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Just how badly have the Hawks missed De’Andre Hunter?

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Since losing De’Andre Hunter to a meniscus injury in the beginning of February, the Atlanta Hawks have gone 6-11 and have seemingly been unable to replace Hunter’s improved production earlier this year.

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Going into the 2020-21 season, most fans of the Atlanta Hawks were itching to see if Cam Reddish would take that next big step forward on the path to realizing his tantalizing potential. Few could have predicted that it would be De’Andre Hunter who would burst onto the scene, demonstrating why the Hawks took a chance on him by offering significant value to trade up to the fourth spot in the 2019 NBA Draft. In fact, there is no better indicator of Hunter’s recent success than his addition to the 2021 Rising Stars roster.

With the addition of wing/forward depth pieces during the offseason like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Tony Snell, and Danilo Gallinari, the prevailing expectation was that Hunter’s minutes per game would decrease from the lofty 32.0 mark he finished with in his rookie year. What quickly became apparent to those watching the Hawks was that Hunter was not only ready for the same workload as last year, but indeed quite a lot more.

Hunter showed marked improvements in shot creation, shooting efficiency, and playmaking, all while frequently taking the most difficult defensive assignment. Unfortunately, that rapidly rising trajectory was put on pause as Hunter underwent a meniscus debridement procedure to arthroscopically remove damaged meniscus tissue from his knee, leaving him with a projected recovery of seven to ten weeks (we’re coming up to the five-week mark as of the writing of this piece).

Since Hunter’s injury, one pervasive theory for why the Hawks have struggled is that they have failed to replicate the unique ways in which he helped them earlier in the season. The Hawks record without Hunter (6-11) certainly supports that theory. Here, we’ll attempt to define Hunter’s impact before his injury through both quantitative and qualitative methods (analytics & film, respectively), and then we’ll validate if that impact really has been missing since his absence.

If you’d like a little soundtrack while you read, here is the album I was listening to while working on this piece.

What do the numbers say?

Before we dive into the statistics there’s a “grain of salt” disclaimer: Hunter only played 18 games before his injury, so it stands to reason that some of these numbers would level out over a larger sample (it’s also feasible, however, that they wouldn’t). Purely from a per game standpoint, it’s clear that Hunter took a huge step forward in his production, increasing his per game counting stats in nearly every category from last year.

Looking at his efficiency, Hunter improved his TS% from 52.1% to 64.0%, and (perhaps most revealing) he saw an absurd jump in PER from 8.6 to 17.5. A few other notable stats to point out: his Win Shares increased by 1.7 and he went from a negative VORP to a positive one (Value Over Replacement Player is built from Box Plus Minus, but it adjusts for playing time). The WS growth was largely due to improved OWS, meaning that Hunter produced a far greater number of points per possession than last season, when adjusted for league average points per possession. Generally, when we see these types of huge leaps in production-oriented advanced metrics, it’s indicative of a breakout season.

The growth in PER, WS, and VORP is particularly telling in an impact analysis because each of those statistics are adjusted against league averages in efficiency, production, and minutes. Digging deeper into the WS analysis, we can see that Hunter’s growth has largely been on the offensive side of the ball, that said Hunter was already a talented perimeter defender, especially as a team defender given his defensive versatility. While he improved as a scorer, it didn’t come at the expense of his defensive responsibilities.

Just in case those advanced stats didn’t do it for you, here are some more game flow statistics that should help contextualize just how much Hunter grew as a scorer. For me personally, when I watched Hunter this season, I was most impressed by his growth into a three-level scorer; the best way to validate that theory is to look at the shooting splits.

On shots in the 16-24 ft. range, Hunter’s FG% improved from 42.1% to 60.0% (!!!). On shots in the 8-16 ft. range, his FG% improved from 41.6 to 51.5%, and in the <8 ft. range it improved from 47.8% to 65.3%. It’s clear that Hunter’s skills as a shot-creator improved dramatically, but he also seemed to be making strides defensively before his injury. Looking at some similar statistics but on the defensive side of the ball, his defensive FG% dropped from 48.2% in 2019-20 to 41.9% this season, and DFG% on shots less than 6 ft. dropped from 70.2% to 61.2%.

These numbers are likely the most susceptible to the “sample size” disclaimer, however that shouldn’t diminish anything that Hunter accomplished in those first 18 games he played before going down. So, now that we’ve looked at the statistical case, let’s take a look at some good old-fashioned film to confirm if our theories are supported by game action.

Does it show up in the film?

As fun as it is digging into the numbers and finding evidence for your claims, ultimately it needs to be backed up by film. An analysis that lacks the supporting film is only half-baked and fails to adequately highlight the context of why the numbers look the way they do. So, we’re going to dive into a few of Hunter’s best games and see if we can back up what the numbers tell us.

