Jeff Teague’s Helping Hawks Take Flight

jeff-teague

Jeff Teague’s first two seasons in the NBA were an unequivocal bust.

The Atlanta Hawks selected Teague with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NBA Draft and he repaid them by averaging 4.2 points and 1.8 dimes in 11.9 minutes of burn his first two seasons in the NBA.

Yuck.

Teague showed flashes of living up to his promise last season when he averaged 12.6 and 4.9 assists in 33 minutes of burn. He finally earned the trust of head coach Larry Drew and looked poised to play big minutes again this season.

Last summer new Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry took less than a month to nuke the team when he dealt Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams for cap space and expiring deals. Critics claimed those moves would cost Atlanta in the short term as they lost two starters and the face of the franchise.  The main reason why people weren’t fans of the moves is because it created questions about how effective Josh Smith and Al Horford would be if they were relying on an injury-prone point guard in Devin Harris or a relatively inexperience point guard in Teague.

In a nice twist, those trades were just what Teague needed to make him feel more comfortable as a leader and start asserting himself more on the court.

“I’m just getting the opportunity to play more,” Teague told me. “I’m getting used to Larry Drew’s system. Last year I was thrown in the fire because I didn’t play much my first two years so last year was really like my first year for me. This year has been just me trying to get better.”

It’s more than just getting an opportunity to play more. With Johnson, Mike Bibby and other guys who dominated the ball out of the picture, it has allowed Teague to create more with the ball in his hands. Instead of running running a ton of isolation plays for Johnson, Smith and Horford, the team is now running a lot of pick-and-roll plays which means the ball is in the hands of Teague more now that it ever has before.

On top of that, Teague no longer has to worry about being too vocal and trying to lead guys who have been around the league a lot longer than he has.

“It was very tough,” Teague admitted when asked what it was like being a rookie point guard on a team filled with veterans. “You want to prove to them that you can play. As a point guard you need to be a leader but as a young guy trying to lead 30-year-old guys and telling them what to do was difficult at first but I’m slowing getting better at it.”

The result is Teague currently tied for 11th in the NBA in assists (7.1) and Atlanta as a team ranks second. Instead of the ball getting stuck in the hands of one player, Atlanta is now sharing the basketball in a way they haven’t for years.

Being able to play through mistakes and being on the court more the result is Teague finally has the confidence that he’s a starting point guard in the NBA.

“He lets me play through mistakes,” Teague explained when asked how Larry Drew has helped him grow.

However, it’s not always pats on the back or pep talks. Drew isn’t afraid to give his young point guard some tough love when it’s needed.

“I’m constantly in his ear about different things,” Drew said. “I may yell at him a few times, but he knows what I’m trying to do and that is to make him a better basketball player. He is a big part of what we are trying to do.”

His coach and teammates may put a lot of pressure on him, but Teague has clearly risen to the challenge and is now poised for a long and successful career in the NBA.

Sure, posting career-highs across the board looks good when he’s about to be a free agent agent, but the true test of any point guard is how well his team is doing. The key proof to his growth as a point guard is the fact Atlanta is yet again a playoff team this season. Critics had Atlanta pegged as a lottery team last summer but they clinched a playoff spot for the sixth consecutive season last week.

With Atlanta fighting for home court advantage during a rebuilding season that has been marred by injuries, it’s clear that Teague has had a big impact this season. He’s made the jump from being an athlete who was overwhelmed to a floor general that has the poise to make big plays when his team needs while averaging career-highs in scoring and assists.

Teague is going to be a free agent this summer so his play this season has him poised to cash in, whether or not it’s Atlanta that is paying him.

Not bad for a player who was consider a bust just over a year ago.

Hawks Feel Double The Heartbreak

One of the major storylines of the early NBA season has been the steady success of the new look Atlanta Hawks (20-12), but back-to-back demoralizing losses has coach Larry Drew a little concerned about his team.

The first loss came Friday night on the road at the hands of the lowly Detroit Pistons (13-22). After struggling for the majority of the game, the Hawks found themselves down 83-66 about halfway through the fourth quarter. Atlanta managed to fight all the way back with a 16-0 run, but a Horford jumpshot, initially ruled as 3-pointer but reversed to a two, saw the Hawks fall 85-84.

Last night, the Hawks looked to put the tough loss behind them and came out smoking behind a 21-point first half explosion from Louis Williams. The Hawks were forced to swallow their second dose of heartbreak, however, after a complete collapse in the third quarter saw the Celtics battle back from a 19-point deficit and cruise to a 89-81 victory.

The Hawks have now lost three of their last four but still find themselves in the third spot in the Eastern Conference. With the Indian Pacers (20-14) breathing down their necks, Drew said he is concerned about the team’s mental toughness. He said he thinks the turning point in last night’s game was in the second quarter when Boston began to play more physical. As to be expected, Drew isn’t happy with how his team responded.

“I’m concerned because this is the NBA and you have to expect that,” Drew said. “When you play against teams that do smack you, you have to respond. It’s just the way it is. Everybody has to do it. Every team in this league has to do it. When you don’t’ do it you get labeled. You get a tag on you. That’s the last thing I want to happen to my ball club.”

This is the first time Drew has expressed concern about his team’s toughness, but he said the fact that the defeat came from a team that has given them similar problems in the past was even more frustrating.

“This is a very, very disappointing loss,” Drew said. “Probably, for me, the most disappointing loss of the season for the mere fact of playing against a team we have battled in the past and we’ve seen this type of scenario before where we have played well and then when it starts to get a little bit physical, when they start playing a little bit rougher, when they start make things a little more difficult for us, we don’t respond. That was clearly what happened tonight.”

Although Louis Williams has been impressive in his 8-game stint as a starter, the Hawks have struggled a bit to replicate his production off the bench. Over the last two games the Hawks have only mustered 23 points from their bench. The lackluster numbers, however, must also be in part attributed to injuries to Devin Harris and Anthony Morrow who both sat out Saturday night and DeShawn Stevenson who played limited minutes as he is recovering from an injury.

The Hawks will look to right the ship as the take on the banged up Minesota Timberwolves (15-15) Tuesday night in Atlanta.

Podcast: 2012 NBA Playoffs Preview

After nearly a year, the Hoops Addict Podcast is back on a regular basis. I’ve linked up with Mark Cheel with the intention of bringing back the Podcast on a weekly basis and we started with a preview of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.

Mark and I break down why Atlanta can give Boston a scare, we debate if Utah’s frontcourt can muscle San Antonio out of the playoffs, we lament that the Clippers lack of a strong coach will result in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul not lasting as long as they should in the playoffs as well as the rest of the first round match-ups.

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Here’s the MP3 of the Podcast if you want to download it.