Having dropped their last four games in a row and six out of their last seven, the Atlanta Hawks can feel the pressure mounting. While they have not had the easiest schedule (their last four games have come against Milwaukee, Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Denver), and were missing Trae Young in Philadelphia, De’Andre Hunter against Denver, and have been without Jalen Johnson since November 25th, losing is never fun and has a tendency to breed panic in and around the team.
Given the current state of the fanbase, I’d like to take this opportunity to remind everyone that we are just over a quarter of the way into the NBA season, Atlanta has 60 games left to play — more than enough time left to right the ship. While their recent play has not inspired too much confidence, there are few greater joys in basketball than watching a talented team put the pieces together, flip the switch, and turn into a powerhouse. We are still in the early days of the Quin Snyder era. Rome wasn’t built in a day. I will happily buy up any Hawks’ stock that is being sold at the moment.
In a recent interview with The Athletic (subscription required), Snyder said of his team:
“They’ve bought in, they’re working, practicing hard, hitting the film. Everybody has been absolutely coachable. I think we’re learning. I’m trying to evolve a team. Sometimes the things that help you do that are the difficult stretches.”
Atlanta has an opportunity to get back to winning ways tonight against Toronto.
Now onto the meat and potatoes of the article. As I mentioned in the heading, this is the first of a three-part series I’ll be doing over the next week or two, where I do a deep dive into each of the rotation players in Atlanta’s positional groupings (guards, forwards, bigs) this season. Today I’m focusing on the team’s forwards.
With apologies to AJ Griffin, Garrison Mathews and Wesley Matthews, I’ve only done deep dives on the players who have played 150 minutes or more this season, and while Matthews (Wesley) in particular has seen some more playing time in Jalen Johnson’s absence, none of these players met the “150 minutes played” threshold, so I just decided to include their stats for the season in the table below.
Ooph. Not pretty.
Let’s dig into the number’s for the rest of Atlanta’s forwards.
Jalen Johnson: Opponents Are Shooting 7.5% Worse At The Rim With Johnson On The Floor
Prior to the season, we discussed how Jalen Johnson’s playmaking, transition scoring ability, and defensive activity set him apart from others at his position. We noted that while Jalen had improved vastly last year, he is far from a finished product, and a few areas of his game that could use a bit of work were his off-the-dribble shot creation, outside shooting touch, and his tendency to commit fouls on the defensive side of the floor.
Before going down with a wrist injury* against the Wizards on November 25th, Johnson had been enjoying an outstanding start to the 2023-24 season — providing a resounding answer to the questions around who would replace John Collins’ minutes and production at the starting power forward position this year.
*left distal radius fracture to be precise. You can (put your stethoscope on and) read more about what that means at the link provided.
Through the first 15 games, Johnson had been averaging 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists, one steal and 1.1 blocks in nearly 30 minutes a night. He was shooting 66% on 2’s (up from 58.7% last season), 42.5% from three-point range (up from 28.8% last season), and 75.8% from the free-throw line (up from 62.8% last season). His eFG% (65.4%) currently ranks 9th amongst all non-centers in the NBA*.
*who have played at least 10 min/game in at least 10 games this season (316 players)
Additionally, Johnson had been one of Atlanta’s best defenders this season, maintaining his impressive steal and block percentages from last season while cutting his foul rate down from 4.4%* to 2.8%**. Per cleaningtheglass, the Hawks’ net rating is 8.4 points-per-100-possessions better with Johnson on the floor, an on/off efficiency differential which ranks in the 82nd percentile in the league, with nearly all of that impact coming on the defensive end of the floor.
*19th percentile amongst forwards in 2022-23, per cleaningtheglass.com
**64th percentile amongst forwards in 2023-24, per cleaningtheglass.com
While Johnson has gotten lost a few times when defending off-ball this season, his athleticism and defensive instincts help make him one of the best rim protectors at the forward position in the entire league. Hawks’ opponent’s are shooting 7.5% worse at the rim when Johnson is in the game — the best differential on the team by over 4%(!), and a mark which ranks in the 92nd percentile amongst all NBA players*.
*Per lineup data from cleaningtheglass, opponents are shooting 62.6% at the rim (shots within 4-feet of the basket) with Johnson in the game this season, a figure which ranks in the 75th percentile relative to lineups with at least 100 possessions played this season. When Johnson is not in the game, opponent’s are shooting 70.1% at the rim (13th percentile). His impact in this area is immense.
