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Kevin Huerter backs up decision to leave Maryland early with solid NBA rookie season in Atlanta

Even after the Atlanta Hawks selected Kevin Huerter with the 19th overall pick in last June’s NBA draft, there were questions about the former Maryland shooting guard’s readiness for the rigors of an 82-game schedule against the world’s best players.

Most of it had more to do with Huerter’s physical maturity than his well-rounded game and well-grounded personality. But the preseason and early regular season did little to quash the questions about whether Huerter left college too soon.

Huerter, who lost much of his summer preparation time after undergoing surgery to repair a broken knuckle on his shooting hand suffered late in his sophomore season, said some of the self-doubts started to creep into his normally confident game.

“To start the year, [I was] kind of going through stuff in the preseason, and just not playing as well as I could’ve and getting frustrated over a lot of different things,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

It took a conversation with another rookie, first-year Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, to help turn Huerter around.

“He just told me going into the year it was going to be a process, hopefully a couple of weeks, a couple of months, however long it takes, I’d work my way into the lineup and start contributing,” Huerter said.

“He said, ‘We’re going to get through it, we’re going to get better as the year went on.’ I started playing a little better, started making shots and we had a couple of injuries at the beginning of December and all of sudden I was playing 30 minutes a night.”

After his playing time and productivity fluctuated over the team’s first 16 games, injuries to veteran Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, a first-round draft pick in 2016 who started every game last season, led to Huerter’s increased role.

Since moving into the starting lineup in mid-November, Huerter has scored in double figures in 21 of 34 games, including a stretch of nine straight last month in which he set a career high with 29 points in a win at Philadelphia on Jan. 11, when he was matched up against four-time All-Star and four-time All-Defense selection Jimmy Butler.

“I’ve been so fortunate with the opportunity I’ve gotten, to kind of show what I’ve been able to do,” said Huerter, who’s averaging 9.1 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists in just over 27 minutes per game, shooting 41 percent from the field and 38.2 percent from 3-point range. “Once a player gets an opportunity, that becomes something that I can control and figure out how well I can play.”

As he did during his freshman year at Maryland, Huerter showed early on that he could contribute without scoring much. In his third NBA game, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound Huerter had 10 rebounds, four assists, two steals and nine points against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Huerter said that ongoing discussions with Nate Babcock, the team’s director of player development, have helped him in that regard.

“Early in the year, there were a bunch of games where I wasn’t shooting well and Nate’s whole message was, ‘Go do something else, you can figure it out, you’re a good enough player to do other things on the court,’ ” Huerter recalled.

“All of a sudden, the shot started to fall and a couple of games where I made shots, but I wasn’t doing the other things. Again, he was like, ‘You’re making shots, that’s great. Still try to do the other things.’ There were games when I’ve done all three.”

Eight-year veteran Jeremy Lin, whom the Hawks acquired in an offseason trade to help in the development of players such as Huerter, fellow 2018 first-round pick Trae Young and John Collins, the team’s first-round pick in 2017, sees this as only the beginning for a potential NBA star.

“For him, it’s always been getting out of his comfort zone, and staying assertive and aggressive at all time,” Lin said before the Hawks’ 137-129 win over the Washington Wizards on Monday night at Capital One Arena in which Huerter had 19 points, five rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes, shooting 5-for-7 from beyond the arc.

“I think that’s generally for all rookies, you’re not sure what you’re supposed to do, how you’re supposed to fit in. He’s been able to really challenge himself, and adjust quickly. … He’s going to be a great player, I think that’s obvious. … I’m really excited for him.”

Pierce joked before Monday’s game that Huerter “has the most nicknames of anyone on the team,” with most of them having to do with his bright red hair. Everything from “Red Mamba,” which got some traction during to his two seasons in College Park, to “Red Dot” for his laser-like shooting, to one that he doesn’t really like.

As Justin Anderson walked into the visiting dressing room, Pierce asked the former Virginia star what Huerter’s nickname was.

“ ’Red Velvet’,” Anderson said with a laugh.

“It’s hard to keep up,” Pierce said. “But I think what we’ve learned is that Kevin has a lot more swag than we’ve given him credit for. … Soft-spoken, mild-mannered, and all of sudden he’ll dunk on you. And he’ll whisper something to you after he dunks on you.

“He’s a very confident player, and as his confidence has grown, you’ll see him do more and more. As a coach for me, the real challenge is how to insert him into the game more, not just minute-wise, but things on the court. How do I get the ball in his hands?”

