Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, left, gives instructions to guard Kevin Huerter (3) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Orlando Magic, Monday, Dec. 30, 2019, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Kevin Huerter on moving past injuries, the Hawks’ future and the ‘just a shooter’ label

Kevin Huerter isn’t a big fan of occasionally being labeled “just a shooter.” 

Mostly, he finds it amusing, a likely product of being an under-the-radar college player at Maryland before gaining more attention at the draft combine.

“For me, it was funny,” Huerter said. “I could tell a lazy writer, from someone who put that label on me, the articles that came out were like, ‘This shooter from Maryland,’ and I was like, ‘OK, this guy hasn’t watched film yet.’ Because at Maryland, they moved me around a lot. I played, really, 1 through 4, guarded different guys, was used a lot of different ways. No way was just a 3-point shooter.” 

In February, Huerter actually retweeted a video of him faking out Boston’s Grant Williams, before changing directions and dribbling between his own legs for a step-back 3-pointer, writing “Just a shooter” in the tweet to prove a point.

Huerter’s specialty is, of course, 3-point shooting, and injuries this season prevented him from adding another layer to his game in the way he was hoping — but he knows he provides value outside of triples, such as rebounding well as a wing and providing a backup point guard presence when needed, among other things. 

“That’s a big thing for me, is not being (just a) shooter because I know I can do a lot more,” Huerter said. “I practice a lot more. I think I affect the game in a lot of different ways and want to do different things to stay on the court and win.” 

Huerter, 21, still took a step forward in the Hawks’ 2019-20 season, which is over for them because the Hawks (20-47) are one of eight teams excluded from the NBA’s presumptive plans to restart the season in Orlando. He averaged 9.7 points, 2.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game as a rookie and averaged 12.2 points, 3.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds in Year 2. He started 48 of the 56 games he played, missing 11 games after he strained his left rotator cuff in November (the Hawks went 1-10 without him). 

That wasn’t the most frustrating injury, though, for Huerter, who struggled with a peculiar right knee injury for most of the truncated season, and it affected him in many ways. Huerter had entered his second season hoping to be more aggressive in the paint and around the rim, to finish through contact more and get to the free-throw line, which has been an issue for him (he averaged 0.7 free throws per game as a rookie and 1.1 this season). The pain was similar to tendinitis, but that was ruled out. 

It was enough to take him out of his element and make him look shaky and hesitant for the first several months of the season. His 3-point percentage stayed about the same, going from 38.5% to 38%, but Huerter seemed much less inclined to go to his floater or mid-range shot and just didn’t look like himself at times.

“It did feel like it put me behind, especially, I would say, really the first half of the season… For really only 20 games there was when it felt good,” Huerter said.

“I really think just all year I didn’t feel as explosive as I might have felt my rookie year, didn’t think I was playing around the rim more, wasn’t getting by people the same way, and a lot of that was even when I was healthy enough to play with my knee, I didn’t have the explosiveness or didn’t have the strength in it that I think I’ve had in prior years.” 

Fortunately, the Hawks eventually found out why his knee was hurting (he had some internal inflammation, and certain things he was eating and workouts he was doing would make the issue worse). 

He completely changed his diet, as well as recovery, treatment and workout routine, focusing on those muscles around his knee area. With things finally in check, Huerter surged in January and February. 

Becoming a more aggressive player and not relying on that outside shot is still a priority for Huerter moving forward (even if the Hawks don’t get to play another game until Dec. 1, when the 2020-21 regular season is tentatively scheduled to begin). 

“I feel the healthiest I’ve been, really since I got drafted. … I’m feeling really good moving forward, and so that explosiveness that I wanted to show last year, and even coming to the NBA and not putting myself in a corner of being ‘just a shooter’ and being able to do a lot of different things, that’s part of my game that I know I want to bring along,” Huerter said.

Knock on wood, Huerter said, he hasn’t felt knee pain “in a long time.” He’s jumping better than he has before, and he feels healthy.

For a while now, the Hawks have been viewed as a young and rebuilding team, but as a now-healthy Huerter and Trae Young move into their third season, with John Collins going into his fourth and De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish getting plenty of experience as rookies, the Hawks want to start to shed that identity, per Huerter. 

“The group moving forward, I know you talk about whatever the ‘Core Five’ that people call us and then you add Clint (Capela) and you add more people and possibly a draft pick, I think we’re just really excited to put together a full team moving forward that has now been in the NBA a couple years and wants to remove the ‘young’ label from a team that wants to win,” Huerter said.

“It’s frustrating to keep losing, so I know we’re ready to go out and obviously compete and try to turn things around.”

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