Lloyd Pierce, the coach who always shoots straight even if his team doesn’t follow suit every night, did not begin this season with particularly high hopes for the Hawks “other” rookie, the one drafted 14 spots behind Trae Young.
“I think Kevin in a lot of ways is what your typical rookie is – he started very slowly,” Pierce recalled. “I thought coming out of preseason: Kevin is going to spend a little time in the G League, he’s just not ready yet.”
But Kevin, as in Kevin Huerter, one of the real revelations of this Hawks season, defied demotion. He played through an early awkward stage, found his legs, had a few truly eye-opening, semi-jaw-dropping performances and settled into a noteworthy role:
That of the player who was more than most thought he would be.
Huerter describes his first season in the NBA – one that just has nine games remaining – as “a season of waves.” Crests and troughs, from those nights when the basket seemed the size of a baby food jar to those like his 29-point performance against Philadelphia in January and his 27 against New Orleans earlier this month.
“This season has been big waves for me,” Huerter said. “But from where I was in the preseason, if somebody would have told me how the season would go for me, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. All I was looking for as a rookie was an opportunity, and I’ve been getting it here.”
On Thursday night he was surfing one of the good waves, the Hawks beating a likely playoff-bound team, Utah, at home. Starting his 51st game for the Hawks, Huerter had a devilish assignment, sticking with Utah guard Donovan Mitchell (who went for 34). But in just less than 30 minutes, he went for 14 himself, including one fourth-quarter 3-pointer that was a big momentum shift (Utah knew it, immediately calling timeout).
On the good-moment scale, Thursday may not quite have risen to the level of those big-scoring nights against Philadelphia or New Orleans (both wins). Maybe not quite as cool as that last game in Miami when Dwyane Wade – the reason Huerter wears the No. 3 – sought out the rookie afterward to exchange jerseys.
“I really like his game,” Wade told reporters after that one. “Since preseason when we played him to all the way up to now (March 4) he’s gotten so much better. So, from one No. 3 to another, I thought I’d switch jerseys with him."
Huerter is not so much of a seasoned pro at this stage that he can’t admit such moments are just a little bit goose-flesh inducing.
“There have been a lot of cool nights because I didn’t expect to be here this year,” he said.
“All these guys who have been in the league, getting to play them the first time, there’s still the awe factor.”
At his best, Huerter has displayed skills that certainly weren’t evident when he first arrived. More than a spot-up shooter, he can deftly handle the ball. And the athletic ability in some of his forays above the rim has caught a lot of people by surprise. Because, well, the whole white-men-can’t-jump stereotype. This is one oversized Opie Taylor who can get up a little.
“It’s been like that at every level,” Huerter smiled. “It was like that in high school. You get to college, and there I was one of the youngest guys on the court, the little freshman catching people like that (by surprise). And then getting here.
“To me it’s funny. Seeing the reaction from other teams when I have dunked this year, other players giving me a look like: OK, I didn’t know you had that.”
“Yet,” Pierce warns, as any coach is obliged to, “he still has down games. Sometimes we feel his energy is a little lower than I’d like. Sometimes you want him to be more aggressive. That’s part of what happens to a rookie.”
Thursday’s victory represented a minor milestone for the Hawks, as they secured their 25th win and officially surpassed last season’s win total. A very small sign of progress, traceable to the impact of rookies such as Young and Huerter and the blooming skills of second-year guy John Collins.
“These guys are coming in with guns a-blazing. It’s been fun to watch,” veteran Kent Bazemore said.
And in some cases, it’s been revelatory, now that certain Hawks can actually exceed expectation.
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