Here, Embiid whips a pass to Robert Covington, who is lurking in the weakside corner. Trae Young gets a hand on the pass (which probably saves a corner-3), but the pass still makes it through to Covington, who drives baseline for what looks like an easy layup with Capela occupied by Embiid on the other side of the lane. What Covington doesn’t notice is Jalen Johnson underneath the basket, sizing up his shot attempt from the very moment he puts the ball on the floor. Jalen does an excellent job waiting for Covington to leave his feet then explodes into the air and erases the shot attempt. Great defense.
In this clip, Josh Giddey is in attack mode, sizing up Dejounte Murray with just 5 seconds left on the shot clock. Giddey gets into the paint thinking he just has to get his floater up and over Murray to get the bucket, however Jalen is just one man away, and with the clock running down, anticipates Giddey’s shot attempt and proceeds to swat the ball into the Thunder’s bench. Atlanta’s defense has not been great this season, so having a player like Johnson who can help protect the rim whenever their perimeter defense is compromised is invaluable for this team.
Yet another fantastic “help defense” play from Jalen. Brooklyn quickly gets into a dribble hand off action between Nic Claxton and Mikal Bridges. Okongwu helps cut off Bridges’ drive to the rim while De’Andre Hunter recovers, so Bridges throws a lob up to Claxton. Johnson shows off his athleticism once again, making it from one side of the basket to the other in the blink of an eye to meet Claxton at the rim.
Hawks’ fans certainly miss seeing Jalen flying around the court, in constant pursuit of a transition slam, however the biggest area where his loss has been felt is on the defensive end of the court, specifically: protecting the rim.
Saddiq Bey: Hawks’ Offensive Rebounding Percentage Increases by 7.8% With Bey On The Floor
In the midst of the final year of his rookie contract and his first full season with the Atlanta Hawks, this is undoubtedly an important year for Saddiq Bey. The former first-round pick has provided the team with steady production at both forward spots since being acquired at last season’s trade deadline, and has averaged 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists and a steal per game in a little over 30 minutes a night through the first 22 games of the 2023-24 season.
Best known for his outside shooting ability, Bey has been shooting the three-ball at a 39.4% clip on 4.3 attempts per game this season and is knocking down 43.6% of his wide-open* threes, which forces opposing defenders to keep a close eye on him in the half-court:
*how nba.com/stats denotes field goal attempts without a defender within 6-feet of the shooter
And makes him a lethal threat in transition:
Per cleaningtheglass, Atlanta is outscoring their opponents by 3.3 points per 100 possessions when Bey is in the game, and his on/off efficiency differential (+7.5) ranks in the 79th percentile amongst all players with (in contrast to Jalen Johnson) all of that impact coming on the offensive end of the court*. Still, Bey’s offensive impact is likely a known commodity, and since the article is titled one niche number for each Hawks’ rotation player, the niche number I’d like to highlight for Saddiq is his offensive rebounding impact.
*Atlanta’s offensive rating has improved by 8.9 points per 100 possessions with Bey on the floor this season, while their defensive rating increases (gets worse) by 1.4 points per 100 possessions.
Atlanta is rebounding 34.3% of their misses*, and go from an okay offensive rebounding team to a great offensive rebounding team when Bey is in the ball-game, as their offensive rebounding percentage increases by 7.8% with him on the court. This impact ranks in the 98th percentile amongst all players, and is quite astonishing when you consider the fact that Bey barely affected his team’s offensive rebounding ability during his time in Detroit.
*which ranks in the 95th percentile relative to lineups with at least 100 possessions played this season.
Bey is averaging 2.1 offensive rebounds per game this season, the 8th highest mark amongst non-centers, and has just 3 fewer offensive rebounds in total than the 7’4” Victor Wembanyama at this point in the season*. His offensive rebounding impact is not driven by him being paired with one of Atlanta’s two centers either, as you can see in the table below:
*This is largely due to the fact that the Spurs have been playing Wembanyama on the perimeter more, with Zach Collins manning the 5 for the early part of the season. While Bey has been good, with Wembanyama shifting up to the 5 in San Antonio’s past two games, I would be astounded if this gap doesn’t expand as the season progresses.
