Atlanta Hawks Rookie Kevin Huerter Already Plays Like Trae Young's Splash Bro

Maurice Bobb@@ReeseReportFeatured ColumnistMarch 19, 2019

ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 27: Kevin Huerter #3 of the Atlanta Hawks drives to the basket against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 27, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2019 NBAE (Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

HOUSTON — For Kevin Huerter, three events stand out as his introductions to the NBA

The first was his initial encounter with LeBron James at Staples Center, where banners hang from the rafters in honor of Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and other Los Angeles Lakers legends.

Playing against the four-time MVP was a dream come true for Huerter.

"You walk in the arena and the whole place is dark except the court," he told Bleacher Report. "The banners are up in the ceiling, and you have that kind of feel about the atmosphere and the fact that you're playing against one of the greatest players to play the game. I remember sitting on the bench and I had to ask one of the ball boys for a towel because my hands were too sweaty. I was about to go in the game and it was playing against LeBron, my favorite player growing up. That was surreal."

The second memorable event: his dunk on the Indiana Pacers.

B/R

Entering the league, the 6'7", 190-pound wing was widely regarded as a deadly shooter who could stroke it from beyond the arc. Few expected the No. 19 overall pick of the 2018 NBA draft to have this kind of athletic ability, too.

"It is always funny to me to gauge the reaction of the crowd when I dunk," Huerter said. "I always hear the 'Whoas.' It's kind of silent at first. I feel like I shock people. But then also players on the other team are like, 'I didn't know this white boy had that.' So it is always kind of cool for me because the other team was just looking at their coaching staff like, 'Since when can he do that?'"

The third moment came against the Golden State Warriors and Kevin Durant—one of the NBA's most unstoppable offensive players.

Huerter learned that the hard way:

"I remember I was guarding KD because I got switched off to him, and he kind of lost the ball and brought it out to half court. I picked him up, and he took like three hard dribbles left, and I was right on him playing defense. He just gave me a quick bump, rose up and hit a 15-footer and backpedaled saying, 'Welcome to the league, rook.' It was the first time I realized that you're going to play good defense a lot of times and guys on offense are just better."


Back in December, when Durant taught him that lesson, Huerter was still a part of the second unit. 

Since then, he's been inserted into the starting lineup and has traded all the nervous energy for unadulterated swagger.

"He's got a lot of swag," Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said. "He's got a lot of confidence. He shoots deep threes, going at Jimmy Butler in the Philly game, he's not afraid to take shots, not afraid to play pick-and-roll. A lot of times, you look at a guy like Kevin and he's a young guy, he shot 43 percent from three last year, and you just label him as a shooter. And that's not Kevin. Kevin's not just a shooter. He is a player."

Huerter, who has improved quietly and without fanfare, is starting to draw comparisons to Klay Thompson, who joins Stephen Curry as one half of the Splash Brothers. That may prove useful, considering the rookie believes Atlanta's general manager Travis Schlenk, formerly Golden State's assistant GM, is using the Warriors as "the new blueprint for winning."

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 3: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks dribbles the ball during the game against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors on December 3, 2018 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

The Hawks (24-47) are not shy about their current rebuilding status and are out of the playoff picture this season. But they're stacked with promising young talent, especially in a backcourt featuring Huerter and Trae Young.

Despite the fact that he's not even the buzziest rookie on his team, Huerter continues to make an indelible impact.

"My confidence came from Coach Pierce, the rest of the coaching staff and our players," Huerter said. "The way I started off, I definitely struggled. But I just kept getting opportunities, and I was just hesitant at first. But after every single game, Coach Pierce was like, 'I literally want you to shoot every time you touch the ball,' and that just became a mindset for me to be aggressive. So if I got an open shot, no matter where it is, I'm trying to take it."

The 2016 Mr. New York Basketball did struggle from the outset, averaging just 5.4 points on 39.3 percent shooting from the floor (37.8 percent from three) in 16 games off the bench. But in the 49 games he's started, those numbers have improved to 10.9 points per outing while he shoots 42.2 percent from the field (39.1 percent from three).

By comparison, rookie-year Thompson averaged 12.5 points on 44.3 percent shooting from the floor (41.4 percent from three).

