Story by K.L. Chouinard (@KLChouinard)
Bradley Beal came into the Jan. 28 game against the Hawks averaging a league-best 35.4 points per game. Kevin Huerter got the first crack at guarding him.
Lloyd Pierce made the decision, in part, because he did not want Russell Westbrook taking Huerter or Trae Young into the low post. De'Andre Hunter took that assignment, leaving Huerter to cover Beal. But Pierce thought he was up to the task.
"For me, I try to look at what I think each guy's defensive strengths are and then who has the most reps defending a certain activity."
A week earlier, Huerter had guarded Wayne Ellington and done a good job denying the pindown actions designed to free Ellington for perimeter shots.
"So we go to Bradley Beal, and a lot of his action is pindowns and wide screens, and we’re going to be denying him. (Kevin) has got more experience than De'Andre Hunter in doing so. De'Andre may be a better defender, but that might not be a strength of his."
Before injuries switched up the rotation at halftime, Beal scored 10 points in the first half on 5-10 shooting, and the Hawks led by 11 at the break. The Hawks eventually won, and Beal, who is having a historic season, finished with 26 points, his lowest total to that point of the season.
A game earlier, Pierce wanted to put Hunter on Brooklyn's Kyrie Irving, while also using Cam Reddish and John Collins on Kevin Durant. That left Huerter with another big challenge: last season's scoring leader.
"So now we have to challenge Kevin a different way and guard the basketball, and he actually did a really good job, I thought, on James (Harden) of being able to pressure and use his size and length to get some deflections. We can evaluate it that way, and in each game, it isn’t just best player on best player. It’s 'who is our best defender, and where can we put him so that he can be most effective?'"
Huerter isn't an NBA player because of his defense. He is an NBA player because of his incredible shooting touch and heady playmaking. He leads the Hawks with 53 three-pointers this season, and he is converting those threes at a cash-tastic 41.6 percent clip. But the 6-foot-7 guard also leads the Hawks with 27 steals and 60 deflections this season.
"Kevin, overall, off the basketball I think he’s been tremendous in passing lanes, getting deflections, getting steals," Pierce said. "He's just a great position guy and he’s got the instincts to read where the pass may be going."
Since entering the starting lineup on Jan. 16, Huerter has averaged 13.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. He is on pace to set career-best marks in field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and points per game.
"It's finding my spots and finding ways to stay aggressive and keep myself within the offense," Huerter said. "Obviously, I've shot better over the past couple of games, so that definitely has helped. Overall, especially as (De'Andre Hunter) has been out and (Bogdan Bogdanovic) is obviously still out, I'm just trying to stay aggressive. The team needs that from me."
Huerter tied a career-high with 10 assists in the first matchup with the Mavericks, filling in as a secondary playmaker in a game when the Mavs tried exceptionally hard to take the ball out of Trae Young's hands using traps and multiple defenders.
"In a lot of ways, the (first) Dallas game was a place where I was able to showcase a lot and stay aggressive, obviously, with them really just trying to take Trae out of the game."
While Pierce is pleased with Huerter's performance, he still knows that there is room for improvement.
"I'm always on him. I want him to be more physical. I think he's a cerebral player. I need him to be a physical player and really kind of balance out his length and his positioning and his intelligence with that physicality of the game. He's a guy that is going to be on the court at the end of the games. He has been there for us these past few games. We've all talked about needing five guys to get in the mix to keep (opponents) from getting offensive rebounds – that has kind of been our Achilles heel in the fourth quarter. That is an area for him to grow specifically when it comes down the stretch in the fourth quarter when he's on the floor."
While Huerter works in that regard, it speaks volumes that Pierce still counts on him for crucial endgame minutes. His all-around game has quietly ticked upward in his third season. As important as his contribution will be while the Hawks wait for injured players to return, Huerter will no doubt be an important rotation piece going forward.