Offensive rebounds are great for the offense (more offensive possessions = good!), and are also backbreakers for opposing defenses, as defenders think that they’ve done their job by forcing a miss, only to see their opponents pounce on the ball to get another bite at the apple. While Bey is shooting just 50% on putbacks so far this season, his offensive rebounding prowess helps tilt the field-goal-attempt battle in Atlanta’s favor, and is truly an underrated aspect of his game.
As a great player once said, “the board man gets paid”, and while we’ll have to wait and see if this saying comes to fruition for Bey next off-season, his impact on the offensive glass can be slept on no longer!
De’Andre Hunter: Shooting 43.2% from Three in Hawks’ Wins vs. 32.8% in Hawks’ Losses
21 games into De’Andre Hunter’s 2023-24 campaign, it is admittedly getting a bit lonely over on Hunter Island. While Hunter has put forth yet another solid scoring campaign, averaging 14.8 points per game, shooting 51.1% on twos, and 37.3% from downtown*, his inability to impact the game on the glass or in the playmaking category continue to subvert his status as the 4th overall pick in the 2019 NBA draft.
*It is worth noting that he has traded out some of last year’s long twos for above-the-break threes this year, upping his 3-point-attempt-rate from 34.8% last season to 43.8% so far this season. Shot profile enthusiasts, rejoice!
Hunter has averaged just 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 31 minutes per game for his career. So far this season, he is averaging 3.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists in 30.6 minutes per game. Per cleaningtheglass, his offensive rebounding percentage ranks in the 12th percentile amongst forwards this season, his defensive rebounding percentage ranks in the 50th percentile, and his assist percentage ranks in the 21st percentile. As the old song by Frank Zappa goes, “you are what you is”, and this being year-5 for Hunter, time is running out for him to show that he is anything but a subpar rebounder and playmaker at his position.
On the defensive side of the ball, Hunter has never been a very active defender, posting low steal and block rates over the course of his career that have held steady in 2023-24. That being said, he has a strong frame and stands at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan. He has all the physical tools required to hang with the league’s premier offensive wings, and has taken on some of the toughest defensive matchups on the perimeter for the Hawks this season. Though he may never live up to his pre-draft billing as a “potentially elite” NBA defender, Hunter remains the best perimeter defender on Atlanta’s roster.
One interesting number that I came across when researching Hunter are his 3-point shooting splits in Hawks’ wins vs. Hawks’ losses. Per nba.com/stats, Hunter is shooting 43.2% from three in the 9 games Atlanta has won this season vs. just 32.8% in the 12 losses that Hunter has been a part of*. As you can see in the table below, this is one of the more drastic differentials on the team, and I found it interesting that Hunter and Trae Young are the only players on the team (who have taken over 50 attempts from 3 this season) that are shooting better in wins than in losses.
*He missed Monday’s loss against the Nuggets with right knee soreness
The Hawks have played in just 22 games so far this season, so it has to be said that the numbers above are a reflection of tiny sample sizes, however for Hunter, this 3-point shooting difference in wins vs. losses took place last season as well. In 67 appearances in 2022-23, Hunter shot 41.4% on 3.8 three-point-attempts per game in 35 wins, against just 29.4% on 4.8 three-point-attempts per game in 32 losses.
Now it would be both foolish and unfair to pin Atlanta’s record over the past two seasons on De’Andre Hunter’s shooting splits*, but one thing that can be gleaned from the information provided is that Hunter needs to be more consistent from the perimeter. As Hunter is not a primary ball-handler for the Hawks, the majority of his three-point attempts come off the catch**. Last season he shot just 33.9% on catch-and-shoot threes, and while he has upped that mark to 35.4% this season, the team needs this number to continue to rise in order for them to maximize their offensive potential with Hunter on the floor.
* Hawks games ARE NOT simply De’Andre Hunter shooting contests
** A minor problem seeing as Hunter shot better on pull-up threes than catch-and-shoot threes last year, and is shooting better on pull-up threes once again this season
Per cleaningtheglass.com, Atlanta’s offense, while still above average, is 3.1 points-per-100-possessions worse with Hunter on the floor. Given their struggles on the defensive end, and that Hunter is no panacea on the less glamorous end of the floor*, it is imperative for the Hawks’ offense to improve during Hunter’s minutes on the floor.
* Atlanta’s defense is terrible and Hunter’s presence has improved their defensive rating by just 0.3 points-per-100-possessions so far this season.