The speed of the NBA is breathtaking. A Westbrook supersonic rim attack, a blink quick Curry flick from deep, Bron whipping a laser past the ear of a hapless defender to the opposite corner; professional basketball players are some of the fastest athletes in the world.
Even ebbs and flows of contending franchises move at missile speeds, almost too fast to catch with the naked eye. Just 24 months ago, the Atlanta Hawks won 60 games and were in the Eastern Conference finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers snuffed their season with brutal 4-0 efficiency, signalling the beginning of the end for Atlanta.
Coach Mike Budenholzer, (a Greg Popovich acolyte) tried to run it back the next year, and all he got was another 4-0 Cavs curbstomping of his Hawks for his troubles. Last season Atlanta attempted to retool, saying goodbye to Al Horford and bringing in Dwight Howard, but to no avail. Not only were the Cavaliers insurmountable, but now Atlanta finds itself staring up at the Celtics, Wizards, and Raptors as well.
Enough was enough.
This summer, new Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk wasted little time in knocking down the House that Bud built. Howard was in town for only seven months, then unceremoniously shipped off to work his game for the Hornets. The Hawks didn’t waste the paper to offer All-Star free agent Paul Millsap a contract and he skipped town to Denver. The rebuild was in full swing. They have young wings with promise in DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince, and a springy rookie big in John Collins. They have the onerous contract and spotty play of Kent Bazemore, and solid, unspectacular vets in Dewayne Dedmon, Marco Belinelli, and Ersan Ilyasova.
And finally, they have a German speedster who’s set to lead them back to respectability (eventually), Dennis Schröder.
In their brief heyday, Atlanta did their damnedest to be “Spurs East”, running a ball sharing, motion based, offense with Horford and Millsap as the multi-skilled twin hubs. With the dynamic big men now moved on to greener pastures, Atlanta’s offense will shift to a perimeter based attack spearheaded by the precocious Schröder.
The 23 year old German national is as quick as a hiccup and absolutely fearless. If you squint, you see a lot of young Rajon Rondo in him, at least physically. They’re roughly the same height, move with the same loping stride, and exhibit the same coat rack shoulders and similar tremendous wingspans. Unlike young Rondo, Schröder is sieve defensively and nowhere close to the same natural playmaker Rajon is. Schröder is capable making most of the reads the offense dictates, but he’s a scorer to the core, and struggles with consistently making the right pass.
The Hawks up and down season mirrored their mercurial point guard. Atlanta won 52 percent of their games last season, but were 17-6 when Schröder scored 23 or more points and just 11-13 when he scored 14 or less.
While we know we’re dealing with small sample sizes, his level of aggression seemed to be reflected in the win/loss column: The Hawks were 20-13 when Schröder tallied 4 or more turnovers, but only 12-19 when he had two or less giveaways. That may seem counter-intuitive, but the best Dennis is an attacking Dennis, and he’s most impactful when he’s turning on the jets and getting into the teeth of the defense and making things happen.
And what jets the kid has. There’s fast, and then there’s Schröder fast. Very few players in the league can go from stock still to top speed with the unsettling rapidity that the fourth year guard exhibits. Prior to last season, his fleet feet cut both ways; he was almost as likely to careen out of control as he was his baffle his defender when he accelerated himself into a blur. But in his first year as a starter, his minutes were way up (he played a 31.5 minutes a night, an 11 minute increase over last year) and his turnover rate was a career low 16.3%, right in line with the seasons of Jeff Teague (16.5%), Russell Westbrook (16.8%), and John Wall (16.2%).
That’s not to say that there are not serious holes in Schröder’s game. Defensively, screens tend flatten to him like Frogger, and his effort to recover when picked off is next to zero. For all of the quick twitch in his possession, his jumper loads up like a slaggy web page, slow and flat footed. Schröder’s speed allows him unfettered access to anywhere he wants on the court, but there are times where he has no clue what to do next once he arrives at his destination.
There’s more for Schröder to work on this summer – he must get stronger and he’ll have to improve his ability to recognize and react to what defenses are tossing at him. Luckily for him and the Hawks, this season looks to be one of instruction, with a focus on instilling good habits and figuring out who’s part of the future. With all four of the Hawks who made the 2015 All Star team now on different rosters, seven players 24 years old or younger, and nine new faces, expect wins to be few and far between.
Next season, Schröder’sfour year, $70 million contract kicks in. Even if he just maintains last year’s production (17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists in only 31.5 minutes per game), he’ll be worth every penny, but if last year’s first round match-up with the Wizards are any indication, the best is yet to come.