25-under-25: Kevin Huerter at No. 24

25-under-25, Atlanta Hawks

Kevin Huerter doesn’t seem destined for NBA stardom. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t incredibly important to the present and future of the Atlanta Hawks.

The act would be incredibly corny, but it would be fitting. You could give Kevin Huerter a nickname like the Hold Steady and you would have summed up his career trajectory. He’s three years into his NBA career. No statistical leaps have really been taken, but there has been very little backpedaling either. He’s here where he’s always been. He’s putting up roughly the same numbers he did during his first two years and the two years before that at the University of Maryland. That steadiness is admirable. That steadiness is desired from a player taken with the No. 18 pick three years ago.

While Kevin Huerter approaches the plateau of his basketball abilities, it should be noted he is doing so on an up-and-coming team.

The Atlanta Hawks pawned off the pieces to a regular-season contender a few years ago, and while that team made one Eastern Conference Finals with Al Horford and Paul Millsap at the helm, those squads were never taken all that seriously as challengers to LeBron James’ throne. Then the team experimented with Dwight Howard and Dennis Schröder, but all this was happening in the long collapse from the Mike Woodson years a near-decade earlier when the likes of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith were short in the tooth and young enough to be imagined as challengers.

None of this is to bash any roster or individual. All of this is to say that the Atlanta Hawks as a franchise have done an admirable job staying competitive in an era of super teams when they have never boasted anything more than a second-flight star. They’ve been hungry and scrappy, disrespected and overlooked. And that has all made them very much a team molded in their city’s likeness.

Kevin Huerter is exactly the kind of complementary piece the Atlanta Hawks need

Kevin Huerter isn’t exactly here to change all that, but he is here to help Trae Young change all that. Young is a villain extraordinaire. A heel in every sense of the word. And he plays like a man who grew up injecting Ric Flair speeches and Reggie Miller antics into his veins. He will be well-remembered once everyone gets over hating him first.

But Kevin Huerter is something somewhat different. Whereas Young is tossing in a near 30 points per game and 10 assists in the playoffs, Huerter is somewhere closer to 11 and three. Nothing mind-blowing in that. Almost nothing to see at all, and yet that steadiness is where all the ladders start. In what was Atlanta’s first postseason appearance since 2017, Huerter did exactly what he had done in the regular season, which was exactly what he had done at the University of Maryland, which was, well, you get the idea. He’s the kind of player announcers who were once players imagine to be good in a foxhole, as if any good can be found in such a place.

And perhaps the best token of Huerter’s future value to the team was on display in his 27-point performance in a Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. That was a game where his team needed him and Huerter flew above the averages.

Kevin Huerter isn’t the guy, and no one’s asked him to play that role. In fact, it’s possible he’s not even the next guy and that he’ll never be asked to fill that role either. But he is one of the guys, which means his job is to always be ready and to heat up quickly.

Behind Trae Young is a contingent of future guns for hire. John Collins and Bogdan Bogdanović are probably the best at the moment. De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are the two everyone’s waiting and counting on to make a leap. Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari are the old-timers. Clint Capela is something of an oddity. You can look at the names and the ages and how the contracts add up and expire, and you can start to see what an important player Huerter is if the plans in Atlanta are to extend beyond a year or two or even three.

He is a wing. He is extended. He is flying in circles. You wouldn’t yet use the word soaring. And you hesitate to describe the pattern of flight as a twisting gyre because you can’t tell if he’s coming in for a landing or drifting out beyond what you thought possible. You keep an eye on it. You try and measure whether the shape is a flat circle or not. That wouldn’t be a knock on Huerter if true.

I mean, what we’re really trying to do here — what the Atlanta Hawks are attempting — is to crack a safe, to measure the heartbeat in each player’s chest, to turn a dial and have all the numbers in combination click.

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