The 2020 season began unevenly for Kevin Huerter, and by the time he regained his footing, it was too late for the payoff to matter. The second-year guard finished the year averaging 12 points, four rebounds, and nearly four assists per game -- all improvements from his rookie year -- on 38 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but so much of that production came after the Hawks’ season had gone sideways. Huerter missed the entire preseason with a minor knee injury, and came off the bench with a minutes restriction for the first eight games of the year. Just as he began to get his legs under him and find a rhythm, he strained his left rotator cuff against the Nuggets and missed the following 11 games. (Huerter also came into training camp slightly out of shape, which could have exacerbated his knee injury.)
When healthy, Huerter gave Atlanta a nice blend of shooting and playmaking beside Trae Young in the backcourt. Though not elite in any particular area, Huerter takes very little off the table on either end of the floor, and his versatility allows him to fill a wide range of functions. Some nights, he’s tasked with defending lead guards Young can’t. Others, he’ll pitch in on the defensive glass to make small lineups more tenable. In the rare instance Young misses a game, Lloyd Pierce might ask Huerter to masquerade as a point guard and manage the offense.
“I’m the kind of player that gets a feel for each individual game and then reacts and is able to do different things in games,” Huerter said. “I think that’s the type of player I can be, do a lot of different things and whatever we need for us to win.”
That versatility shines most brightly in a secondary role, and makes him close to an ideal offensive fit with Atlanta’s All-Star point guard. When defenses tilt too far toward Young and John Collins in the pick-and-roll, Huerter makes them pay with spot-up jumpers. Stick to him on the weak side, and the lane opens up. If opponents send extra defenders at Young, Huerter provides a release valve to keep the offense moving. Smart and instinctive, he reads the floor well, attacks decisively, and makes quick decisions with the ball:
At 6-foot-7 with a quick release, Huerter doesn’t need much space to get his shot off and projects as more than just a catch-and-shoot threat. While his pull-up 3-point percentage dipped to just 30 percent this season (down eight points from his rookie year), he has the touch, balance, and fluidity to consistently fire off the bounce. He shoots well off of movement, most often in handoff actions with big men:
He was lethal last season when left open -- a luxury he’ll always have working off of Young. Huerter shot over 42 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and nearly 44 percent when given at least six feet of space, according to NBA.com. As he grows more comfortable shooting off the dribble and on the move, Huerter should develop a more liberal shot selection. He attempted just under nine 3s per 100 possessions in 2020 -- a healthy number, but fewer than Jae Crowder, Kendrick Nunn, and Marcus Smart took. There’s a fine line between opportunism and overzealousness, but Atlanta would like to see Huerter toe it more often; the less hesitant a great shooter is, the more respect he earns from an opponent, and the better he makes his team’s offense.
“When you have that kind of player, that kind of shooter, that capability, you always want to increase the number of attempts that he gets. Sometimes you have to take contested 3s for us to be really good. Sometimes you have to work a little bit harder to make defenders chase you because you’re that good of a shooter,” Pierce said. “When he does that, when he’s looking to shoot that often, when he’s moving that much off the basketball as a shooter, he’s just gonna create more opportunities not only for himself, but for other guys.”
To maximize his offensive value, Huerter must diversify his scoring repertoire. Last season, he took only 18 percent of his shots at the rim and just over one free throw per game, and he struggled to finish through length and bulk in the paint. A player of his size, smarts, and athleticism should make the rim and foul line focal points of his game. Instead, Huerter often shied away from contact, either fading away from defenders or stopping drives short:
Despite above-average 3-point and mid-range shooting, he finished the year below the league average in scoring efficiency because he rarely generaged easy points inside the arc. Atlanta’s coaches have stayed on Huerter about being more aggressive, and he occasionally showed flashes of burst and craft once he put his injuries behind him:
Defensively, Huerter may not quite be the kind of stopper the Hawks need to mask Young’s deficiencies. He plays hard, executes the team’s coverages, and moves his feet reasonably well, but doesn’t have the heft to challenge elite wings or the quickness to contain waterbug guards. On most teams, those minor limitations would still allow him to fit into a larger defensive structure. But Young’s limitations reduce the margin of error for his teammates and require them to bear more defensive responsibility than normal.
It’s possible that Huerter’s optimal role on the fully-formed Hawks is as a sixth man -- a move that could come as early as next season. His versatility and shooting make him a clean fit in any lineup, but would also be effective in tying together second units in a way Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter might not be able to. That doesn’t make him any less integral to Atlanta’s future. Whether in the starting lineup or not, the Hawks will need all that Huerter brings to the table.