Now a starter, Hawks pleased with evaluation of Kevin Huerter

Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks shoots a 3-pointer against the New York Knicks on Dec. 21, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.
Kevin Huerter of the Atlanta Hawks shoots a 3-pointer against the New York Knicks on Dec. 21, 2018 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, New York.

Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant

Credit: Jesse D. Garrabrant

Travis Schlenk was scouting draft prospects two years ago when he made two minor notes about a freshman playing at Maryland. The Hawks general manager made the following notations about shooting guard Kevin Huerter.

“Good size.”

“Good catch-and-shoot player.”

That was it.

Schlenk saw Maryland again last season when he watched a game against Wisconsin. He was there to see a matchup of power forwards Bruno Fernandez and Ethan Happ, both of whom remain in college.

This time the tall redhead who could really shoot stood out much more.

The Hawks invited Huerter to a workout before the NBA draft combine. After Huerter dazzled on the first day of the combine, he got a first-round selection guarantee. He left Maryland after just two seasons as an early-entry candidate. The mystery team may never have gotten the chance to select Huerter as the Hawks made him their second of three first-round picks, No. 19 overall.

Huerter had a slow start to his NBA career following hand surgery from an injury suffered in a pre-draft workout. He missed summer league. He was slowed during preseason workouts.

Not anymore.

After 18 games, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce needed to make a change to the young, struggling team. He put Huerter in the starting lineup in place of Kent Bazemore. Huerter has been with the first team for the past 14 games. In that span, he has made 27 of 63 3-point attempts, a .429 success rate. There have been only three games in which he hasn’t made one shot from beyond the arc. He had a two-game streak, at the Mavericks and Celtics, when he converted 9 of 14 on his long-range attempts.

Bazemore has since returned to the starting lineup in place of the injured Taurean Prince. The Hawks (9-24) had a three-game win streak snapped Wednesday with a 129-121 loss to the Pacers.

“At that time, we were just in a really bad spot with how we were playing,” Pierce said. “To look at how we were playing, how we were starting games specifically, to stay the same would have been an indictment on me. … I thought it do two things. I thought it put Baze in a really good spot. He had his best game the very next game. And I thought it helped Kevin. Kevin is shooting 48 percent since being inserted into the starting lineup.

“Taurean goes down and we insert Baze back in and it’s kind of karma: You do good and good comes to you. He sacrificed his spot and comes back in and he’s been playing good basketball. I thought it shook up a couple things when we needed things to be shook up.”

The Hawks have played 33 games this season, already one more than Huerter played all of last season at Maryland. He is averaging 7.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 24.0 minutes.

According to one person who witnessed summer workouts, Huerter was at times the best player on the court. Those were glimpses and spurts, Pierce categorized it.

“It’s helped us evaluate Kevin a bit more because now he’s starting and he’s playing against starters,” Pierce said. “His minutes have gone up. A lot of that is Taurean going out, but a lot of it is being in the starting lineup. You can see that we’ve got a special player in Kevin. We are trying to find ways to incorporate him even more. Not so much more minutes, but incorporate him in the offense more.”

Among rookies who have played at least 25 games, Huerter ranks second in 3-point percentage, eighth in assists, 10th in steals and minutes, 14th points and 19th in rebounds per game.

Huerter said the more playing time and familiarity with teammates has contributed to the growing success of his shot.

“Over the course of the year and how I started out, coming off the bench and just trying to play hard, I wasn’t really out there trying to score,” Huerter said. “I was like, I need to find more ways to get on the court and find minutes. …

“I’ve always had confidence in my shot. It was more getting confidence to do everything else on the court. My shot was something I knew would come as I started to get my legs under me in the league. After that, I’ve always been confident in how I shoot the ball.

The Hawks could see Huerter’s shooting ability from before the beginning. Pierce noted that Huerter makes all the simple plays. He can pass, make quick reads and decisions, has a feel for the game, can play off the ball and is athletic.

Schlenk would make one more notation after having Huerter in the fold for six months. When asked what has stood out the most about the young guard during his time in the NBA, he said: “His improvement on the defensive end has been dramatic.”

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