Tony Snell Is Not Emotionally Drunk
The 29-Year-Old Wing Fits With Nate McMillan’s Goals
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)
It is hard to fathom that a 1-for-2 shooting night would bring down a player's three-point percentage, but that's where Tony Snell found himself last Thursday with 7.1 seconds left against Toronto.
Not that he was thinking about any of that. The Hawks trailed by two points, and the Hawks needed a score. Trae Young drove left and drew the attention of multiple defenders. Kevin Huerter cut to the rim from the right elbow. Snell lifted out of the right corner to the spot that Huerter vacated. And Trae tossed a gem of a pass to Snell for the game-winning three.
And with that shot, the "off" shooting night became moot and the Hawks' winning streak – a streak that has since grown to seven games – lived on.
If there is one Hawk who has best exemplified the style of basketball that the team has played to string together their best winning streak in years, it might be Snell. Interim Head Coach Nate McMillan urges his players to pass the ball from one side of the court to the other. Snell does that. He wants defenders doing everything that they can to stay in front of their assignments to prevent penetration and the subsequent defensive rotations. Snell does that, too.
Additionally, late in games, McMillan wants his players to remain "calm, clear, and connected". And, boy oh boy, does Snell ever do that. At one point, McMillan said that younger players occasionally have a tendency to get "emotionally drunk" in big moments late in games. Without honing in on the precise definition of that phrase, it is easy to identify that Snell is the 180-degree opposite, and he has demonstrated his poise time and again during the winning streak.
In addition to being a trusted perimeter defender in a newly fierce late-game defense, Snell has hit pivotal shots in each of the three close games during the streak. After Houston came back from a 23-point deficit to tie the game in the fourth quarter, Snell hit a pair of threes late to give the Hawks some breathing room. Against Toronto, it was the game-winning three at the buzzer. In a stirring comeback over Orlando, he hit a pair of threes late that prompted high praise from Trae.
"No, no," Trae said when asked if he had even had a teammate as hot as Snell is in 2021. "Brady Manek had a month or two months in college (at Oklahoma) where he was knocking it down. T-Snell is on that level. This month has been crazy. Every time he shoots it, I think it's going in. It's great to see."
Trae clearly trusts Snell late in games, and Snell has merited it. To be honest, the 29-year-old is having one of the most remarkable shooting seasons in NBA history. While it is not a high volume of attempts, Snell leads the NBA in three-point percentage at 56.8 percent. Kyle Korver set the NBA record with Utah in 2009-10 when he made 53.6 percent.
A career 39 percent three-point shooter, Snell has always been an excellent shooter, but what he is doing this season is without precedent.
As spicy as his shooting is, Snell sees time on the court for what he can do defensively. Standing at 6-foot-6 with a nearly 7-foot wingspan, Snell uses his size and savvy to take on some of the Hawks' most difficult defensive assignments. When he is off the ball, he positions himself well to lend help and deny passing lanes, and when he rotates to the rim, you might mistake him for an interior big man with how well he protects the paint.
These are not, perhaps, the most interesting or fascinating things that happen on a basketball court, but they do impact winning, and they do set a strong example for the younger Hawks. To wit: literally every person interviewed for this story used the word "pro" unprompted when describing Snell.
Danilo Gallinari: "He's a great pro. He works every day and brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm every day. He's always very positive for everybody. He just does the little things that a lot of times don't show up in the stat sheet, but he does all of the little things that are required to win the game."
Trae Young: "He always has a smile on his face. He's the true definition of a pro. He comes in, he gets his work in, he's always on time."
Nate McMillan: "He's a pro, meaning he doesn't ask for anything. He doesn't say anything. He just goes out and does his job. He prepares himself to be ready to play."
After winning a state championship with Kawhi Leonard in high school and three seasons at the University of New Mexico, Snell entered the NBA in 2013 with the Chicago Bulls. He credits Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng for shaping his professional approach to the sport.
"I was blessed with a lot of good vets at a young age, and I'm definitely grateful for the group that I had."
Snell had the chance to observe the dedication of a core group of players that took Chicago deep into the playoffs.
"They showed by example. I always watched them taking care of their bodies, getting in the cold tub. After practice, they'd get extra shots up and work on their game. Their work ethic, I just observed them and it rubbed off."
Prior to his arrival in Atlanta, Snell spent his entire seven-year career in the NBA's Central Division – in Chicago, Detroit and Milwaukee – where then-Indiana coach McMillan had a front-row seat to observe him.
"I liked Tony when I was in Indiana and he was in Detroit and Chicago," McMillan said. "He was a guy we had our eye on when I was coaching in Indiana. Having him and being able to work with him this year, you just appreciate what this guy brings."
If you look at Snell's social media page, you might catch a glimpse of a Chicago or Milwaukee uniform or backdrop. Why? Because Snell sometimes goes years without posting on them. He'd rather talk to a teammate than like their Instagram post or text them from his Blackberry.
"I don't believe in social media," Snell said. "I think it takes away from people talking in person."
One gets the sense that Snell might feel the same way about Zoom, the preferred source of media interaction during the pandemic. (The author of this story concurs on that medium.) In any case, he is always there for his teammates for some to-the-point conversation.
"He doesn't say too much, but he always speaks in the right moments and always gives us good knowledge when he sees it," Trae said. "It's good having a vet like him on our team."
It's good having a shooter like him on the team, too. It remains to be seen if he can continue his torrid pace, but if his free throws are any indication, his shot is pure. When he was fouled and sent to the line for a pair of free throws against Sacramento last week, he had not missed an NBA free throw in over two years. He went 32-for-32 with Detroit last season, and the free throws against the Kings were his first of the 2020-21 season.
He made them.