As Kevin Huerter swished jump shot after jump shot Sunday night, silencing a distraught Philadelphia 76ers crowd and putting an end to another season of “The Process,” his legend seemed to grow larger and larger among NBA Twitter.
The devout crowd of basketball followers quickly changed his Wikipedia bio, in one instance referring to him as the owner of the 76ers. They shared a slowed-down viral video of Huerter grinning, which he later revealed was actually an incredulous response to a missed free throw. And — of course — they cleverly cut Huerter’s highlights to create a cameo in the “Never Gonna Give You Up” music video, pairing him with another beloved redhead, Rick Astley.
“The Internet’s undefeated. You’re reminded of that the other day,” a smiling Huerter, 22, said on a virtual news conference Tuesday. “It’s been crazy. Obviously, all the support, the texts, social media presence, as you can imagine, it’s been crazy. But it’s been fun. This is a fun ride we’re on and we wanted to keep it going.”
The former Terp standout scored 27 points, a playoff career-high, to lead the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks to a Game 7 win over top-seeded Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Hawks will play the Milwaukee Bucks, the No. 3 seed, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday night.
While star point guard Trae Young struggled with his shot for much of the evening, it was Huerter who stepped up, using his size advantage over Seth Curry to make 10 of 18 attempts in the series-clinching victory. The game served as a sort of coming-out party among the general NBA viewership for Huerter, who in his third year averaged 11.9 points, 3.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds during the regular season.
To interim coach Nate McMillan, Huerter’s standout performance was just the continued growth of a player who’s cementing his status as a legitimate two-way wing player.
“Defensively, he was a guy who had the potential to be a two-way player,” McMillan said. “And again, due to the number of injuries that we’ve had this season, Kevin has had to be a starter and guard the best [shooting guard], best [small forward] at times. He’s come off the bench and needed to be that sixth man for us and lift us, providing not only defense but offense.
“He’s been consistent with that really all season long. You just continue to see him get better at doing that. ... He’s just showing the potential that we’ve always known he has.”
Huerter’s professional trajectory has somewhat mirrored that of the upstart Hawks this season, who are 39-19 since McMillan took over in early March and knocked off two higher seeds to reach the conference finals for the first time since 2015. A series win over Milwaukee would give the Hawks their first Finals appearance since 1961 — when the organization was in St. Louis. Very few expected them to be this far along in their rebuild, but it hasn’t deterred the young group.
Huerter signed with Maryland coach Mark Turgeon and the Terps as a highly regarded recruit in the Class of 2016 but one who wasn’t expected to depart for the NBA after two seasons.
“I think toward the end of his freshman year, I thought it was going to be a three-year process [to the NBA] ... and then the start of his sophomore year, I knew it was going to be sped up because he just improved so much,” Turgeon said.
Huerter’s father, Tom, who played college basketball at Siena and later served as the team’s radio analyst, said Kevin’s eyes weren’t so much focused on the NBA growing up as it was living out a dream of playing college basketball.
“He wanted to play in the NCAA [tournament], he wanted to make a run to the Final Four as a young kid,” Tom said, “because he grew up ingrained with Siena basketball. He was a ball boy, which gave him a different perspective. He went on trips to games with me because I was doing the TV [and] radio.
“When he decided to go to the combine, that was a conversation that he and I and his mother had. He didn’t really want to go. We kind of laid out an option that it was a win-win situation in that, if he went, he could test the waters. If it didn’t go as well, he was very happy with his situation at Maryland. His decision to leave was the toughest decision he’s ever had to make because he absolutely loved Maryland. He wanted to go back for his junior year and absolutely kill it. He wanted to prove that they were an NCAA tournament team and make a deep run. But the opportunity that was there was something he kind of couldn’t pass up.”
It wasn’t until an impressive showing at the NBA scouting combine and the reality of his first-round status that Kevin opted to remain in the draft and leave College Park. The Hawks selected him with the 19th overall pick in 2018, forming a backcourt of the future with Young, who was taken with the No. 5 selection.
“One of my first meetings with [Turgeon], he brought me in,” Kevin said, “and he talked about Jake Layman and Dez Wells and Melo [Trimble] and all these people that made a jump and told me about their workout routine and how hard they worked. He just said you can’t cheat it. You’ve got to work hard, you’ve got to find your time to get your extra work in.
“That’s kind of what we did over the next two years. ... I can go on and on but I would never change my experience [at Maryland].”
Kevin started 59 games his first season, earning NBA All-Rookie second-team honors. Steve Dagostino, Kevin’s trainer, recalls watching his first professional game against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden and thinking it was only a matter of time before he logged significant minutes, even though he played just four in his debut.
“When he was coming out of high school he was skinny. A lot of times, people focus on the negative,” Dagostino said. “Like, ‘Oh, he is going to be able to guard in the post? Is he going to be able to take contact offensively?’ And they focus on the things that may be seen as like cons or negatives, and they don’t see what he does really, really well.”
By December of his rookie year, Kevin was routinely playing 25 minutes a game. He started 49 games in a 2019-20 season shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic and another 48 in the 2020-21 season as injuries to some of the team’s other wings forced him into the starting lineup.
McMillan inserted him back into the starting lineup for the last four games of the Philadelphia series as Atlanta came back from a 2-1 deficit to advance to the conference finals. In the postseason, Kevin is averaging 11.6 points and 4.1 rebounds on 48% shooting from the field and 40% from beyond the arc.
“The bigger the stage, the better he played. I always thought that way,” Turgeon said.
Dating to his time at Maryland, Kevin has shattered tired labels of him just being a skilled shooter. He finished second in rebounds as a freshman and second in assists as a sophomore while also bumping his scoring average from 9.3 points to 14.8.
In recent years, Dagostino said the two have worked on rounding out the other facets of Kevin’s game, such as finishing around length and contact.
“He’s always been that kid that was unassuming, that no one kind of expected to do what he does,” Tom said. “If you took a picture of his 15-year-old AAU team, he would probably be the last kid you would think that’s in the NBA. But he was the best player on that team then, and he’s been the best player on almost every team he’s ever been on.”
Tom said Kevin has acclimated well to the culture and liveliness of Atlanta. He owns a home not too far from the team’s practice facility and, about 11 hours away from his hometown of Clifton Park, a New York suburb, has found an appreciation for the mild winters despite the blistering summers.
And while Tom added that Kevin understands the business of the NBA, Kevin’s strong play in the postseason has once again justified his place among the team’s young core as he becomes eligible for a rookie extension this summer.
“I think the city of Atlanta has found a new son that they want to embrace, which is great,” Tom said. “It’s helped him. He’s had that confidence. He’s a driven individual that doesn’t necessarily need praise or doesn’t necessarily need a pat on the back every time he makes a layup. I think he took it in stride. I know he appreciated it but I know he’s not going to lose his head over it.”
Eastern Conference finals
Wednesday, 8:30 p.m.