There were many times during their freshman year together when the college careers of Kevin Huerter and Justin Jackson seemed virtually in the same place, their timetables very much in sync.
That changed last season. Jackson struggled with his shooting early on, and then was sidelined for all but the first 11 games after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
As Jackson sat, Huerter’s game continued to grow.
Though both were invited to the NBA’s draft combine last month, Huerter emerged from Chicago as a likely first-round draft choice. Jackson, unable to play there while still recovering from surgery, remained a question mark.
On Thursday night, Huerter and Jackson found themselves on much different paths to start their NBA careers. The only similarity is that each will begin their lives as pros on lousy teams.
Huerter, picked 19th overall, will be considered once of the cornerstones for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks fell last season from a team that had reached the playoffs for 10 straight years to having the worst record (24-58) in the Eastern Conference.
Jackson, taken 43rd by the Denver Nuggets, was immediately traded to the Orlando Magic. The Magic has struggled for six years — the last five ending up in the NBA lottery, including 25-57 last season.
New Hawks’ general manager Travis Schlenk hopes to pair Huerter and former Oklahoma star Trae Young, the No. 5 overall pick, as the Golden State Warriors did with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Schlenk spent 12 years with the Warriors, the last five as assistant general manager. New Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce, an assistant with the Philadelphia 76ers the past five seasons, had been in Golden State in 2010-2011.
“They’re a young team with a new coach, I think they’re looking to be more successful in years to come,” Huerter said Thursday night. “I think there are going to be a lot of hungry guys, a lot of guys looking to get better. It’s a franchise moving in the right direction and I’m happy to be part of that.”
Tom Huerter said that his ultra-competitive son has been told that Atlanta will try to model itself after the two-time defending NBA champions.
“Golden State appears to be the franchise that everyone tries to emulate,” the elder Huerter said. “That’s exciting to Kevin because Golden State plays a brand of basketball that he can thrive in.”
Kevin Huerter said he is also excited by the possibility of playing with Young, a consensus first-team All-American who as a freshman last season was the first player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both scoring and assists.
The two played together two years ago on a U-18 national team that won the gold medal at the FIBA Americas championship in Chile.
“Everyone knows Trae is a dynamic scorer,” Huerter said. “He can put up big numbers really quick. Especially offensively he’s really, really good. I’m expecting to build a better relationship with him, get to know him a little bit more and I look forward to playing with him.”
Huerter had an inkling after the San Antonio Spurs chose former Miami star Lonnie Walker IV at No. 18 that he was about to be taken by the Hawks. Huerter recalled how his private workout in Atlanta got off to a shaky start.
“In my workout, I didn't shoot it as well as I wanted to, and one of the coaches pulled me aside and kind of said they know I can shoot it, I can't show emotion, not worry about the last shot and move on to the next one,” Huerter said. “It was evident right there for the first time that I knew they believed in me.
“The rest of that workout went great. I talked to their assistant GM [in Chicago] and he told me he really liked my game and that I definitely would be a player they’re looking at. Moving forward, they really like athletic wings, guys that can play multiple positions both offensively and defensively.”
While acknowledging Huerter’s efficiency as a scorer and ability to shoot from long range, Schlenk told reporters in Atlanta Thursday, “We love his ability to pass the ball, to make other players better with his court vision.”
NBA analyst Chauncey Billups said on ESPN telecast of the draft from the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., that Huerter reminds of him of former NBA wing Mike Miller, who played 17 years before retiring before last season.
“The younger Mike Miller, I might add, in Orlando — very athletic, can put the ball on the floor, beautiful jump shot,” Billups said. “He can really, really shoot it. And good vision, he can pass the ball. I think he’s going to be a steal. An underrated player.”
The Hawks will have to wait until training camp to see the two rookies play together. Huerter will sit out the team’s summer league schedule after recently undergoing surgery to repair a torn ligament in his shooting hand. He suffered the injury late last season against Northwestern.
Huerter can now understand a little what Jackson has gone through the past few months. Huerter, who missed a few weeks last summer after having his tonsils removed, said it was the first time he has been sidelined for a significant period of time because of an injury since he broke his elbow as a fifth-grader.
“That’s so frustrating, not being able to play.I haven’t been able to play basketball the past two or three weeks, I’m itching to start shooting again,” he said. “I’ve still got a couple [of weeks] to go. When I’m finally going to be cleared, I got to make up for the last month and a half.”
The difference now is that Huerter will receive a guaranteed contract worth an estimated $5 million over three years.
Conversely, Jackson will have to hope for the kind of deal former Maryland standout Jake Layman got as the No. 47 pick two years ago. Layman, who was acquired by Portland from Orlando on draft night, received a three-year deal worth around $2.7 million, with the first two years guaranteed.
Huerter, his family and friends, as well as Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, former assistant Dustin Clark and a few former teammates watched the draft at a golf club in Clifton Park, the upstate New York community where Huerter grew up.
“I wanted to share this moment with the closest people around me – and that’s both at home and at Maryland,” Huerter said. :I didn’t have to convince anyone to come here, they all texted saying, ‘Hey I’ll see you Thursday.’ So I’m glad they made it with the type of people that Coach Turgeon and Coach Clark and the five guys that came to see me are. I’m glad Coach Turgeon has been there every step of the way.”