The NBA is often overwhelming to the unacquainted. The speed and physicality of the game -- not to mention the challenges of living on the road and managing a professional life -- take time to get comfortable with, especially for a young player being thrown into the fire on a losing team. Few players understand the difficulty of that adjustment like Cam Reddish. Early in his career, the 20-year-old looked disoriented and frustrated by a profound lack of initial success. Tracking his journey from a wide-eyed, uncertain rookie to a comfortable and assertive rotation player was among the most fascinating developments of Atlanta’s season.
Hawks assistant coach Marlon Garnett watched some of Reddish’s college film after the Hawks drafted him with the 10th pick, and saw a world of possibility for the lanky wing. When Lloyd Pierce assigned him to be Reddish’s primary player development coach, Garnett was thrilled. “I thought, just looking at him, he’s 6-8, he’s long, and he’s a smooth basketball player,” Garnett said. “I saw potential.”
That potential, however, didn’t translate to immediate success. For the first two months of the season, Reddish was one of the least effective rotation players in the NBA. Through his first 35 games, he posted just eight points per game on 25.6 percent 3-point shooting and a 42.3 true shooting percentage. He committed more turnovers than assists in that time and demanded close to no respect from opposing defenses. He was a disaster in transition, where he careened recklessly into multiple defenders, and couldn’t create any kind of separation from his defenders in the halfcourt. Windows in the NBA closed faster than they had in the ACC, and the game moved far too quickly for Reddish to keep up.
Reddish entered the season even farther behind the curve than most rookies, having had offseason surgery on his abdomen. He played through the injury at Duke, but couldn’t participate in NBA Summer League or team open gyms after the surgery. Rather than getting a head start on workouts or skill development, Reddish spent the offseason rehabbing, which gave him more ground to make up when training camp -- and eventually, the season -- started.
“It was all the way up until the 11th hour, when training camp started, that he was able to do things,” Garnett said. “So he missed all those months of getting himself together, and we’re talking about a rookie player, young, with only one year of college experience.”
Around the nadir of Reddish’s season, Pierce described the rookie as trying to “beat people with moves” rather than simply making the right play. Reddish could overwhelm most other teenagers with his size and speed, but longer, faster, and stronger defenders neutralized those advantages in the NBA. He has always been a skilled player for his size, but needed to find more economical ways of putting that skill to use. When his physical gifts didn’t translate, Reddish’s technical flaws and physical limitations were exposed. He would try spin moves and crossovers he didn’t have the shake to pull off, and his lack of strength made it hard to play through even the slightest contact. His explosion, balance, and timing were all substandard by NBA measures, which affected even the simplest parts of his game -- most notably, his jumpshot.
Though Reddish came into the league with solid mechanics and versatile stroke, he also had inconsistent form and a relatively slow release. His shot preparation was sloppy, and imprecise footwork prevented him from shooting quickly or on the move. “It’s a challenge for guys that are long like that to get into a stance and get ready,” Garnett said. “But in the NBA you’ve gotta shoot the ball at a little bit different pace and a different kind of game speed to be able to get it off and be comfortable with that type of shot.” Because he often wasn’t squared up and ready to fire when he caught the ball, Reddish had a tendency to lean back and to the left when he shot, which caused ugly misses:
His left arm would drift apart from his right after he released the ball -- a habit Garnett calls the “Y.M.C.A.” -- which pulled his shot left:
As he continued to shoot poorly, Reddish looked increasingly unsure of where he belonged. Some games, he faded into the background; others, he pressed too hard, forcing bad shots in attempt to find a rhythm:
His teammates encouraged him to keep taking open shots, to play his game and stay confident. Eventually, the game began to slow down as Reddish learned to blend his aggression with improved discretion and feel for the game. He attacked more decisively and patiently when he had the opportunity, and his shooting gradually improved over the course of the season. In his last 24 games, Reddish shot 41.5 percent from beyond the arc -- including 44 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts. “I didn't think he had bad mechanics,” Garnett said. “He’s a pretty solid shooter the way it looks, and I think he can be an elite shooter in this league over the course of his career.”
Time and opportunity helped Reddish get more comfortable, but the transformation from bottom-five NBA player to quality rotation cog doesn’t happen without hours of additional work behind the scenes. Reddish watches film diligently and is among the most frequent after-hours visitors of the team’s practice facility. He and De’Andre Hunter were tied at the hip all season in pregame warmups and post-practice workouts. Reddish stayed committed to the process of improving even during his lowest moments, and a rough start only kept him focused on the work required to turn things around.
“I feel like I’m getting better, a little more comfortable, so I’m just gonna keep pushing,” Reddish said in November. “It’s a frustrating process, but I’ll be alright.”
He worked extensively on the different types of footwork required to shoot in different situations, keeping his off hand high through his release, and staying centered on his jumper. (“Chest over the ball,” Garnett reminds him during shooting sessions.) Reddish occasionally still drifts or drops his arm, but he now shoots a quicker and more balanced shot than he did before:
He still has room to tidy up his footwork, especially off the dribble and moving to his right. He doesn’t always step rhythmically into his shot, which slows down his release. As defenses give him more respect, that extra fraction of a second will start to matter:
Reddish likely won’t continue shooting over 40 percent from deep next season, but if he levels out around 37 percent on a high volume of attempts, he can be an effective secondary offensive weapon.
Despite his offensive growing pains, Reddish took to the other side of the ball almost immediately. The son of a coach, he showed impressive defensive instincts for a rookie and has the physical tools to wreak havoc. Like most elite high school players, his interest level wavered at the lower levels, but Reddish had to commit fully to playing defense in order to contribute in the NBA, and quickly became Atlanta’s best perimeter defender.
Smart, quick, and versatile, he showed a fairly advanced grasp on the finer points of off-ball defense and disrupted opponents’ sets both at the point of attack and as a help defender. He navigates ball screens quite well for a 6-foot-8 wing and uses his length and anticipation to great effect in the passing lanes. “On the ball, he’s a hound,” Garnett said. “He’s blessed with really good length on the defensive end. He’s very instinctual and he’s very twitchy.”
The Hawks believe he can blossom into an elite defender given his high starting point, and will ask him to defend perimeter threats of all sizes. Getting stronger will better equip him to guard physically imposing wings, and as someone who will spend a lot of time defending point guards, Reddish can always stand to get better getting over screens. The coaching staff wants him to be more proactive, stepping into the ball before screens arrive so as not to get clipped by head-hunting big men. They’ve shown him clips of Chris Paul, highlighting different techniques and deceptions the nine-time All-Defensive selection uses to bother ball-handlers.
Though he closed the season strong, Reddish still has plenty of room to improve on offense as well. His turnover rate was nearly twice as high as his assist rate, a ratio that needs to improve as he ramps up his usage. He wasn’t asked to create much for others, but he has the height, length, and ball skills to develop into a solid secondary creator, and flashed some basic pick-and-roll chops as a rookie:
He’ll still need to tighten up and expand his ball-handling arsenal to compensate for subpar explosiveness for his position. Reddish would benefit from adding more craft and touch around the basket rather than trying to outjump opponents; he shot just 52 percent at the rim and almost always lost confrontations with back-line defenders. Improving his strength will help him absorb contact at the rim and provide a more sturdy base on his jumper.
Reddish has his legs under him now, and has proven he belongs at this level and in the Hawks’ future. He has earned what limited success he’s achieved so far, and with it, an appreciation for the struggle that preceded it.