Few role players have enjoyed a more meaningful breakout performance in these playoffs than Kevin Huerter did against the Sixers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. While franchise superstar Trae Young struggled to get going (and finished 5-for-23), the 22-year-old Huerter scored a team-high 27 points. The only player in the game who tallied more was Joel Embiid.
Regardless of how far the Hawks go in these playoffs, that game changed how many see Huerter. Granted, most of those viewers were likely unfamiliar with what he can and can’t do before these playoffs even began. A 6’ 7” wing who possesses almost every offensive tool that’s currently coveted at his position by all 30 NBA teams, Huerter can shoot threes off the bounce and the catch, knows how to run a second-side pick-and-roll, handles the ball comfortably in traffic, and can defend several positions, up or down in size, without help.
With the Hawks now in the conference finals, Huerter has an opportunity to increase his profile even more, on a team that needs all the versatile scoring and playmaking ability it can get, especially if Young is hampered by his ankle.
Sports Illustrated recently spoke to Huerter about the difference between regular-season ball and the playoffs, Trae’s shimmy, having several top-tier nicknames, his looming contract extension and more.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: The Hawks were 29–53 your rookie year and 20–47 last year. You entered this season with 1,000–1 odds to win the title in Vegas. You were 14–20 on March 1. Right now, De'Andre Hunter is out, Bogdan [Bogdanović] has the knee injury that he's playing with and doesn't look quite like himself. Cam Reddish came back on Friday night, but was out for an extended period. After all that I just said, speaking honestly, what percentage of you is surprised to wake up this morning a few wins away from the NBA Finals?
Kevin Huerter: I don't know if surprised is the right word. I think if you were definitely to ask me when we were 14–20 if you think we'd be in this position, I'd probably tell you it's a long shot. But we've said it throughout this whole playoff run, like, it's kind of a group that has a lot of confidence. And there's been a bunch of different moments over the course of the season that, we've beaten really good teams, especially teams at home, and even with guys out—it feels like we've had guys out all year and we've continued to win. So I think it just kind of speaks to the depth we have, obviously the culture we have inside the locker room and how Coach [Nate] McMillan coaches us. But I mean, this is a team that has just kind of been resilient, and found a way all year. We've had the injury bug all year, this really isn't something new.
SI: For those who do not watch League Pass or cover the NBA or live in Atlanta, this has kind of been a coming out party for you, individually. What part of your skill set do you think people have been sleeping on this entire time or maybe don't understand about your game?
KH: Just that I have more of a game outside of just being a shooter. I think that's always the first thing that people say or are surprised about. 'Oh, wow! He can put it on the floor. He can make plays!' And I think this year especially, the wake up call, even with people locally, has been on the defensive end. I think I made a lot of big strides on that end of the court, but I'm just trying to be a complete basketball player. I think that's what some people kind of find surprising. In that Game 7, I think I was able to showcase it a lot and scoring at three different levels and chasing around Seth [Curry] all game and it's the kind of stuff I've been doing all year and it's nice to be able to prove it and show it on this stage.
SI: How did you make strides on the defensive end?
KH: A lot of it was done in film work. Just learning the NBA game more and more, learning where players want to get to, how NBA offenses are run. So a lot of that has been just continuing to learn the NBA game and finding little nuances in the game. And another part of that is your body. I think every rookie when you come into the league, in your first couple years you really gotta develop your body and develop your foot speed and your strength, not getting knocked off path. I still got a ways to go, so it's one of those things where I'm not a complete product and I don't see myself as complete product. It's just, I think I've definitely made a lot of strides in the right direction where people are seeing that upside.
SI: When you say "nuances in the NBA game" that you've had to learn, can you give me an example?
KH: Yeah, you know, how to get over screens, being able to get under screens, and even against really good shooters, it's just, it's kind of a mix of everything. You start to learn players more and more. Last series I'm chasing around Seth Curry and now I need to guard Khris Middleton on the low post. And so those are two very different guys. Defensively, you're looking at where they like to get on the court, how they like to get their shots, trying to force them out of it. And then a lot of it, you're looking at your footwork. A lot of guys get beat with their feet just being in the wrong spots, not always just with quickness. And just like you got to work on your offensive skill set, you still got to work on so your defensive skillset, too. There's been times in my first two years where other guys are working 30 minutes on offense. I was taking 10 minutes to work defensively on stuff and so it's all just kind of been a work in progress.
SI: A few years ago, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said "the two feet of space you had in the regular season is two inches" in the playoffs. This is your first postseason. From your perspective, how much of the talk about the level of intensity being different is accurate? Is it undersold? Is it overblown? What does your experience tell you right now?
KH: It's completely accurate. It is. It really is. In a lot of ways we were kind of thrown into the fire and why I think we responded so well on this stage, right away we're going on the road in MSG, our first playoff game of everyone's career, and to win and perform in that environment, you know, right off the bat...the Knicks all year had been one of the most physical teams in the NBA and one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. They have a lot of veteran players and right away we were introduced to what playoff basketball was. The series since, and obviously now in this series, that physicality, it wasn't like we were brought along slowly or something gradually we had to learn. It was Game 1 in New York, you're playing in MSG with that crowd against a physical team, you had to be ready for it.
SI: You played in MSG. You guys obviously played in Philly. Those are two of the more hostile, intense crowds in the league, particularly in the playoffs. Does anything stand out from you about that atmosphere?
KH: There's a million. I think Game 1 in New York, it's like the first quarter and the crowd is already going at Trae with everything and it was funny how now he's made out to be the villain but it was almost like they made him the villain. We beat Philly in Game 7, a beer flies over my head onto the court. You know, obviously all the stars that sit courtside. There's so many different things that have happened. It's been a lot of fun. Honestly, it's the type of stuff that makes you realize why you work so hard to be in these moments just because everything you've been watching on TV, it lived up to the hype being and playing in these games.
