reddish may prove to be too tall at 6'8" to cross-match and guard smaller and shiftier guards. The answer to defending the point of attack increasingly looks like it doesn't currently exist on a roster that finished 28th in defensive efficiency.
Hype works in a weird way. Would we look at Reddish the same way if he took the league by storm in the first half of the season and cooled down later on? What if he weren’t a lottery draft pick or a consensus five-star recruit in high school? This is an instance where it is best to keep the season in full view, as a larger sample size tends to result in better judgement.
In order for Reddish to make a continued leap, he will need to truly create for himself and others efficiently. Per the NBA’s official stats portal, Reddish only created 5.1 points off assists per 36 minutes, below all of his major wing compadres on Atlanta’s roster — Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and DeAndre’ Bembry.
In addition to the live ball improvement areas mentioned above, Reddish needs to use his handle and big wing frame to draw more fouls to better up his efficiency. His free throw rate — a ratio of free throws per field goal attempt — was just .23, compared to a league average of .26.
Adjusting to the physicality of the NBA game and playing through contact to get to spots on the floor will come in time. But that must be paired with the confidence to take over games consistently over an 82-game season.
Finally, it may be time to put to bed the dreams of Reddish becoming a true point forward, barring the game slowing down for him significantly and his field of vision expanding greatly. Even taking from January forward where he emerged into a real force, Reddish averaged just 1.3 assists in 27.7 minutes per game.
Maybe the third time’s the charm.