Mark Turgeon admits he didn’t think Kevin Huerter had a future in the NBA when he recruited him to play at the University of Maryland. It wasn’t until the latter half of his freshman season that the head coach thought Huerter could possibly make it in the league, after three or four years in college, that is.
But by the start of his sophomore year, it was evident that not only could Huerter go play in the league but that he might be ready to leave sooner than expected. So, Turgeon told the shooting guard’s parents to start doing research on agents and the draft process. And throughout that season, Turgeon often spoke with Huerter about another player he had coached, back at Texas A&M: Khris Middleton.
“I used to tell Kevin all the time, I said, ‘You're as good as Middleton. You're as good as Middleton. I’m telling you, you can be as good as Middleton,’ ” Turgeon recalled to Sports Illustrated earlier this week. “You know, Middleton was in the NBA already and was becoming an All-Star, and [Kevin would] look at me like I was crazy.”
Crazy looks would have also ensued if you told most people a few months ago that the Hawks would be one of the last four teams standing in the NBA. Especially if you threw in the fact that Huerter would be the leading scorer in the victory that got them there.
The Clifton Park, N.Y., native is still a long ways away from competing at an All-Star-caliber level, but that potential was on full display last Sunday as his 27-point, seven-rebound performance willed the Hawks past the 76ers to earn a date with none other than Middleton himself in an Eastern Conference finals series against the Bucks.
Huerter came into that Game 7 matchup knowing he needed to be more aggressive. Starter De’Andre Hunter was out for the season with a torn lateral meniscus and sharpshooter Bogdan Bogdanović was a game-time decision after exiting the prior outing early with right knee soreness. Huerter was set to start for the fourth straight contest and Atlanta’s season was on the line.
The 22-year-old got going early by drilling a three-pointer less than two minutes in. On the next possession, he toyed his way with his defender on the dribble, breaking Furkan Korkmaz’s ankles before pulling up a shot around the free throw line. A few minutes later he had his way again and the Sixer threw his hands up in frustration. Around the five-minute mark, Huerter took a handoff from Clint Capela at the top of the key, drove into the paint past Tyrese Maxey and flicked in a floater over Joel Embiid.
He had made each of his first four shots and was in a rhythm. In the second quarter he sent the game’s broadcasters into a frenzy when he got the best of Tobias Harris and drained a smooth stepback three-pointer.
The same couldn’t be said for Trae Young, however. In a rare occurrence this postseason, “Ice Trae” had gone ice-cold. He was just 1-of-12 from the field by the halftime break, yet the Hawks were up by two on the road. That’s when veteran Danilo Gallinari approached Huerter.
“Gallo kind of came to me at halftime and was just like, ‘Keep shooting,’ ” Huerter said after the game. “And he’s like, ‘You gotta stay aggressive. We need you to stay aggressive.’ ”
In prior games this season, Huerter had often impressed in the first half but struggled to get involved offensively in the second. With the encouragement of his teammates, he said he put an emphasis on not letting that happen by trying to attack his spots each quarter.
Huerter impressed NBA scouts with his long-range shooting ability and has been known as a deep threat throughout his career, but he can also be lethal from midrange. Through studying film he realized that his best games of the season were when he was driving and letting it fly within 10 to 15 feet of the basket. With the smaller Seth Curry’s defending him and Young’s getting doubled Sunday, the 6' 7" guard was able to fully take advantage of that area. He finished the game shooting 10-of-18 from the field, including a 63.6% clip on his midrange attempts.
“It’s that confidence that he’s playing with now,” John Collins said. “We’ve all seen his skill set that he possesses and how he plays the game mentally, cerebrally, but it’s really all about confidence for Kev.”
Collins said he’s seen Huerter’s confidence develop, along with his ability to guard with intensity on the defensive end, a lot over the past three years since he was drafted alongside Young in 2018.
In Huerter’s first two years in the league the Hawks’ focus was on developing its young players and there wasn’t a lot of talent around him, so he got the chance to play early. He said it was a long two years of being at the bottom of the East. The priority quickly shifted to winning this past season after general manager Travis Schlenk brought in several new pieces, highlighted by free agents Bogdanović and Gallinari, to surround the team’s young core.
Huerter has filled different roles throughout this season as he and the team have navigated how to get the best use out of the new-look roster amid injuries to Cam Reddish and Hunter, COVID-19 protocols and a coaching change midseason. He was in and out of different lineups, starting 49 games and coming off the bench for 20, as he averaged 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a team-high 1.2 steals per game in the regular season. He especially fluctuated in and out over the last two months leading up to the playoffs before cementing his role as a starter in the last series.
“He’s got a lot of really good players, and so it’s just trying to find that niche and when to score and not score and when to be aggressive and continue to have confidence when you’re playing against the best players in the world,” Turgeon said.
Huerter showed he belonged on this stage as he proved the unlikely hero to keep Atlanta’s improbable playoff run alive—not that Turgeon was at all surprised. The Hawks will need him to keep pursuing his shot as they take on an experienced Milwaukee team featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Middleton in the conference finals starting Wednesday night.