NEW YORK — The Atlanta Hawks came to the Barclays Center on Saturday with six straight losses, but were hopeful that their tough start to what was supposed to be a turnaround season was showing signs of progress with a pair of five-point defeats recently to the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers.
Three of the Hawks — former Maryland players Kevin Huerter, Bruno Fernando and Alex Len — have experienced individual struggles as the team fell to the bottom of the Eastern Conference with a 6-23 record.
In the course of a 122-112 loss to the Nets, things went from good to bad for the Hawks, in particular for Huerter.
Huerter, who sat out the entire preseason with a lingering knee injury and got hurt again just as he seemed to be getting back the form he showed as one of the league’s best rookies last season, hit his first two shots against the Nets and missed all but one of the other 12 he tried.
Fernando, making his second straight start, showed the kind of energy and physicality that he displayed during his two seasons in College Park, and helped the Hawks control the defensive boards early to take a quick lead. Ultimately, the game’s speed and the size of the Nets’ centers proved a little daunting.
And Len, who came into the season hoping to build on his first year in Atlanta when he appeared to regain the confidence he had lost during the end of his five-year stint in Phoenix, dominated the first half and helped the Hawks build a 13-point halftime lead before getting into foul trouble in the third quarter.
The game against the Nets seemed to be a microcosm for what has happened this season to the ex-Terps.
First quarter (Game tied at 34)
Shortly after the game starts, Huerter looks more aggressive than he has since returning from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for three weeks. He hits two runners in the lane to help give the Hawks an early 18-7 lead and makes a 3-pointer late in the first quarter from the wing to put Atlanta ahead 34-32.
The shoulder injury in a Nov. 12 game at Denver — after having his left wrist pulled down in an awkward position by 7-foot, 259-pound Nikola Jokic — came as Huerter was in the midst of his best game of the season, having hit all four shots, including three 3-pointers, in 16 minutes. It was diagnosed as a sprain and resulted in the 6-foot-7 shooting guard missing more time than he ever had.
“We were coming off the Portland game losing in overtime and I had my best half of the year in Denver,” Huerter recalled, sitting in a corner stall in the visiting dressing room before the Nets’ game. “The knees were feeling great the past two games and then that thing happens. Then from sitting around and not doing much, they [his knees] started bothering me again.”
Six days before the playing the Nets, Huerter got a huge scare when he was elbowed in the same shoulder by Dwight Howard going for a rebound in a home game against the Lakers. Huerter’s arm went dead, just it had in Denver. This time, the feeling quickly returned and he didn’t miss a game. But the injuries have taken their toll on Huerter’s game, especially his shot.
Though he averaged just 9.7 points a game last season, Huerter’s overall performance was so impressive that he was named second-team all-rookie and was supposed to be playing a much bigger role in the offense this year. Going into Monday’s game at Cleveland, Huerter is averaging 8.9 points, and his 3-point shooting has dropped from 38.5% as a rookie to 33.7% this season.
“It’s definitely been a different type of year, working through injuries I’ve never had in my life before, and being out for injuries longer than I’ve ever been in my life and wanting to be on the court through this type of season,” Huerter had said before Saturday’s game.
“There’s been a lot of frustrating moments, a lot of going home [to his apartment] and wishing times were a little bit different. The whole thing is mentally trying to keep your head on straight and physically not letting losses or how the season is going to affect the work you’ve got to put in every day. It’s a big mental game.”
Second quarter (Hawks lead at halftime 73-60)
As the second quarter wears on, the Hawks and Huerter seem to be hitting their groove.
His shooting is still off, but Huerter finds second-year point guard Trae Young for back-to-back 3s to give Atlanta a 52-45 lead. After missing a wide open 3-pointer, Huerter draws a foul and makes both free throws to extend the lead to 57-47. It would eventually grow to 13 points by halftime.
While it’s his first points since late in the first quarter, Huerter seems to be in a better flow — and mood. He drives and kicks to De’Andre Bembry for a 3-pointer. But as he keeps missing open shots, including air-balling a 3-pointer, a look of frustration comes over Huerter. Even second-year Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce is at a loss when asked after the game about Huerter’s shooting woes.
