Kevin Huerter on finding consistency, being aggressive with opportunities

Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (3) shoots against the New York Knicks during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)
Atlanta Hawks guard Kevin Huerter (3) shoots against the New York Knicks during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, April 21, 2021, in New York. (Wendell Cruz/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Wendell Cruz

Credit: Wendell Cruz

Kevin Huerter had two main goals for this season: to consistently be on the court, and find consistency when he’s out there.

“Someone told me the best thing you can be as a teammate is be available,” said Huerter, who played in 56 games last season, battling some nagging injuries. “And to go along with that is just my overall consistency as a player. … There’s definitely been a lot of glimpses of a lot of potential in games I’ve played really well, and then games I haven’t played well and haven’t been involved and haven’t been as aggressive as I should be.”

In his third NBA season, Huerter has made progress on both those fronts, just as the Hawks needed it most. They’ve been devastated by injuries, particularly on the wing, and the situation may have just grown more dire as Trae Young went down with a left ankle sprain in their overtime loss to the Knicks on Wednesday, with Clint Capela falling hard on his lower back, as well. Amid all those moving parts, Huerter has yet to miss a game. The Hawks also have needed available players to step up on both ends of the floor, with so many guys missing extended time, including De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Tony Snell (all of whom are still out) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (who is now back healthy).

Huerter, who is versatile enough to play shooting guard and small forward (and fill in at backup point guard, if need be), filled in for Bogdanovic at the 2 when Bogdanovic was injured in January and February. Particularly in the last month, with Bogdanovic back and Huerter at the 3, the two have played well together, and Huerter is thriving, showing a more aggressive side that McMillan likes.

Huerter has started 11 consecutive games at small forward and has scored in double-digits every time, averaging 15.7 points over that span (also adding 3.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds per game). He has made at least one 3-pointer in each contest, good for the longest streak of his career. Over the past five games, he has scored 15-plus points, also the longest streak of his career.

Just as interim coach Nate McMillan has tried to feature Bogdanovic and get him involved (Bogdanovic is averaging 21.6 points per game in April), he’s done something similar for Huerter.

“Kevin has really, I think, been a consistent player for us all season long, as well,” McMillan said. “We talk about what Clint (Capela) has done and a lot of other guys have done, Kevin has played, I think, in just about every game. He’s been a starter, he’s come off the bench, and what we’re doing is similar to what I was talking about with Bogi, personalizing some of the offense so that we can get the ball in different guys’ hands, and he’s done a great job of creating offense, being more aggressive, attacking the basket, not settling for just a perimeter jump shot, and then he does a good job of making decisions when he’s running the pick-and-roll.”

Missing several of their best defenders, with guard Kris Dunn yet to make his debut, in addition to Hunter and Reddish, McMillan challenged Hunter to become a better defender. To become more physical, try to keep the ball in front of him and get into the ball more.

Again, to fulfill something the Hawks needed, Huerter stepped up.

“He’s been a two-way player for us,” McMillan said. “With Dre being out and Cam being out, Tony has been out here the last few games, he has had to take on the role of guarding probably the best one, two or three for the opponents that we’re playing. Offensively, he’s doing a good job of being aggressive, attacking the basket, creating opportunities not only for himself but for his teammates. So he’s been a really good two-way player, really playing at that 3 position for us.”

It’s an adjustment to go from coming off the bench to getting back in the starting lineup, and getting consistency with lineups has helped Huerter, he thinks.

He’s also just trying to be more aggressive when he’s on the floor, making sure he gets involved and doesn’t fade into the background.

“I think in a lot of ways, just trying to be aggressive with my opportunities,” Huerter said Tuesday. “I think that’s a big part of my growth, and I think a lot of it has to do with familiar lineups. We’re running a lot more off-ball movement type of stuff, pin-downs for me and Bogi, and even with, Trae (Young has) been out a couple games, but we’ve found a good rhythm, me and Bogi and Trae on the court, and (Solomon Hill) has stepped in great, and Clint does what he does night in and night out. But we’ve found a good rhythm here, and we obviously want to keep it going.”

In Bogdanovic’s eyes, Huerter is getting better every game. Over the past 11 games, Huerter is shooting 40% from 3-point range and 51% from the field.

“It’s fun to play with him,” Bogdanovic said. “He’s an unbelievable shooter, and we are still working on that chemistry between each other. ... I didn’t know he’s that athletic, honestly. He is really athletic, and he can guard. And the communication with him, it’s easy. And he wants to win.”

In addition to Huerter’s individual goals, as a team, the Hawks wanted to transition from the rebuilding phase and make the playoffs this season. The past two seasons, Huerter has been on rosters that haven’t been built to win, but this season is a departure from that. With 13 games left in the regular season, and the Hawks at the No. 5 spot in the Eastern Conference standings, they’ll hope to get healthier down the stretch to position themselves better for the postseason, and to avoid the play-in tournament.

So far, though, it’s been a much more enjoyable season for the Hawks and Huerter, taking such a leap under McMillan. Since McMillan took over in March, the Hawks are 18-7.

“I haven’t won at this level in the NBA yet, so it’s definitely been a different year,” Huerter said. “It’s been a lot better of a year, obviously. It’s a lot more fun when you’re winning, but in a lot of ways it’s nice to see, definitely, some of your hard work come to fruition and things we’ve talked about over the past couple years, seeing the fruits of your labor a little bit.”

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