Even with last night’s loss to Miami, the 12-6 Atlanta Hawks have been one of the biggest early-season surprises. They have the league’s eighth best Net Rating this season, third best in the Eastern Conference. New additions Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Devin Harris, Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson have gotten most of the attention; but the development of point guard Jeff Teague has been one of the biggest driving forces. Like many of the Hawks he had a tough night on Monday against Miami, but for the season he has really been the glue holding their offense together.
With the departure of Joe Johnson, Teague has taken on a much bigger offensive role, pushing his Usage Rate to a career-high 23.0%. He’s making a career-high 38.3% of his three-pointers, but the biggest difference for Teague has been his ability to orchestrate the Hawks offense and create shots for his teammates. He’s averaging 7.3 assists per 36 minutes, 11th in the league and at 33.6% he has the 10th highest Assist% in the entire league. Even more impressive, on a per minute basis almost all of the increase in his assists has been on high-value shots at the rim and three-pointers.
When Teague arrived in the league most of his playmaking experience was with simple drive-and-kicks. At the collegiate level, his speed advantage allowed him to simply create shots for himself and his teammates by blowing past defenders. The quickness gap is much smaller at this level and Teague has had to develop other aspects of point guard psyche to continue improving. Here are a few areas where he’s really shown growth this season.
The Hawks made a point of chasing shooting this off-season and Teague has been putting it to good use. Per 40 minutes, he is averaging 3.0 assists that lead to three-pointers. Of players who have played in at least 10 games this season, averaging at least 15 minutes per game, only Raymond Felton and Jrue Holiday have been assisting on more three-pointers.
Of his 109 assists so far this season, 33 have gone to Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson and Kyle Korver. In particular he has developed a remarkable chemistry with Korver. They’ve played just 16 games together but Teague has already demonstrated an uncanny knack for sensing when Korver is going to pop open, whether it’s as a trailer in transition, coming off a screen or just spotting up off of penetration. Here are a few examples of the synergy Korver and Teague have developed.
Besides getting the ball to his shooters, Teague has also done a much better job of reading defenses. Entering his third season Jeff Teague has a much better sense of how the offense works and where everyone is supposed to be. The game has slowed down for him quite a bit and he has often displayed a prescient recognition of opportunities before they develop. Here’s one example:
Korver appears to be setting a backscreen for Pachulia and Pachulia seems to be getting in position to pin down Korver’s man. I’m not sure if this confusion is by design or a genuine miscommunication but it attracts quite a bit of defensive attention. You can see in the photo that four of the five Clippers’ defenders are watching this area of the floor.
As the mess in the middle is resolved Korver pops out at the free throw line. Pachulia slides over and sets a back screen on Teague’s man Chris Paul. This leaves the entire left side of the floor open for Teague.
Paul is completely pinned by Pachulia’s screen and Kover’s cut down the lane draws DeAndre Jordan‘s attention. This allows Teague to easily catch the inbound pass out on the wing.
Because Paul was so hung up on the screen, Jordan has to come out and cover Teague. Pachulia stays at the elbow and Korver heads back out towards the three-point line clearing out the paint. Smith, the inbounds passer, is just entering the play on the backside. At this point Teague has a clear mismatch against Jordan, and plenty of room to operate.
Jordan positions himself purposefully, trying to force Teague to the baseline. Korver, Pachulia and Horford are all pulling their defenders which means Caron Butler has to come along the baseline to provide help. The past two seasons Teague would have likely seen the mismatch of being guarded by Jordan, and the defense laid one before him, as an opportunity to attack the basket. This season he recognizes the opportunity to create a shot for Smith.
Instead of attacking the Jordan and trying to get to the basket Teague calmly dribbles forward, forcing Butler to commit to helping. Smith is now unguarded with a clear lane to the basket. Teague takes one more dribble forward and waits for the passing lane to open. The end result is a layup for Smith. Here’s the play at full speed:
With all the growth in his ability to anticipate the offensive actions unfolding before him, Teague has also displayed an incredible amount of patience. These new openings he’s seeing often require him to adjust his pace, either forcing the defense to adjust and fully open up what he’s seeing, or just to pause a beat and wait for the action to develop. Here’s one example:
Chris Bosh hedges hard and Chalmers has fought over the top of the screen, trailing as Horford releases. Last year, Teague would would looked to attack Bosh or kept pushing his angle to drive Bosh further out of position.
This year Teague slows the speed of his dribble and paces his motion. He keeps separation from Bosh and moves just enough to keep Chalmers from fully recovering. In doing this he drags both defenders further from Horford and sets up a perfect lane to make the pass.
Instead of bringing the ball right into the defense, Teague keeps just enough space to make an easy pass for himself and Horford finds himself with plenty of room to knock down the jumper. The video below shows this play at full speed along with a few other examples of Teague patiently waiting for an offensive play to develop:
What we’ve seen from Teague this season is the shift from a player who relies on his athleticism to overwhelm a defense, to player who is purposefully using his athleticism to manipulate defenses. The Hawks still have issues to resolve on both sides of the ball if they plan on making serious noise in the playoffs but Teague is no longer the question mark he appeared to be the past few seasons.