Huerter said that he has had to have more of a short-term memory than ever before.

“In college or high school, you play bad and you think about it for two or three days and you let it eat you up, or you play great and everybody’s loving you for two or three days,” he said. ‘In the NBA, they forget really quick, that’s both good games and bad games.

“You keep constantly trying to prove yourself. As a young guy, I put a lot of pressure on myself to play well night in and night out. Talking with coach, he’s like, ‘Chill out, go watch film, we have another game tomorrow.’ ”

Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk, who came to the Hawks last season after serving as assistant general manager for the Golden State Warriors, said that Huerter showed some of his potential before training camp began.

“There were some days in open gym that he would be the best guy on the floor and it wouldn’t be close,” Schlenk said last week.

One of the reasons has been Huerter’s defense. Not overly quick-footed, Huerter has made up for it by using his length and by understanding how to play angles. His first big play in college was a last-second block to help Maryland preserve a win over Georgetown.

“He’s got the ability to impact the game in a lot of different ways,” Schlenk said. “From where he was in the preseason defensively to where he is now is amazing. He looked so scared, so tentative. Now he’s gone up and guarded [Oklahoma City Thunder star] Paul George and did a great job.”

Part of what helps Huerter is how he looks to opposing players.

“Because he’s a white kid and he looks young, they don’t realize how athletic he is, either,” Schlenk said. “He had a dunk in the Indiana game where he went in the lane and threw it down and everybody in the gym was like, ‘Oh my gosh, where did this kind come from.’ He’s well more rounded as a basketball player than people give him credit for, no question.”

Along with some individual performances, and some wins over playoff-bound teams such as the 76ers, the Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City and Los Angeles Clippers, the highlight for Huerter came on one of his assists.

It came during a Nov. 21 home game against the Toronto Raptors when Huerter grabbed an offense rebound of a missed shot by Vince Carter and fed the 41-year-old for a dunk what turned out to the 21-year veteran’s 25,000th NBA point.

“It’s still one of those thing, being around Vince, it’s become normal for me now, but when I talk about it with my friends and family, they still have an ‘Oh my god, it’s Vince Carter,’ kind of reaction,” Huerter said. “I’m around him every single day.

“That was obviously really cool, especially for me to get the assist on and for it to be a dunk against the Raptors [Carter’s first team], I felt like everything kind of fell into place. I’ll have a basketball or something, but for right now I get to play with Vince Carter.”

Huerter is being embraced by the veterans for taking their insults or orders with humility and a sense of humor, such as wearing a pink backpack or picking up their lunch.

“It’s just one of those things, it’s almost like the NBA is a giant fraternity. You got to pay your dues to show you belong. You show you can be selfless. You can be a first-round pick, and if somebody tells you to get a towel for them, you don’t have a big enough head that you can tell them no.”

Huerter has stayed in close touch with many of his former Terps teammates, even spending New Year’s Eve with some of them in Washington. Some Terps players, assistant coaches and staff members bused over to the Capital One Arena for Monday’s game to watch Huerter and the Hawks play. His parents, Tom and Erin, also came to watch him play.

As he did at Maryland, Huerter has handled his sudden celebrity with a nice mix of confidence and humility that was planted years ago growing up in little Clifton Park, N.Y., outside of Albany.

“Maybe I have surprised some people, but the people who have seen me play and with the opportunity I’ve gotten aren’t too surprised,” said Huerter, who watched Super Bowl LIII on Sunday with his former teammates in College Park. “There are rookies who play on teams that are contending that don’t get the same opportunity. That’s why I’m fortunate to be in the position I’m in.”

The Hawks started 3-16 after a nine-game losing streak, but have rebounded to 17-35 entering Monday night’s game, 12th place in the Eastern Conference. Still, just as it seemed before the season began, any chance of a playoff appearance is slim.

“It was definitely weird. That was a conversation I had with a bunch of coaches, it was going to be a tough year,” Huerter said. “We’re going to lose more games this year than I ever in high school or in college. It was going to be a really different year.

“Their whole message this year is for me to get better individually and for us as a team to get better for the future. You can’t look at each individual game, you have to look at the season as a whole and try to get better.

“At this point, we’re playing a lot better as a team, it’s a lot more enjoyable. … We’ve had a lot of quality wins, and games that we’ve played where we put it all together for a game, maybe the next game we didn’t come out with the same energy.

“As a young team, it comes down to consistency every single game. We know we’re not a finished product. Just player-wise and organizational-wise, there are certain games where we can beat [good teams]. It kind of shows us what could be ahead.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

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