But Huerter has also shown he has great ball skills and proved he can create his own shot, put the ball on the floor, get into the lane, facilitate for his teammates and shoot from well beyond the three-point line.

"He's given us confidence," Pierce said. "More than anything, he's showed us what he's capable of doing. As a coach, you want players to put you in a position to where you can't keep them off the court, and there was a stretch in December and January where Kevin did that. He led all rookies in minutes played for a period because he just started to show us more."

Atlanta's coaching staff and his teammates have embraced Huerter, to the point they're auditioning nicknames. The team knows him as K-Von. For those outside the locker room, Red Velvet has become popular.

"Red Velvet is the one that kind of sticks a little bit more," Huerter said. "Everybody here calls me K-Von, but on the outside, it's Red Velvet."


Huerter is on a mission.

Sure, comparisons between Golden State's Splash Brothers and the Fire and Ice backcourt duo he forms with Young have been somewhat premature. The former Maryland standout still finds motivation in the assertions.

"We definitely look at that as being high praise," he said. "Me and Trae at some point want to do it a little differently, obviously, to become a championship-caliber team. But it's definitely high praise to be mentioned with those guys. They're widely seen as two of the best shooters in the league. So hopefully, a couple of years from now, after we prove ourselves a little bit more and we continue to go up against those guys, we could fully earn that type of compliment."

Achieving greatness is a process, and the Hawks' elder statesman, Vince Carter, has been trying to steer Huerter in the right direction:

"Don't look at just the finished product. Look at the work in progress first. That's what I tell these guys. They're a work in progress, and we may see a Splash Brothers 2.0. And you see signs of that because they [Huerter and Young] both shoot the ball extremely well. The sky's the limit."

Huerter is already gaining a sense of who he is and what kind of player he wants to become. 

"Kev just needed to believe that he's supposed to be here," Carter said. "We believed. We knew. We could see it. But I think for himself, it's just understanding that he's an NBA player, then getting that opportunity. It's unreal what confidence can do for a player."

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 13: Kevin Huerter #3 of the Atlanta Hawks handles the ball against the Memphis Grizzlies on March 13, 2019 at State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

For Huerter's father, Tom, who played Division I basketball at Siena College and still coaches his son, seeing the former Terrapin succeed at the professional level is a dream. His son has come a long way from shooting on a Little Tikes Easyscore Basketball Set at three years old, running with his father's mantra firmly in mind: "If you're slow, short, but you can shoot, somehow they'll figure out a way to put you on the court."

"The toughest thing about playing at the highest level is that the athletes are so big, long and athletic that it can force you to maybe take shots that you don't practice," Tom said. "So with Kevin, what I say to him is take shots in a game that you practice when you're practicing. And shoot the same way every single time. He's really good at just focusing on shooting the same way every single time, and he's done that for years. I think that's what's helped him become the shooter that he is."

Nothing is more important to a rookie's success than confidence, and it has to come from both sides. The Hawks have clearly given Huerter an opportunity; now he must continue putting in the work and surging toward the top of his draft class. 

Could he hear his name called on an All-Rookie team?

He's having some big moments that could put him in the conversation—his 29-point explosion against the Philadelphia 76ers in mid-January, the 27-spot he dropped on the New Orleans Pelicans during a March 10 victory and his 4-of-6 deep-shooting night against the Memphis Grizzlies three nights later.

"I'm just going to continue to play the right way," Huerter said. "There's a lot of guys who are having good years, but I think I've done a lot and deserve to be on any one of those teams."

The season isn't over yet, so this rookie will undoubtedly experience more special moments and continue to make a name for himself in the NBA, whether as K-Von, Red Velvet or another of his favorites: Professor Hurt.

      

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats courtesy of Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

Maurice Bobb covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Maurice on Twitter, @ReeseReport.


The Coach, David Thorpe, joins Howard Beck on The Full 48 to discuss his new venture, the Pro Training Center, as well as his return to True Hoop and the surprises of the 2018-19 NBA season (both good and bad). Thorpe also reacts to Russell Westbrook's interaction with a fan in Utah, puts players to the "bust, not, too early to tell" test and explains why basketball fans across the league should be concerned about the L.A. Lakers and LeBron James. 

 

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