Lloyd Pierce has always been a big fan of Celtics guard Kemba Walker.
He became an even bigger one when, as an assistant coach for Team USA in China for the FIBA World Cup this year, he saw Walker embrace a challenge from the coaching staff to become more than just an elite scorer, but to step into a leadership role and try to play tougher defense -- something Walker’s not exactly known for.
In his second season at the helm of the Hawks, Pierce will issue a similar challenge to the Hawks, who finished 29-53 last season (four more wins than the previous season) and had the third-worst defensive rating in the NBA (113.1, in front of the Phoenix Suns and Cleveland Cavaliers).
“The concept we talked about with Kemba, I think just understanding when you have high-character guys, and it means that much, the buy-in’s easy,” Pierce said. “It’s the same thing that we’re going to have to go through here. Getting the buy-in from all of our guys. We play a lot of games and sometimes you try to pace and coast. Our growth will be whether or not we overcome the pacing and growing and really buying in, committing to defense on a nightly basis, daily basis in practice.”
It’s no secret that defense was a shortcoming for the Hawks last season. Continuing to build around its young core of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, the Hawks got even younger this season, though some of their talented rookies, including De’Andre Hunter, who was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year last season at Virginia, will look to contribute on defense from the get-go.
Heading into media day Monday and the beginning of training camp Tuesday, Pierce is still taking stock of the roster after experiencing so much turnover, and still getting to know names and personalities of players.
But one thing he knows upfront is how consistency and effort will pave the way, if the Hawks are to improve on defense this season.
“Consistency is a keyword, and we’ll use that, and the approach is important for all our guys,” Pierce said. “I don’t want any of our guys thinking we’ve accomplished anything just yet. And so yes, defense is at the forefront of this training camp, but we have to maintain the same mentality we went into last year with. It’s easy for any young player offensively to buy in and to play at the effort they want. We have a lot of versatile and skilled offensive players. But for us, to make any steps, it’s going to be on the defensive end, and it’s definitely going to be with our effort on both sides of the basketball.”
With so many young players, the team will spend a lot of time in the film room during camp, per Pierce, treating the mental adjustment just as important as the physical adjustment.
And with such a young team, Pierce knows that each little part of the game, no matter how seemingly small, matters.
“The biggest thing we need to understand is the margin for error is very slim, when you have a young team,” Pierce said. “We’re learning. Nine guys we have to integrate.”
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