Jan. 15, 2019 Atlanta: Atlanta Hawks Kevin Huerter (from left), Trae Young, and Omari Spellman work on defense against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the first half in a NBA basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Young, Huerter and Spellman reflect on rookie seasons

Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman no longer will have to bring desserts on flights, carry pink backpacks or worry about having their cars filled with popcorn. The rookie status of those Hawks has ended. 

With the end of their season comes relief, excitement and new expectations for what lies ahead for the summer and next season. 

It was a time of growth for the trio, working through the highs and lows that come with the first season. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said the experience the players gained helped them this season and will continue to help them improve. 

“So the evaluation is, we were able to see, especially with Kevin and Trae because they played the most, we were able to see them grow and really, really grow up because of the experience this year,” Pierce said. 

Young seemed to feel upbeat about his performance. He played in 81 of 82 games this season, starting all 81. He averaged 19.1 points per game, while making 41.8 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 32.4 percent from 3-point range. 

When Young thinks back on his first season in the NBA, he said he will never forget his first game, Oct. 17 at the Knicks.

“I mean, playing in Madison Square Garden, I think that’s an unreal moment, you can just dream of those types of things,” Young said. “Obviously the buzzer-beaters and things are cool, and highlights for days and years, but I mean when I put my jersey on for the first time and I walk out and I’m in the Garden, that’s something that is unmatched.” 

Young worked through a 3-point shooting rough patch in November, in which he shot 19 percent. He equated the low success to rushing his shots and wanting all to go in from the get-go. He worked his way out of the rut by slowing down. 

He knows there are areas of his game to improve, and he plans to focus on his conditioning and making his body stronger during the offseason. 

Huerter thinks his first season was successful. 

He entered the NBA with no expectations and worked to understand the differences between collegiate and professional basketball. 

Huerter missed summer league because of hand surgery to repair an injury sustained in a pre-draft workout. He worked through the challenge and finished the season playing 75 games and starting 59. He averaged 9.7 points, and shot 42 percent from the field and 38.5 percent from behind the arc. 

“If you were to tell me the year I had back when we were in preseason and I was going through stuff mentally for the most part, I would take what I did this year in a heartbeat,” Huerter said. “The best thing I got this year was opportunity, kind of just keep getting my rhythm back and improve myself and everything else kind of just happened.” 

Huerter felt he proved himself as a player in the Hawks’ road win against Philadelphia on Jan. 11. He made five 3-pointers and led the team in points, with 29. 

“It was the first time I was able to prove to everybody I can play a little bit,” he said.  “And then John (Collins) hit the game winner, that was just, kind of making the pass and once I saw the ball go in, it was just a really awesome feeling.”

Spellman had a roller coaster of a season. He played in 46 games, starting 11, and averaged 5.9 points per game. He made 40.2 percent of his field-goal attempts, including 34.4 percent from 3-pointer range. 

“Omari was the one that dealt with the injuries and the adversity the most,” Pierce said. “But when he was out there, you know what, he has got an NBA skill that is legit and it’s real. And we know he can help us. He has dealt with the most adversity of the three guys.” 

He also played three games in the NBA G league with the Erie BayHawks before returning to the Hawks in January. 

Spellman said he will play in the summer league. He still has time restrictions for his ankle injury, which he sustained March 1 against the Chicago Bulls, but he is making progress in healing from the injury. 

Through each of their personal highs and lows this season, they found teammates to support them. Young and Huerter said Justin Anderson offered encouragement and a positive mindset throughout the season to both of them. All three named Vince Carter as a teammate they each turned to for advice in situations on and off the court. 

As they head into the offseason, Pierce wants the trio to learn how to handle the 82-game season better than they did as rookies, with an emphasis on personal growth, both physically and mentally. Carter said the onus is on the players to take what they learned and apply it in the offseason.

“It’s up to these guys to have a big summer, kind of focus in,” Carter said. “The first year is like the honeymoon. Now you go through the summer and you know how to prepare or what you need to prepare for next year.”

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