Drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2009, point guard Jeff Teague grew with the team as it developed and served as a critical part of the Hawks’ surprise 60-win 2014-15 season. Despite his tenure and importance to the team, Jeff Teague began to lose playing time to backup point guard Dennis Schroder over the last two seasons. Schroder’s play and the trust Coach Mike Budenholzer extended to the German-born guard prompted questions about Teague’s role with the team and what the Hawks might do with two talented players sharing the same position.
The answer to those questions came quicker than most expected. In June 2016, just before NBA draft, the Atlanta Hawks traded point guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers as part of a three-team deal that netted Atlanta the 12th pick in the draft on the following day. By trading Teague, Atlanta confirmed its decision to promote backup point guard Dennis Schroder to full-time starter. Atlanta further committed to its Schroder investment on October 26, 2016, when Schroder signed a four-year, $70-million contract extension. Now that we are past the halfway mark of the season, I think it’s a good time to check the early returns on Schroder and the Hawk’s future outlook at point guard.
Based on his stats from previous seasons, Schroder was comparatively a downgrade from Teague as a shooter and scorer. Look at a simple comparison between Schroder’s and Teague’s field goal percentages, and especially their three-point field goal percentages, from the previous two seasons:
While Teague’s overall FG% dipped last season, he shot very well from behind the three-point line: in fact, Teague posted a career-best 40.0 3P% last season. During Teague’s last two seasons with the Hawks, Schroder’s field goal percentage remained steady around 42% and his three-point percentage dropped from league-average in 2014-15 to below average last season. This history seems to point to a pessimistic outcome with Schroder as the undisputed starter, but Schroder is be stepping up to the moment.
So far this season, Schroder is shooting 46.2% from the field and has improved to a career-best 36.5% from behind the arc. And while I have to sound the small sample size alert, I think this improvement is encouraging. Additionally, consider Schroder’s three-point shooting in this context: in Schroder’s previous two seasons, he was cutting into Teague’s minutes and looking for ways to stay on the floor. Schroder’s average playing time increased from 13.1 minutes his rookie year to around 20 minutes a game the last two seasons (19.7 two seasons ago and 20.2 last season). And while Teague’s minutes decreased (30.5 and 28.5 minutes respectively) in relation to Schroder’s increased role, Teague was still the trusted veteran starter. With this in mind, I don’t think it is a leap to conclude that Schroder forced shots and took bigger risks in the past which reflected poorly in his three-point shooting percentage. (For the record, Jeff Teague is shooting 33.3% from three this season, which is one of his lowest averages since his rookie year.)
With the Hawks, Teague was a reliable scoring option averaging 15.9 and 15.7 points per game in his last two seasons in Atlanta. Playing off the bench and behind Teague, Schroder had less time on the floor to get buckets and averaged 10.0 and 11.0 points per game during that time. Happily, more minutes and more opportunities have translated to a higher scoring average: so far this season, Schroder is averaging 17.6 points per game. For comparison, Jeff Teague is averaging a solid and very Teague-like 15.7 points per game with Indiana. Based on how Schroder has performed thus far in the season, I think most concerns that Schroder is a step down as a shooter and scorer can be set aside.
With Schroder on the floor, the Hawks are running very similar pace this season (currently 12th in the league at 99.59) as last season. Schroder is finishing better at the basket this season, shooting 54.6% in the restricted area and averaging about 7.8 points in the paint. As a more potent threat to score, Schroder attracts more defensive attention which provides better opportunities for teammates to score off passes. He is currently dishing out a career-best 6.4 assists per game, which is a slight improvement from Teague’s 5.9 average last season. While Schroder’s average of 3.0 turnovers per game this season is a problematic area, it is not far from the 2.8 turnovers per game Jeff Teague averaged in his last two seasons as a Hawk. Considering the other personnel changes Atlanta has had so far, it will be interesting to see where Schroder’s assist and turnover averages stand at the end of the season after the team has developed better chemistry with Dwight Howard and adjusted to Korver’s trade.
Defensively, the Hawks have been uneven this season. Atlanta currently sits in fifth place with a 103.0 defensive rating despite the team’s rough string of losses starting in mid-November and ending at the turn of the new year. The Hawk’s early season struggles were partially attributed to Schroder, but he remains an above-average defender. Over the course of this season, I expect Schroder to find a better balance between offense and defense, but it is something to watch. Interestingly the Hawks are first in the league in opponent turnovers even though Schroder is averaging fewer steals per game (0.8) this season than last season (0.9) despite that increase in playing time.
Schroder was the right choice for the future of the Hawks franchise. He turned 23 years old just before the 2016-2017 season started, and we are seeing the kind of growth and development as a player that teams want to see out of a fourth-year player. Teague is 28 this season and, while he is in his prime as a player, we pretty much know what to expect from him on the court barring an unexpected leap. Teague’s next contract will probably take him past 30, perhaps even to 32, where most players begin to decline physically. Teague is not an injury-prone player, but even minor nagging injuries take a bigger toll on older players, and if the patella tendon injury that was reported by Teague and then retracted is true, the Hawks were well advised to promote the younger Schroder. And to that point, Schroder is playing well enough already to be considered at least a lateral replacement to Teague. With Atlanta deciding to go younger, they are planning for the future.
Over the next three years, Atlanta will likely convert five first round picks (I believe in you Timberwolves!). Assuming Atlanta does not trade these picks, the Hawks will boast an influx of youth--without tanking--that will play alongside Schroder as he enters his prime. And while we’re talking about this future, let’s not overlook what the Jeff Teague trade actually brought to Atlanta: Taurean Prince.
Selected with the 12th pick of the 2016 NBA Draft (via the Utah Jazz), Taurean Prince is already 22 years old. It is entirely too early to project Prince’s growth and how his career will unfold, but he has demonstrated a high basketball IQ for shot selection and passing. He is also the perfect ‘tweener size that NBA teams look for when putting together a defense to switch between multiple positions. In an optimistic scenario, Prince blossoms into a solid role-player or an outright starter over the next three seasons and plays into the beginning of his prime in a similar timeframe as Schroder, who is only one year older than Prince.
The biggest problem with Schroder’s promotion to starter for the Hawk’s is that they have lost reliable depth at point guard this season. Twenty-seven-year-old rookie Malcolm Delaney is the only other true point guard on the roster, playing exclusively when Schroder sits. And while Atlanta has combo guards and the underestimated playmaking of Paul Millsap which could work in a pinch, this is a weakness that could spell disaster. However, barring misfortune, this is not a problem that should be dwelt on as it can be fixed in the off-season.
Big picture time: the Hawks were able to flip Teague for a pick that turned into Taurean Prince and promoted Dennis Schroder to a full-time starter without sacrificing continuity or skill at the point guard position. With Schroder, the Hawks got younger and healthier for a low cost this season and then locked Schroder into a 4-year deal that will pay him about the same as the Hawks would have paid to retain Teague. Although the Hawks now have a depth problem at the point, Schroder is proving himself to be as valuable to the team’s success as Teague had been in the previous two seasons. Investing in Schroder looks like the smart move for the future of the Hawks.