Brooklyn Nets (Jan. 1)

Hunter’s first true breakout game was on New Year’s Day against the Brooklyn Nets, the Hawks fifth game of the season. Hunter finished with 23 points on 9/10 shooting, six rebounds and three 3-pointers.

To contextualize Hunter’s place in the rotation, and his central role on defense, here’s a clip showing his defensive matchup on the first offensive possession for the (then James Harden-less) Brooklyn Nets. We see a defensive game plan that was agreed upon before the game, Hunter and Reddish would start on Kyrie and KD and switch on actions involving those two.

On the very next play after the above clip, we immediately see the confidence from Hunter to create his own shot and finish in that tricky in-between space. This is the type of finishing that Hunter didn’t exhibit last season, and the Hawks desperately need this season. Granted, this was against Joe Harris, but Hunter shows the willingness to attack that closeout and finish with touch from five feet away.

Hunter’s versatility was incredibly valuable for the Hawks before his injury. In the next clip, he’s playing in the PF spot on the floor with Capela, Young, Huerter, and Bogdanovic. This is a read option for Hunter, he has the DHO (dribble hand-off) with Young, which he declines. The next read is a 4/5 PnR (Pick & Roll), and he’s facing down Kevin Durant (Brooklyn’s best defensive player on the floor) and DeAndre Jordan.

He doesn’t hesitate to attack when Durant fails to get over the pick with urgency, and Hunter shows us that much improved touch around the basket with a crafty finish. There’s a lot that he does well here, but the main takeaway should be that he acted as a playmaker, ball handler, and finisher. This was a productive possession where Young was able to simply act as a diversion. This opens up so much for the Hawks offensively.

Just watch and tell me who else on the Hawks can create like this after Young gets stuck in one of those holes he dribbles himself into. With Hunter injured, that same play ends with Danilo Gallinari shooting a contested 3. In this clip, we see Hunter get to his spot and knock down a tough jumper in Irving’s grill.

To really drive home the point, I compiled an extended compilation of a few key impact moments (mostly defensively) that came at pivotal spots in the game when the Nets were most likely to mount a comeback and flip the momentum (which has happened consistently to the Hawks recently). The Nets got closest to the Hawks lead at the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third, where the game bounced between a 13 and six-point deficit for the Nets.

There’s a lot to breakdown in the clip below. But, the key point that I want to highlight is all of the little things that Hunter does to impact the game defensively. First, he’s hustling after a ball and forcing the opposing player to make a rushed decision, leading to a tough shot. Then he’s guarding KD in the post, probably one of the toughest defensive spots to be in, but Hunter offers great resistance inside and KD’s forced to kick out for a contested Joe Harris three. Hunter secures the rebound to end the possession in both situations.

Similar activity and high-energy defense against Irving, who immediately is forced to throw it back out because of that pressure causing a bad pass turnover on the re-post. And of course, there’s a beautiful pull-up 3, making the defense pay for dropping in the PnR. All those plays were key in staving off a potent offense. Of course, the Nets missed shots that they might otherwise make, but Hunter’s energy, activity, and attention to detail make all the difference.

Remember that rant Lloyd Pierce went on where he broke down all the things that the Hawks needed to do defensively to make their opponents “feel them?” Well, Hunter does a lot of those little things, and they really do make a huge difference when it counts.

Milwaukee Bucks (Jan. 24)

I wanted to share a game where the Hawks lost, particularly against a good opponent like Milwaukee, to understand if there was anything qualitatively different about the nature of that loss when compared to the way the Hawks have lost games since Hunter went down. It’s important to note that Trae Young was out in this game against the Bucks. Hunter put up 33 points on 13/21 (61.9%) from the field, four rebounds, and four assists.

At one point in this game, the Hawks were down by 24, and basically trailed the entire game. It was not a good game for Atlanta (to be expected without Young), but the closest they got to Milwaukee was cutting the lead to eight points in the middle of the third quarter, and the beginning of the fourth; I’m going to focus on the third quarter push because that was when Hunter’s impact was most palpable. Hunter had nine of his 33 points in the third quarter and all of them before the five-minute mark when the Hawks got closest to the Bucks.

The first play is a Pick and Pop (PnP) with Gallinari, so Hunter gets the reigning DPOY Giannis Antetokounmpo switched onto him. Normally, you would not attack that matchup, but Hunter is confident with a breakdown behind-the-back dribble, which he uses to gather into a one-dribble pull up jumper.

I will be the first one to tell you that this is not a “good” shot from an analytics standpoint, but it demonstrates Hunter’s increased confidence, his improved shot creation, and once again this is a productive possession where Hunter controlled the ball the whole way. He’s on the floor with Rondo, Huerter, Gallinari, & Collins, but Hunter is leading the offense. And just in case it didn’t register earlier, that’s Giannis Antetokounmpo.

