Kevin Huerter: The Quiet Shooting Threat In The NBA
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Author: Kevin L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)
Kevin Huerter and Trae Young already have a championship together on lock. Young keeps his prize from that victory, a gold medal, in a safe spot.
"It's locked up back home in Oklahoma,” Young said. “I definitely don't want to lose that one."
Huerter and Young teamed up long before they arrived in Atlanta. In the summer of 2016, both tried out in Colorado Springs for the US entry in the 2016 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship before making the team and heading off for the 5-games-in-5-days event in Valdivia, Chile. Between the tryouts, the training and the actual event, the squad spent most of the month of July together, alternating between an Coloradan summer and a Chilean winter.
Young roomed with longtime friend and current Denver Nuggets forward Michael Porter, Jr., while Huerter shared a room with current Philadelphia 76ers guard Markelle Fultz. Young, Huerter, Orlando Magic center Mo Bamba, and Oklahoma City swingman Hamidou Diallo formed the core of the team's bench unit.
"I think that starting lineup would be different now," Bamba quipped. "We had a blast down there."
While the US team has traditionally excelled in the tournament comprised of junior teams from North and South America, Huerter came off the bench to excel in a close game when he was needed most. Against a feisty Chilean squad playing at home in front of a boisterous crowd, the US fell behind early. Before Huerter scored his first basket on a layup, the US trailed, 14-7. Chile's 2-3 zone defense clogged the paint against a US team that seemed to have an abundance of everything but outside shooting.
"We were really the two main shooters on the team," Young said of himself and Huerter. "When we were in the game, we were shooting it."
Huerter did exactly that in the second quarter, draining four threes and helping the US build a modest 30-27 lead. When Huerter entered for the second half, Chile switched to a box-and-one defense that played zone but trained one defender squarely on Huerter at all times. With a little more space inside to operate, the US got their offense on track in the second half to pull away by a 70-50 margin. Two days later, the US topped Canada in the gold-medal game, their fifth win in five days. And Huerter and Young had some valuable shared experience.
"I knew his game before we were even playing with each other here," Young said of playing with Huerter in Chile.
Huerter's game developed and matured as he grew from a 17-year-old kid to a 20-year-old pro. At the same time, his proficiency at hitting long-range jump shots still sits at the core of his skill set. For instance, Huerter has connected on 39.2 percent of his three-point attempts, an outstanding mark for a rookie. But perhaps more impressive is the degree to which he is stretching the floor.
The Hawks have a "four-point line" on the floor of their practice facility that lies a few feet behind the three-point line. It serves as a reminder for players who don't have the ball about where they should stand in order that the Hawks' offense might maintain optimal spacing. Huerter remains more of a threat than any other Hawk in that position, simply because opponents have to view him as a threat to rise and shoot.
27 NBA players have attempted 50 or more shots from 27 to 50 feet, shots that essentially vary from long threes to shots from half court. Of those 27 players, only six have converted them at a 40 percent clip or better. Huerter ranks second at 43.1 percent. As the season has progressed, those shots have come more frequently for Huerter as he has grown more comfortable with finding his shots in the offense.
"I'm shooting where the defense isn't guarding," Huerter said. "That was something I did in college. A lot of times defenses expect you to shoot it against the three-point line so if you can extend your range, it makes you that much tougher to guard. You're still shooting an open shot, so for me, I don't want to go too far back to where I'm purposefully just launching from 30, but a couple of feet back or a couple of steps back isn't too much."
Huerter has also converted 40.0 percent of his pullup threes, the best mark among first- or second-year players who have attempted at least one pullup three per game.
Huerter said that his father, Tom, was the one who taught him to shoot. As Kevin got more proficient, his dad gave him one other opportunity that afforded him the endless repetition needed to become an elite shooter.
"He owns his own business, so they built us a half basketball court back at his warehouse," Huerter said. "It was a legit court. We put down a wood court with a Goalrilla hoop. It was hidden, because with the building code, you couldn't have a gym in there, obviously. It was behind a door. We would go in there all the time, even late at night, and that was kind of our spot."
On his homegrown court, Huerter practiced squaring up for a shot regardless of the pass.
"My dad and brother (Thomas Jr.) and I were in the gym, and my brother would get mad at me for throwing a bad pass. Then my dad was like, 'Your teammates aren't going to throw you good passes 100 percent of the time.' "
So the three of them would practice taking any pass thrown their way, getting the ball into their shooting pocket, and firing up an accurate shot. It's a skill that has paid dividends for Huerter on a number of his shots this season.
Huerter's shooting proficiency does more that just put points on the scoreboard. Much as it did for his FIBA teammates back in 2016, it distorts defenses into spots outside their comfort zone. Consider the double-screen action for Trae Young shown below. With help from a Dewayne Dedmon screen, Huerter has both Grayson Allen and Donovan Mitchell racing out to 27 feet to keep him from shooting. The resulting space and pass gets Young rolling into the softest part of the defense.
Huerter is third on the team in assists per game (2.8) despite ranking just seventh on the team in turnovers per game (1.6). Head coach Lloyd Pierce is more than happy to let him take the ball and make plays.
"I feel confident in putting the ball in his hands and his ability to make the right play, whether it's a shot, whether it's a floater, whether it's a stepback three because the defender goes under, or whether it's getting into the paint and making a dropoff to Dewayne or John. He just has a bounce to him right now that he is seeing he can succeed at this level."
Huerter's game is also prone to outbursts of explosiveness. While fans and media have shuffled through a few different attempts at nicknames, Kevin's athleticism has his teammates locked on just a single moniker.
"I call Kevin 'K-Von' because he's sneaky athletic," forward John Collins said. "Kevin is really, really athletic and he's hooping, so we have an inside joke and we just call him K-Von. We tried to give him a nickname without 'Red' in it because he probably heard that his whole life."
The athleticism has started to peek out more and more as the season has progressed, as have all facets of Huerter's game. He is driving to the rim more, and he is more confident in finding spots in the offense where he can get his shots: In November, Huerter averaged one three-point shot attempt for every 7.2 minutes that he was on the floor. In December, it was one every 5.9 minutes, and in January, he took one every 5.2 minutes.
Pierce, for one, is happy to see Huerter begin to trust in his ability.
"It's almost like when you see the animation of the cartoon guy in the mirror: He is lifting weights, and it's this skinny guy, but he sees himself as muscular. I think he is looking in the mirror now and he's realizing, 'There's a lot more that I can do at the NBA level.' "