After taking a sizable step backward last season following their 2021 run to the Eastern Conference finals, the Atlanta Hawks have pursued putting together a significantly top-heavier roster than they’ve had the last couple of seasons. Part of this is the result of having a young core transitioning toward mid-career seasons and how that positions them against the salary cap and tax. Further, it’s the natural outcome of investing significant resources into the team’s starting back court with the acquisition of Dejounte Murray and his pairing with Trae Young.
Suddenly, the Hawks are thin at the wing and power forward positions. Gone are a pair of rotation staples in Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari. The Cam Reddish experiment ended in the middle of last season. And with Bogdan Bogdanovic coming off a June knee surgery, it’s hard to forecast a reasonable workload to expect from him.
The roster replacements bring a valuable amount of experience, but the result is a sizable downgrade offensively. And youngsters Jalen Johnson, entering his second season, and AJ Griffin, a rookie, might have a lot of upside but it remains to be seen whether they will be reliable rotation pieces of any sort this year.
As such, it’s undeniable that a lot of the Hawks success this season is riding on the play of De’Andre Hunter. Entering his fourth season, the former number four overall pick is extension eligible regarding which no agreement has been reached. Part of the reason is likely that he took a step back in a couple of important areas last season with his injury history also being a factor.
Hunter entered the league with an impressively polished face-up game and managed to build on that to become a reliable creator in the midrange where he shot 52% during the 2021-2022 season but, on a significantly larger sample, regressed to a 41% shooting performance last season. It’s important to note that the Hawks, holistically, attacked 1-on-1 matchups a lot more last season as they saw less drop coverage and more switching.
Clearly, this had a negative impact on Hunter’s overall offensive performance. He’s not suited to use a dribble to create separation versus defenders apart from mismatch opportunities. In previous seasons Hunter was often given chances, starting early in the shot clock, to attack mismatches. Last year these touches usually came later in the shot clock and versus like-sized defenders.
In first two seasons in the league, he had regular opportunities to attack opposing point guards and bigs as teamed crossmatched bigger defenders onto Trae Young. Teams abandoned the crossmatch strategy last year as they would increasingly relied on switching.
His difficulty creating his best shots, as the season went on, seemed to make him increasingly deliberate as a decision maker. His free throw rate fell off quite a bit as he stopped attacking with the dribble and became hesitant to be aggressive near the rim.
Down the stretch of the season, he had to play more minutes at power forward due to the injury absence of John Collins. This diluted his defensive value, he is best guarding on ball, while also rendering him invisible as a rebounder when operating against power forward and centers.
He had his best season shooting from three-point line (37.9%) last year but one hopes it doesn’t further encourage him to be passive attacking defenders that he should be able to work past with a dribble.
In light of the context of how last season went for Hunter, it’s not hard to see why sides haven’t found an agreeable number for a contract extension. Regardless of whether an agreement is reached prior to the start of the season, it’s clear that for the Hawks, a there is a tremendous dependency on Hunter elevating his play this season.
If it works, what might that look like?
It may seem counter-intuitive, but it probably starts with playing smaller, more versatile lineups with more frequency that allows them to play faster. Hunter isn’t a reliable producer in transition, but at his best he quickly identifies when he has a matchup that he can attack early in the shot clock.
Further, the presence of Murray should reduce the general creation burden on Hunter and let him focus on putting his best skills to work. In three years, Hunter has operated in “slot pick and roll” quite heavily, which had its value from a developmental standpoint but it’s probably time to pull the plug on that, especially considering the Murray addition.
Lineups with Hunter at power forward and either Collins or Onyeka Okongwu at center should be able to smoke traditional front courts from a speed and pace standpoint while offering scheme versatility on the defensive end. And the rebounding worries can potentially be offset a bit with presence of Murray (8.3 rebounds per game last season).
Atlanta also needs to go back to generating more off-screen opportunities for Hunter. They’ve understandably allocated a lot of that workload for Bogdanovic and Huerter in recent seasons. As Hunter’s opportunities in this area were deprioritized his effectiveness dipped.
They used to run a lot of “exit” action for him as to generate shots in the corners but last year they usually relied on “strong” action to lift him from the corner across multiple screens to set him up to read the play. Hunter needs screens designed to create shots for him more reliably than it creates reads. He’s significantly more decisive as an individual shot creator than as a player initiating the offense.
The Hawks also need to use Hunter more in wing-guard pick and roll action giving Hunter opportunities to work off a screen into space and leverage. He could be their most functional player in “short roll” actions whether he’s working with Young or Murray. Hunter’s wired to see leverage and attack. Not so much to read a completely set defense and look for some way to get the offense initiated.
Defensively, Atlanta needs to get him back on ball and defending more often at the point of attack. This is regardless of what position he is playing in any given lineup.
This is where Murray could help unlock some Hunter value also. Although a bit counterintuitive because of his slight frame, Murray is actually a more reliable defender versus bigger players. He’s an incredibly strong and physical defender (just watch him function as a rebounder). He’s also more disruptive working off the ball. He led the league in deflections and steals last season with a lot of that work coming jumping passing lanes.
If there are reasons to be optimistic about Hunter entering the coming season Murray is probably the first one. For all the focus around how he will compliment Young, he actually fits Hunter incredibly well. And that may be a significant factor.
Next, while the Huerter trade was curious from a value standpoint, it could lead to a more reliable offensive role for Hunter especially as he works alongside Young and Murray and their ability to initiate the offense.
If all goes well, things will still come down to Hunter having a healthy season. One reason to be hopeful about that is that the Hawks (and most of the rest of the league) will be coming off their first “normal” offseason since Hunter entered the league as a rookie.
A lot for the Hawks, and their roster, is riding on Hunter and these dynamics. But, depth questions aside, there are some reasons to be hopeful that Hunter is headed for his best season yet