NBA observers often talk about player timelines. In other words, a 30-year-old player is considered to be in or near their prime, but with a narrow timeline of only a few years to contribute on a contending team. Thus, many observers feel that teams should surround their veterans stars with veteran role players so that the bulk of the roster is on a similar timeline.
Atlanta Hawks coach and President of Basketball Operations Mike Budenholzer, along with GM Wes Wilcox, have opted for a hybrid approach that blends a veteran front court with a full-blown youth movement at the guard and wing positions while still aspiring to advance in the playoffs. In Saturday’s 116-98 win over the Washington Wizards, 23-year-old Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder became the first player in franchise history to score at least 20 points in each of his first three career playoff starts.
“The exciting thing when we think about Dennis is he’s going to continue to get better,” said Budenholzer after Game 3. However, Atlanta’s coach was quick to temper enthusiasm with the Hawks trailing the Washington Wizards 2-1 ahead of Game 4 tonight at 8 PM at Philips Arena.
“He’s had some success to date, but it really doesn’t mean anything,” said Budenholzer. “We’ve got to keep focused on Game 4. He’s got to focus on being great defensively and getting better. No doubt we’re excited about where he is, but I think we’re more excited about where he can go.”
While Schroder shares the scoring lead with Paul Millsap at 25 points — and leads the Hawks with eight assists per game — another shocking performance has come from rookie small forward Taurean Prince, who has started all three playoff games while averaging 14 points, trailing only Schroder and Millsap. Prince leads the regulars with an astounding 57 percent on three-pointers. Among players averaging at least 25 minutes in the playoffs, only Kawhi Leonard has a higher true shooting percentage.
“Every time Taurean touches the floor, he’s out there hustling,” said Millsap. “He’s starting in the playoffs because of that. That’s the approach you’ve got to have as a rookie.”
Schroder said he sees a bit of himself in Prince.
“When I first got into the league I was the same way … hard-headed a little bit, but trying to get better every day,” said Schroder. “What he’s doing in the playoffs, it’s just great. He’s got to keep doing it for us to win games.”
Once again, Budenholzer was quick to restrain any enthusiasm, noting the continued importance of Prince’s defensive assignment against Otto Porter Jr.
“He’s growing right before our eyes,” said Budenholzer of Prince. “The challenge of staying with Porter … he’s got to continue to do that. He can’t relax on that end of the court.”
After averaging 13.4 points (third on the Wizards) on 43.4 percent shooting from three during the regular season, Porter has been limited to seven points on 25 percent three-point shooting in the playoffs. Budenholzer and Wilcox made an absolute commitment to youth when they traded veteran point guard Jeff Teague to the Pacers last summer as part of a three-team trade that netted Prince. If Rookie of the Year voting were pushed back to account for performance in early playoff rounds, Prince would likely be among the leading candidates.
Meanwhile, fourth-year shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. — the third part of Budenholzer’s injection of youth into the starting lineup — has struggled far more than Prince and Schroder. In an exclusive interview with Basketball Insiders following Sunday’s practice at Philips Arena, Hardaway said he is locked in on his defensive assignment against Bradley Beal.
“He’s one of the best players on the team, one of the best two guards in the league,” said Hardaway. “I think I’m trying to sacrifice my shots just to be able to go out there on the defensive end and defend him, just try to do whatever I can to make it tough on him.”
Hardaway joined the chorus praising the efforts of Prince as a starter, adding that he knows some of the struggles he’s gone through to reach this stage.
“He’s a rookie and he has to learn the Coach Bud system same as I did when I first got traded here,” said Hardaway. “His performance as a starter, he’s doing an absolute tremendous job — especially on Otto Porter — limiting his three-point attempts.”
Hardaway also spoke highly of the leadership Schroder has displayed in spite of his youth.
“That’s what we like about him, his tenacity on both ends of the floor, his willingness to go out there and get his teammates involved,” said Hardaway. “He’s doing everything that you ask from a point guard at a young age, so he has a bright future. Once he picks it up on defense, he leads by example, which fuels us on that end of the floor as well.”
Hardaway added that Schroder embraces the challenge of facing one of the NBA’s top point guards in John Wall.
“He’s playing against an All-Star,” said Hardaway. “He loves that challenge. He does a great job of just staying in the moment and not getting too down on himself. But when he does, he kicks into high gear. That’s very rare for some players.”
In addition to Hardaway, another Hawk who has made sacrifices is Kent Bazemore, who transitioned to a sixth-man role when Budenholzer moved Prince and Hardaway into the starting lineup. For the playoffs, Bazemore has the best on-court net rating of any Hawk with at least 50 minutes played. Far from complaining about the change, Bazemore has embraced it and become one of Prince’s greatest supporters.
“Every time he walks on the floor I tell him to be special,” said Bazemore. “I’m happy for him to be thrown out in the fire as a rookie and kind of answer the bell. He’s out there playing with immense energy and making plays.
“He’s going to be great.”
Prince is just behind Bazemore among Atlanta’s net rating leaders, so it appears that Budenholzer’s lineup decisions are paying dividends. And while Hardaway has struggled offensively more than any other Hawk, Budenholzer has shown confidence by keeping him in the starting lineup.
The Hawks still face an uphill battle to make it out of the first round after falling into a 2-0 series hole. But the decision to surround veteran starters Millsap and Dwight Howard with a youth movement — and throw those players into the fire with key roles in the postseason — should benefit the Hawks for years to come.
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