SI: What do you remember most about that Game 7 in Philadelphia? The Hawks don't come close to winning without your 27 points.
KH: Just everybody's resiliency. It was over the course of that whole series. We had a lot of guys banged up. I think there will be more that come out after this season after this story is out. But there's guys banged up that, we're going into that game after dropping Game 6, after the improbable comeback, we needed something really good to happen to be able to come out with a win. And everybody stayed focused. People came together. Obviously, it was my turn to step up. When you make your first four shots ... I think I started off that game hot and that really got me going. I had teammates in the locker room at halftime, literally just telling me 'you gotta keep shooting.' We talk about aggressiveness all the time but they're like 'you need to get X amount of shots up this game.' And you're hearing that from your teammates, guys who have been around a lot, it gives you a lot of confidence. And, I don't know, just the way we came together in that game, to come in there against a lot of odds, against a really good team, number one in the East, and to win that game everyone wanted to use to win that game, obviously, that's been the highlight of this run.
SI: Did you not head into the game thinking that you needed to be super aggressive? Just because Bogdan was dealing with the knee injury and you had recently been inserted into the starting lineup. You also had Seth Curry on you and from the jump that seemed like a matchup you guys really wanted to exploit.
KH: In the playoffs you always look at matchups. And one thing our team has done all year, guys have been playing within themselves, within their roles on the team, staying with what they need to do. And in a lot of games this year, my role wasn't to take 20 shots. And in that specific game, I had the matchup and there's guys telling me I needed to take 20 shots and again when guys are banged up—De'Andre is out, Trae started off that game, wasn't making the shots he usually was—like I said it was my turn to step up and try to carry us for a little bit.
SI: You're extension eligible heading into next season. How much do you think about how, for lack of a better phrase, this is money time for NBA players who are eligible for new contracts? And your production in these playoffs has been hard to ignore. Do you think about the contract at all, or you just locked in on what you're trying to do on a day-to-day basis?
KH: No, it's one of those things I know it's, you know that's the type of stuff that happens end of the summer going into next year. I mean, there's so much that can happen in the NBA and the biggest thing they say in the NBA is everybody has short-term memory. Most of the time they remember the last thing you did. So we still have this series to go. Hopefully, we have another series after this where we got to still put on and compete and play at a high level. So for me, I'm not worried about that yet.
SI: Building off that question, the Hawks are loaded with young talent and a lot of you guys are maturing and growing at the same time and if you stay together this has the making of something special. But at the same time, if you just look at NBA history, young players, typically want shots, they want minutes they want touches. I don't mean to be a wet blanket with this question, but I'm just curious how you personally view the concept of sacrifice as someone in their early 20s, knowing you're capable of what you're starting to show on such a big stage.
KH: It's tough. It's one of the toughest things to do in sports. That's why the best teams that win have a lot of guys that sacrifice and there's not a lot of them. At the end of day, you gotta prioritize winning. If you say that's most important, it gets to a point where you gotta show it's the most important. We have a lot of really good young talent. Young talent at this point that will have playoff experience moving forward and if we want to make winning a priority I think guys are gonna have to do what you just said and sacrifice to an extent for sure.
SI: You've played with Trae his entire career. What is something about him right now that has impressed even you when you watch him now?
KH: His fearlessness. He's really just unfazed by anything the crowd does, anything that people say. Really at every moment, it's almost like he's feeding off the negative energy that people give to him. No moment at this point has been too big. No player has been too big time for him to go up against. Every time he steps on the court he thinks he's the best player on the court and he plays like it. And this playoff run, it's really from the moment he entered the league, every team gears up to stop him and for him to come out and do what he does on a nightly basis is remarkable.
SI: Have you been surprised at all about his ability to hold up on the defensive? I think that that was something a lot of people anticipated when you guys got to the playoffs. Have you've been pleasantly surprised by that or is this what you expected?
KH: A lot of defense is just effort. There's not a lot of teams in the NBA that you're gonna beat just playing guys one-on-one. It's always team defense. Trae is someone who really knows the game. He's really smart and team defensively wise he's really good for us. And obviously people have weaknesses, for any of his weaknesses there's always teammates that are there ready to pick him up. All you can look for at any end of the quarter is just effort, and especially for as intelligent as Trae is, he can get over some of his shortcomings.
SI: When he hit the shimmy you were in the weak side corner drifting in to try and get a possible offensive rebound. What was your reaction to that shot?
KH: [Laughs] I was just like 'He better make that.' Immediately, I almost laughed to myself. And then honestly, right away, I was thinking I needed to get my ass back if he was the one shimmying.
SI: You have several fantastic nicknames. What are your thoughts about Red Velvet?
KH: Red Velvet was something that, you know, when I came into the league, I've always been a man of a lot of different nicknames and it's something my agency and the Hawks liked and kind of ran with. I did that Bleacher Report video that kinda set the tone for it, and it's been a lot of fun having that ever since.
SI: K'Von is another. I honestly don't even understand what this one means but John Collins loves it. Can you explain?
KH: My rookie year, that was kind of my alter ego. When those guys on my team, when they thought I was playing well they called me K'Von when I was doing more than just shooting, and when they didn't think I played as well they called me Kevin. They'd be like 'Oh, you played like K'Von today'. So Game 7 they all think I played like K'Von.
SI: Your sister Meghan is playing basketball at Providence next year. Is there any part of her game you wish was in yours?
KH: [Laughs] For her age she's stronger than I was. She's out there bumping people off her line, not getting bumped off her line. She's more physically developed at her age than I was. So I think if I was going to college and I was physically as strong as she is, that would've been very beneficial for sure.
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