Three-Point Play: Hunter Stays Hot in Loss to Raptors

Ben Ladner

After a disheartening loss to the Pistons Friday night, Lloyd Pierce challenged his team to simply compete. The Hawks spent nearly an hour in the locker room diagnosing exactly what went wrong and what needed to change. The Hawks jumped on the Pistons, 17-7, out of the gate, but eventually let that lead crumble into a 25-point blowout. Put simply, Atlanta lacked the requisite energy, communication, and execution to even give itself a chance. Neither the ball nor the players moved nearly enough, and the offense suffered as a result. That bled over to the defensive end, where the Pistons’ scorching shooting night compounded poor decisions and slow rotations by the Hawks.

“We got off to a good start, but we hadn’t been in that situation in a long time, we didn’t know how to handle it,” Pierce said before Saturday’s game. “And the conversation last night after the game for everyone was just understanding how to compete.”

Both Trae Young and Vince Carter – the best and most experienced players, respectively, on the team – showed little offensive discretion or defensive investment in the game, which set an ominous tone for the rest of the team. “Last night I feel like I didn’t give my best effort either,” Carter said. “And it was just a domino effect for us all. I think our heart-to-heart, it opened our eyes, challenged each other, challenged ourselves, and I thought it was positive.”

Though they fell to Toronto, 119-116, on Saturday, Atlanta responded to Pierce’s challenge. The Hawks played well by nearly every offensive measure and gave a more sustained effort on defense. They scored 1.16 points per possession and posted an effective field goal percentage of 60 – both outstanding marks. They limited turnovers and outshot the Raptors from 3 and at the rim. Were it not for Toronto’s 30 free-throw attempts, the Hawks could have looked proudly upon their defensive performance.

Young responded to Friday’s dud with 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists while Carter played key minutes down the stretch. Both were noticeably more locked in than they were the night before. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and ask ourselves, ‘Have we been competing?’ And we can’t say we have,” Young said. “And tonight it wasn’t about making shots, it wasn’t about making plays on the offense end. It was just about competing and taking pride in guarding your man and making the right play.”

This is how developing teams measure growth. A team like the Hawks may not have the talent to win many games this year, but it can work on building the habits that will translate to winning in the future. The NBA season is unforgiving, and though Atlanta has gotten through the toughest portion of its schedule, it must continue to approach games like it did on Saturday. “It’s never easy to win at this level and we don’t have an easy game on our schedule,” Pierce said. “We have to compete on every single possession and we have to compete for each other. The outcome is not the concern. It’s the approach.”

Here’s what else stood out from the loss to the Raptors:

Atlanta’s centers combined for three defensive rebounds

Atlanta ranks dead last in the NBA in defensive rebound percentage and own the league’s third-worst defense. Rebounding is a crucial, if slightly overlooked, area of defense, for a possession can’t end until the defense gains possession of the ball. The more chances an opponent has to score, the more likely the possession is to yield a bucket. That Young, the smallest Hawk, led the team in rebounds Saturday night is, on its face, an impressive feat. But it’s really an indictment of Atlanta’s big men and their ability to secure misses.

Damian Jones, who finished with Saturday with no defensive boards, lacks the agility to spring off the ground and grab rebounds at their highest point, and he doesn’t show nearly enough assertiveness pursuing missed shots. Bruno Fernando needs more seasoning – and minutes – to learn to be an effective boardsman, and Alex Len’s rebounding numbers have plummeted since he arrived in Atlanta.

Dominant rebounding bigs aren’t a necessity in the modern NBA so long as teams have elite rebounders at other positions. Atlanta has no such players. DeAndre’ Bembry rebounds well for a guard, but can’t singlehandedly prop his team up. De’Andre Hunter may eventually round into a great rebounder, but isn’t there yet (he grabbed just one rebound against Toronto). As long as the Hawks continue allowing opponents second chances their defense will continue to struggle. To avoid that situation, they’ll need more from the players who are ostensibly capable of actually grabbing a rebound.

Trae Young played some of his best defense of the season

Young’s defense may well determine what kind of upside the impending Hawks era has. He could be a transcendent offensive force – the kind that powers an elite team with championship aspirations – but will need to hold up on the other end of the floor for those aspirations to become reachable. Young doesn’t need to be a good defender, only passable, and there’s really no way to make that to happen but giving effort and executing the schemes Lloyd Pierce installs.

He was still the target of pick-and-rolls and physical drives on Saturday, but he balanced out his physical limitations with effort and discipline. Fred VanVleet, one of the stronger point guards in the NBA, had his way at times, but Young dialed up his effort and, occasionally, matched VanVleet’s physicality. “VanVleet’s tough,” Pierce said. “I think that challenge defensively, knowing he’s got to defend a guy of that caliber, keeps [Young] engaged.”

Young emphasized the importance of committing to that end of the floor early in the season, and in Atlanta’s first few games, he backed it up with his play. But as Atlanta’s season began to unravel, so too did Young’s defense. “That’s something I’ve got to take more pride in,” he said. “I haven’t been doing a great job lately of playing hard on that end. I started out the season doing it and I got away from it a little bit.”

Young still had his foibles away from the ball, losing cutters or missing rotations on the weak side, but even those were relatively few and far between. He picked up quickly in transition and, perhaps most importantly, communicated with his teammates on defense. I just thought he was more vocal, more than anything,” Pierce said. “I thought he was just way more engaged on both sides of the floor.”

Can De’Andre Hunter keep this up?

Saturday was perhaps the most involved Hunter has been all season. When Young sat, Atlanta used Hunter as a primary ball-handler, initiating sets out of pick-and-roll and finishing them with drives or spot-up 3s – all while defending Pascal Siakam on the other end of the floor. He finished with 26 points and four assists – the second time he has reached either of those marks – and helped keep the Hawks in the game with a handful of late 3s.

Atlanta has carefully balanced keeping the rookie involved without putting too much on his plate, but as Hunter has grown more comfortable with the ball in his hands, the Hawks have leaned into his playmaking as much as possible. “The more we can include him – sometimes when he’s off the basketball, you don’t know if he’s going to get a shot or even be involved in it,” Pierce said. “So we have to run plays for him where we’re putting him in pick-and-rolls, we’re making him the guy that’s the throwback when teams are blitzing Trae, just so he gets a touch. And when he gets a touch he’s pretty good at getting downhill and he’s pretty good shooting the 3 as well.”

Indeed, Hunter has shot over 57 percent from 3 and 59 percent in the restricted area over his last four games, attacking with more assertiveness by the game. He is 9-of-17 on above-the-break 3s during that span, a product of creating more for himself and being more intentionally involved in the offense. Against one of the NBA’s smartest and most active defenses, Hunter looked entirely in command, with a clear idea of where he wanted to go and how to get there.

The rookie’s recent emergence has given a significant lift to Atlanta’s offense, which desperately lacks weapons around Young. With Kevin Huerter and John Collins unavailable, Young has very few outlets when blitzes and doubles come, and the Hawks have next to no playmaking on the second unit. If they can rely on Hunter as a consistent threat to hit shots and make plays for others, he’ll provide short-term relief – and perhaps even more promise in the long term.