Huerter Proves Essential in Win Over Hornets

Ben Ladner

Kevin Huerter wasn’t the sole reason for the Hawks’ 122-107 win over the Hornets Sunday afternoon, but his presence couldn’t have been more crucial for a team desperately lacking precisely what he offers. In just his second game since November 12, Huerter registered nine points, six assists, and two steals while hitting three 3-pointers against Charlotte. Atlanta played its most complete game in over a month, moving the ball on offense and staying engaged on defense. Seven Hawks scored at least nine points, and while Huerter alone wasn’t responsible for the team’s performance, his impact was evident throughout the game.

Entering the year, Lloyd Pierce had planned on using Trae Young as an off-ball threat more often. But Huerter’s injury and John Collins’ 25-game suspension, however, derailed that vision almost immediately. The weight of nearly the entire Hawks offense was thrust onto Young’s shoulders without much of a choice. From the jump of Sunday’s game, much of that strain was alleviated. Huerter unlocked Young’s game to an extent it hadn’t been since the team visited Denver. Young has played monster games without Huerter, but seldom has he had the luxury of working against a defense with other threats to consider.

It isn’t Huerter’s talent so much as his uniqueness that makes him indispensable. While undoubtedly a skilled passer and shooter, it’s the guard’s combination of the two that makes such a profound difference for Atlanta’s offense. Young is the only other player on the roster who meshes the two abilities well, and while he can lift the offense almost by himself, the Hawks need another threat on the floor capable of drawing a defense’s attention and taking pressure off of their point guard. “I think that’s a skill you talk about with Kevin that’s a little underrated,” Pierce said. “He can create shots for other guys, he can take some of the pressure off of Trae’s playmaking ability, but then we can also get Kevin some shots.”

Huerter played but 24 minutes in Charlotte as a precaution against overexertion, but it didn’t even take that long to see how he and Young might complement one another once he returns to full strength. Pierce used the two together in halfcourt actions, one of which resulted in a beautiful delivery to Bruno Fernando for a dunk:

That’s a clever play design made possible by Young’s gravity. But the Hawks couldn’t previously exert that force as often as they wanted because they lacked a playmaker steady enough to handle the ball and make the proper reads out of those kinds of actions. De’Andre Hunter has provided some value as a driver, but isn’t yet reliable enough to be Atlanta’s offensive failsafe. DeAndre’ Bembry is a creative and connective slasher, but has limitations that prevent him from being a primary threat. With Huerter back in the fold, the Hawks suddenly have a reliable second-unit playmaker when Young rests. Huerter was Atlanta’s primary ball-handler with Young off the floor, and his timing and rhythm looked to have improved since Wednesday’s contest against the Nets:

The ability to credibly draw extra defenders and find the open man is something of which the Hawks previously had shockingly little:

Huerter gives Pierce increased flexibility with his rotation because of his ability to run the offense and defend multiple positions. The trio of Huerter, Hunter, and Cam Reddish has only played 37 minutes together this season, but could be a look Pierce turns to in wing-heavy lineups while Young sits. “It just puts more pressure on me to try and play these guys together and figure out how to do so,” Pierce said. “But there’s no reason they all can’t play together and there’s no reason we can’t implement something that allows them to play together.”

Exactly how those three and Young fit together remains to be seen, and Pierce will need a reliable defensive center if he plans on playing extended time with Hunter at power forward. Certain teams will simply be too large and physical to experiment with small lineups. Atlanta won’t have full clarity of how its core plays together until Collins returns (presumably on December 23 in Cleveland), but the Hawks are a step closer to hitting the ground running when he does.