It’s pretty clear that the strength of the Atlanta Hawks’ guard play is a — if not the — defining feature of the current team.
Franchise centerpiece Trae Young has already made two All-Star Game starts in his short career, and recent addition Dejounte Murray is a former All-Star himself. Both players bring some of the highest volume creation in the entire league, and, even after teaming up, their production isn’t showing signs of slowing down. Per the Elias Sports Bureau, only one pair of teammates has ever reached the same points and assists statistical benchmark over an entire season, and it’s a rather notable pair of players.
And yet, last Thursday, the Hawks opted to add another guard to the mix. With the selection of Kobe Bufkin at no. 15 overall in the 2023 NBA Draft, Atlanta fortified their identity as a guard-driven team.
While rumors continue to enshroud the current roster, as one long-time starter has been recently been shown the door, Atlanta still seems destined for the two-headed guard monster to lead the way. It’s still increasingly likely that the Hawks hang onto Murray and offer him a long term deal once he hits free agency in 2024 — possibly one with a larger annual salary than any other team can offer given that Atlanta owns his Bird Rights.
But Kobe Bufkin brings with him skills that point toward him being a strong complementary player — even if it comes without an All-Star trajectory to his professional career. Indeed he had just that very experience of filling a sidekick role at Michigan operating next to lottery pick Jett Howard.
So what can Kobe Bufkin add to the Hawks in this kind of contributing role?
Kobe Bufkin is a shifty combo guard in a wiry 6-foot-4, 195-pound frame. He can rise up with ease with his lefty shot off the bounce, but his forte is getting all the way to the rim when he sees an opening in the lane. Bufkin hit 67% of his shots at the rim in halfcourt situations this past season at Michigan — a solid rate for a big let alone a skinny backcourt player. That high mark will be a big boon for the Hawks offense, as Young and Murray each posted career lows in percentage of shots finished within the restricted area in 2022-23.
Bufkin averaged 14.0 points and 2.9 assists per game while spacing the floor and shooting 36% from behind the arc in his second season in college. While his free throw rate was fairly low at .240, he managed an excellent 57.8% true shooting percentage (TS%) behind the aforementioned finishing at the rim and an 85% mark from the charity stripe.
The tape shows him frequently moving and cutting on offense, probing for space to collapse the defense and open up areas for his teammates. But in opportunities when he gets a chance to attack off of dribble-handoffs and cuts, Bufkin is adept at turning the corner with a defender on his back hip.
This is a play with which Bufkin diced up many Big Ten defenses: a simple curl around a screen to get downhill and finish.
The Hawks led a fairly stationary offense with little off-ball movement and slow ball rotations at times last year. Plays like this from Bufkin will help at making the offense snappier and more dynamic.
Of course, he also has some juice on the ball when looking for his shot.
Even if he’s not getting to the rim, Bufkin can find shooting space around the arc by moving into open areas. Here he is fading to the corner for a catch-and-shoot three, a play on which he logged 1.11 points per shot last year per Synergy.
Atlanta finished dead last in three-point rate in 2022-23 with 33% of shots coming from three. The shot profile became much more mid-range heavy this past year with the addition of Dejounte Murray. But without multiple uber-elite shooters from that range, that plan of attack is just not conducive to powering an upper-level offense in today’s NBA.
The Hawks need to get back to spacing the floor in the same manner that allowed them to embark on an Eastern Conference Finals run back in 2021 — with capable shooters surrounding rollers in the pick-and-roll game. Bufkin’s addition comes with perfect timing as well, as Snyder led his last two Utah Jazz teams to the highest three-point rates in the league with their ability to space the floor and find open shooters.
Still, Bufkin probably can’t handle a large on-ball load at the NBA level — at least not immediately. His limited handle doesn’t quite allow him to break through double teams. Bufkin can often dribble into crowded spaces without an escape plan, and so bringing him along slowly with limited attempts as a lead guard will be key going forward.
One of the first things to notice with Bufkin is just how disruptive he is on defense. In 34 minutes per contest in his sophomore season, he averaged 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per game. On a per 100 possession basis, that works out to 3.5 stocks (steals plus blocks) per 100 possessions — a sky high mark for a guard of his size. Very rarely does a long stretch of basketball go by without him getting his 6-foot-8 wingspan on a lazy pass or causing havoc in the passing lanes.
His length and tenacity gives him a good bit of switch-ability, and so he has no problem jumping out on wings in the middle of a possession if needed. Bufkin is a smart navigator around perimeter screens, often finding his way to contest shots despite bodies in his way. As he bulks up, he’ll be a real pest for the host of guards and wings he’ll face off against in the NBA.
Atlanta’s poor point-of-attack defense doomed them in many key moments last year, as they faded to a 22nd-ranked finish in defensive rating (116.3 DRtg). Bufkin may not be the answer from day one, but he can eventually grow into a role where he can harass lead guards and disrupt opposing offenses from comfortably getting into their sets.
On the other hand, Bufkin can be a little overeager on defense, often jumping too early on closeouts and flying by his assignment. In the same vein, he has a tendency to overhelp in certain situations and compromise the team defense.
Still, it’s preferable to encourage that kind of relentlessness while slowly paring down the bad habits as opposed to needing to do the opposite. There is definitely a hopeful building block here as the Hawks look to break a streak of six bottom-10 finishes in defensive rating.
So what can Bufkin contribute going forward?
Frankly, there’s no guarantee he’ll even be in the active rotation come the start of the regular season. Last year, Atlanta selected AJ Griffin with the no. 16 pick of the 2022 NBA Draft, but Griffin found playing time very hard to come by in the first 25 games despite an injury to Bogdan Bogdanovic.
Head coach Quin Snyder wants to install a more motion-heavy offense with quick reads and off-ball movement. Kobe Bufkin seems like he would be a seamless fit for that kind of scheme with his activity away from the main action. Young and Murray will continue to lead the show, but Bufkin can play on and off the ball and complement that pair with decisive shooting and driving.
Defensively, the Hawks may finally have something that they’ve struggled to find for years: an in-house guard defender under multiple years of team control. While Murray, for example, also has a pedigree of creating steals — which helped him land on the 2017-18 All-Defense Second Team — his increased offensive load in recent years has neutralized some of that value on that end of the court.
Draft picks are all about future value — not just the payoff in a rookie season. Kobe Bufkin has a chance to be a high-value complementary player — one who is already used to playing off of volume creators — but that process will take time. I would suggest keeping expectations low for the 19-year-old, as the Hawks will most likely look to add a veteran guard in free agency. But in time, Bufkin can provide just what the Hawks need: a very valuable role player.