At this point in the game, it became clear that Hunter was the primary offensive engine with Young not in the game. And Hunter was finding success in that role. Look at the comfort level on this step-back jumper created in an ISO against Khris Middleton. This is high-level shot creation, and Hunter categorically did not have this in his bag last season.

After nailing a wide-open 3-pointer, the Hawks went to Hunter again for an important bucket to bring them within ten points of the Bucks. Hunter shows so many new skills in this clip. First, he has the patience to wait for DiVincenzo to commit to a direction on the Collins screen. Once DiVincenzo forces into help, Hunter immediately moves into that space, getting Lopez to step up.

Again, Hunter demonstrates great patience to cross over, put DiVincenzo in jail on his back, then pump fake twice to get Lopez in the air, finishing with that crafty touch again. Hunter created for himself with the kind of advanced shot creation that the Hawks have missed so desperately since his injury.

There weren’t a ton of great defensive highlights for Hunter in this one, but I wanted to touch on a couple of clips. Yes, in the first highlight Hunter does get dunked on, but he rotated correctly and was in the right position at the right time. Sure, Giannis scored, but if that’s someone other than the two-time MVP, that’s a much more difficult shot, and probably a miss.

In the second highlight, Hunter is active in the passing lane collapsing on the Giannis roll, who makes an amazing pass out to Lopez. Hunter is paying attention and is quick to contest the open 3 pointer, resulting in a miss for Lopez. These little things really do make all the difference, and that attention to detail is exactly what the Hawks have been missing.

Assessing the Hawks without Hunter

As mentioned above, the Hawks are 6-11 since Hunter went down with a meniscus injury. Let’s evaluate some of the advanced stats comparing the Hawks with and without Hunter.

Per NBA.com, from Dec. 23 to Jan. 31, the Hawks were 10-9, had a 111.2 ORTG and 108.4 DRTG for a +2.7 Net Rating, good for the ninth in the NBA at the time. In the time since Hunter’s injury (after Feb. 1), the Hawks had a ORTG of 114.6 and a DRTG of 117.2 for a Net Rating of -2.6 (No. 22 in the NBA).

With Hunter, the Hawks opponent eFG% was second-best in the NBA at 50.3%, since then it’s at 53.8% which is No. 16 in the NBA. Obviously, it’s foolish to attribute all of that to Hunter, but it helps contextualize just how bad it really has been for the Hawks since Hunter went down.

It can also be helpful to look at lineup numbers (it’s important to look at total minutes to better understand sample). When sorting for lineups with greater than 15 minutes played together, the two best lineups by +/- are still Hunter lineups (see below). That top lineup (Capela, Collins, Huerter, Young, Hunter) still is second of all Hawks lineups in lowest Opp eFG% (first place lineup has about only 25 minutes logged) at 42.7% in 94 minutes, that lineup also had +15.5 Net Rating.

Even when just comparing the advanced statistics for the highest minutes lineup without Hunter against the highest minutes lineup with Hunter. It’s clear that the Hunter lineup is better by pretty much every metric.

Even when breaking down the film, it’s clear that the things that Hunter does best are the things that the Hawks have struggled with most in his absence. Take a look at my Film Session piece, and you’ll see that the Hawks have struggled in games where they haven’t been able to stop offenses at the Point of Attack. They’re prone to making small mistakes (especially on defense) that add up when it really counts. They’ve also seriously struggled to find creativity on offense when the ball isn’t in Trae Young’s hands.

Conclusion

Hunter was well on his way to providing all those things for the Hawks and it was working, with his contributions showing up in the box score and in the W/L column. Without Hunter, the Hawks have seemed wayward, lacking polish on defense and missing a secondary shot creator.

Obviously, there are confounding variables that have to be contended with such as other important injuries to key rotational pieces. But fundamentally, when answering the question of just how much the Hawks have missed Hunter, it’s clear and convincing that they’ve missed him a lot.

It’s been a struggle for fans to watch; it’s certainly been tough on the team and the players. But, Hunter’s injury is not the type to have a lasting impact despite the long recovery period. So, it’s very likely that he continues on the same trajectory when he returns. I also believe that having Hunter at his best helps Reddish carve out the space he needs for continued development. Today, Reddish is struggling with the increased workload where he gets caught forcing it too much on both sides of the ball. Gallinari and Collins benefit from Hunter’s defensive coverage on rotations when they get beat by a guard after switching. Even the lineup decisions deployed by the coaching staff become much easier when you have the offensive and defensive versatility of Hunter at your disposal. Overall, there’s more here for Hawks fans to be hopeful for than to be concerned about, and I personally am eagerly looking forward to Hunter’s continued progression when he returns.