Kevin Huerter Emerging As Hawks Secondary Facilitator

Atlanta Hawks v Orlando Magic
ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 30: Kevin Huerter #3 of the Atlanta Hawks grabs the rebound against the Orlando Magic on December 30, 2019 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Story by K.L. Chouinard

Follow K.L. on Twitter: @KLChouinard

At one point early this season, head coach Lloyd Pierce joked with Bruno Fernando that every time Fernando shared the court with Kevin Huerter, Huerter tried to get a pass to his former Maryland teammate. Conventional wisdom says that inside every joke there is a little kernel of truth. Huerter and Fernando do seem to have a mutual comfort level, and it would be reasonable to attribute that comfort to their season together as Maryland Terrapins. Huerter has assisted on six of Fernando's field goals this year; only point guard Trae Young has assisted Fernando more often.

On the other hand, Huerter's playmaking has been a productive source of offense for the Hawks and Fernando isn't the only teammate who has benefitted. Since Huerter returned from a shoulder injury on Dec. 4, he has been the most constant presence as a facilitator in the Hawks' offense when Young goes to the bench. 

It goes without saying that Young has propelled the team's offense this season: his 8.5 assists per game rank fifth in the NBA for 2019-20. And because of Young's stamina (35.6 minutes per game), the Hawks have not relied on a backup point guard as much as some teams do, but they still do require someone to spell Young – and fill his considerable shoes when he misses time with injury as he has over the past week. Huerter has led the charge of a point-guard-by-committee approach that has also featured Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, DeAndre' Bembry, and more recently Brandon Goodwin.

"We don't have a quote-unquote natural backup point guard on our roster," Pierce said. "Trae is our point guard, and then we've done it by committee. That's a position that we talked about last year with Kevin: getting him the ball a little more and allowing him to play that backup point spot."

Huerter got his feet wet as an NBA playmaker last season, and his usage in that role gradually increased in the later months of his rookie campaign. For the season, Huerter finished second on the team with 214 total assists. 

"We always talk about Kevin as a shooter, but the thing we missed the most is his ability to facilitate," Pierce said. "And that helps us because you can move Trae off the basketball and he can get some cleaner looks as well. Now you're playing pick and roll without the blitz and Trae is off the basketball. That combination is going to help us out."

As mentioned earlier, the Hawks' offense has produced well with Young on the floor. The tricky part has been keeping things going when he goes to the bench. Over the course of the season, in those minutes when Young is not on the court, the Hawks have scored much better with Huerter in the mix: the offense has been +12.8 points per 100 possessions better with Kevin than without him (stats from NBA WOWY).

The ways in which Huerter is empowered as a facilitator varies. At times, he'll bring the ball up the floor and begin his work there. At other times, one of the other ballhandlers may bring the ball up, while Huerter starts in the corner, curls around a screen to the top of the key, and begins a downhill descent toward the rim. Either way, the Hawks need the ball in his hands for his ability to set teammates up in beneficial spots.

This season, Huerter again ranks second on the team in total assists (78), and he has notched two season-high scoring efforts in the past ten days: 19 points against both Cleveland and Orlando. Huerter's scoring ability keeps teams honest: defenses cannot play under a pick when he has the ball, and as a result, he can get defenses into rotation with enough regularity that teammates pop open and good things happen.

Huerter has point guard experience in his background.

"I did all of high school, 9th through 12th grade and even growing up, I was always a point guard," Huerter said. "Maryland was kind of similar to here, just trying to find ways to get the ball in my hands but I played with a point guard. And obviously up here, it has kind of been off and on (the ball) a little bit."

The Hawks will need Huerter to slide back and forth between guard spots this season, but in either position, Huerter has the shooting, vision and ball skills to make good things happen for both him and his teammates.

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