“I’m little confused myself. He’s a really good shooter and he shoots an airball right in front of our bench on a pretty clean look,” Pierce said. “That’s not Kevin. I think the repetition of game shots is what we’re looking for. He was able to get eight [3-pointers] up tonight, but you’re right, they’re not clean and they’re not going down so I don’t know if he’s adjusting his shot or tampering with it a little bit.”
Said third-year general manager Travis Schlenk: “He missed that one from the corner and you can see him just dissipate. That’s just the kind of stuff you’ve got to learn to play through. They all miss shots. No one shoots 100%. He’ll get there.”
Third quarter (Hawks lead 98-85)
Len is not only hitting his shots, but he’s helping the Hawks build the lead back up to 13 points at halftime and by as many as 18 in the third quarter. By halftime, Len has his fourth double double of the season, with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but foul trouble in the second half limits both his playing time and aggressiveness. Still, he finishes with 23 points and 14 rebounds, both season highs.
Asked if Len seems more comfortable coming off the bench, Pierce said: “For me, it’s kind of where he spent most of the time since he’s been in Atlanta. I feel last year he was really good coming off the bench. Coming off an injury [rib contusion and sprained ankle] and starting, whatever the combination was, led to some struggle. I don’t know if he likes to survey the game a little bit before he gets in, but it’s encouraging to see him play the way he played tonight.”
The night Huerter was injured in Denver was also the night Len moved back to the bench.
After averaging just four points as a starter in the first nine games, Len scored 17 points that night. He had 21 points and 10 rebounds the following night in Phoenix against his former team. He has scored in double figures in 11 of the 20 games he’s come off the bench, and has averaged 12.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 10 games this month.
Len agrees that he is comfortable with the role as a reserve, which should continue with the return of John Collins, who has been out 25 games after being suspended for using performance-enhancing drugs.
“I guess because I’ve been doing it the past couple of years, I don’t mind,” Len said after the game. “I have more rhythm doing it.”
Fourth quarter (Hawks outscored 37-14, lose 122-112)
After a quick start, Fernando has a hard time trying to contain 12-year veteran DeAndre Jordan, 6-11 and 265 pounds, and 6-11 Jarrett Allen, who at one point earlier in the game uses his 7-6 wingspan to block Fernando as he tries to dunk.
Fernando, the first Angolan to play in the NBA after being drafted in the second round (No. 34 overall) last June, admits that he is still adjusting to his role.
“As a young guy [in the NBA], I’ve got to come in and find my way, find my role," Fernando said. "I just got to keep learning. It’s a learning process that I’ve got to trust, and the speed of the game obviously and the skill, the strength, every aspect of the play is a lot different than college is.”
Fernando has shown flashes of what the Hawks saw in him when he was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season. He scored seven points in 14 minutes against the Detroit Pistons in the season opener, then had 11 points four nights later against the Philadelphia 76ers in his first of three double-figure scoring games.
Asked if his debut helped him, Fernando said: “Yeah. Obviously when it’s my first game there’s a whole bunch of nerves and emotions going on through your body. I just got out there and I was like, ‘I’m going to try as hard as I can.' That game definitely motivated me a lot. It kind of gave me a good spirit of like, ‘I’m going to do something in this league.’ ”
Said Schlenk: “Bruno’s going to be just fine in this league because of his physicality and athleticism. When he’s on the floor, we are by far a better defensive rebounding team. He might not get the ball, but he’s got his body on people, he’s hitting people and that’s what he’s going to bring. He’s big and strong, he’s willing to protect the rim. The game right now is just moving fast for him.”
Asked about Fernando’s second career start, which resulted in Fernando tying a career high with six rebounds in 17 minutes, Pierce was enthusiastic.
“I thought he was great," Pierce said. “His energy is what we really needed. I thought he started out with great energy. Obviously, we got out to a great start. I think it’s 14-5 when we called a timeout in the first quarter. I loved his energy. He had five rebounds at the half, which was great. That’s an area which we really needed to address. Just in general, the energy and spirit is what we wanted and we got that out of Bruno in the two games.”
Pierce even took some solace in what Huerter showed in shooting 3-for-13 from the field, including 1-for-8 on 3-pointers.
“We want him shooting eight [3-pointers], we’ve got to keep him shooting eight,” Pierce said. "It’s been a while since we’ve been able to get him that many shots. I feel 100 percent confident that he’ll get to that 40 percent mark. We just need him to keep shooting and shooting at game speed.”