Through the first 25 games of the season, the Hawks have experienced both extremes of the injury spectrum, and the issues that can arise on both ends.
To start, on an extremely deep team, the Hawks had so many players jockeying for minutes or attempts that it seemed to affect the chemistry and shot diet of the team. As injuries have added up more recently, they’re now shorthanded similar to last season, though this time they’re even more depleted on the wing.
“It does pose a challenge, just as it poses a challenge when you have all of them healthy,” Hawks coach Nate McMillan said. “When you can give them minutes, that’s good. You’d like to be able to do that when you’re healthy. … It’s tough either way.”
When everyone is healthy, it requires a high level of commitment to sacrifice of individual stats or playing time for the good of the team. When the Hawks are down five players, four of whom typically play on the wing, it means they need other guys to step in and produce, to make up for the injured talent.
Kevin Huerter sliding into the starting lineup was an easy solution, as he did the same thing last year with ample success. The other spot is a little trickier, but the Hawks have looked to Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who has stepped up well in four consecutive starts and showed his shooting ability in the win vs. the Timberwolves on Monday. Luwawu-Cabarrot led the team with a career-high seven 3-pointers as the Hawks set a franchise record with 25 3′s, adding two assists, two rebounds and a steal.
Overall, he has averaged 10.8 points per game in his four starts, shooting 42.3% from 3-point range and bringing the energy on defense. That’s much-needed, as the Hawks are down two of their best defenders in De’Andre Hunter (right wrist tendon surgery) and Cam Reddish (left wrist sprain). They’re also missing a good shooter and ball-handler in Bogdan Bogdanovic (right ankle sprain) and emotional leader Solomon Hill (right hamstring injury).
“Defensively, I’m hoping that he will be able to establish a defensive presence out there, and he can set the tone for how we want to play and how we need to play,” McMillan said. “That is what he hangs his hat on, just as some guys hang their hat on shooting the ball or scoring. What he brings to the floor is something that we desperately need, defending at that wing position, being physical, and his focus, his mind-set is defending first and allowing the offense to come to him.
“The other night in Minnesota he was receiving a lot of kickouts, we had a great ball movement, and he showed that he can knock down the shot when he has an open look. What he brings to the floor, I think it’s good for this club.”
The Hawks signed Luwawu-Cabarrot this offseason, McMillan added, because they knew they had a handful of wings nursing injuries this summer (Hunter was recovering from meniscus surgery, Huerter was recovering from ankle surgery and Bogdanovic had an injection in his knee). But also, they felt Luwawu-Cabarrot could help them from the start.
Since he’s new to the team and the starting lineup, Luwawu-Cabarrot has prioritized talking and communicating as much as he can, to make sure everyone stays on the same page. That and defense are his two main priorities.
Teammates have taken notice, with John Collins praising Luwawu-Cabarrot’s chatter during games, and his intensity on defense: “He also has the want, you’ve got to have some grit, so some defensive tenacity about you if you want to go out there and play defense. I feel like he’s not lacking in any of those things.”
“I’m not getting into the game by making shots, I’m getting into the game and my confidence is going by getting stops, getting steals, getting blocks, talking, making sure everybody’s on the same page, coaches, players on the court, players on the bench, getting everybody on the same page,” Luwawu-Cabarrot said. “Defense is big for me. That’s where my head is at when I come in the game.”
Consistent playing time has helped him find a shooting rhythm, as has building trust with teammates. Before being thrust into the starting lineup, Luwawu-Cabarrot mostly had played garbage time minutes for the Hawks, but it’s not new to him, as he started seven games for the Nets last season (averaging 6.4 points in 18.1 minutes per game, playing in 58 games).
“I embrace it,” Luwawu-Cabarrot said of becoming a starter. “I love it. I just love being out there talking to those guys, playing with guys, sharing the ball and sharing the floor with them. I just love it. I’m pretty sure everybody can see that I love it. … Just also building that confidence and that trust within each other, that’s definitely helped me getting into the rhythm.”
Injury-wise, Reddish may not be out much longer, with him practicing at 75% speed Thursday, per McMillan. Originally slated to miss at least two weeks, Bogdanovic may take a little more time, as he’s making progress, but is limited to just shooting right now. Hill is out for the season, and the earliest Hunter could come back likely is mid-January. Backup center Onyeka Okongwu, the one non-wing player injured for the Hawks, seems to be on track for a December return.
No matter the injury situation, the Hawks’ win in Minnesota was a confidence-booster and encouraged Trae Young that the Hawks can endure.
“We have that confidence that we can win games, even though we’ve got guys down and especially our three key wings down, just being able to know that we can win and everybody can make plays,” Young said. “Just to have that confidence I think is big, for certain guys’ confidence tonight. Especially TLC, the way he played, I think it was big for us.”