“I think the pace with which we’re playing pick-and-roll and the pace the game is happening and screens are coming, I think it will be a really natural evolution for Jeff to become really efficient and really good in pick-and-roll. I think the system, the opportunity, the pace, the way that we’re setting screens, and the environment we’re putting him in, I think it will be a really natural evolution for him. I think he’s pretty good already to be honest with you, and I think he’s going to get better.” – Mike Budenholzer
Coach Budenholzer said this to me before the start of the season, when I asked about how Jeff Teague would fit in his system, especially as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. So far, through 10 games this season, Bud’s quote rings true, as Teague is tearing up defenses and posting career-high numbers.
Despite operating in a new system with all new players, save for Al Horford and Kyle Korver, Teague is off to a blistering start on the offensive end. He has six double-doubles in his first 10 games, and his nine assists per game are 1.8 assists per game more than he has ever averaged in a season (last year he averaged 7.2 assists per game).
The main reason for Jeff’s uptick in assists is that in Coach Budenholzer’s system he has a much bigger role. In previous seasons, Teague was not the orchestrator of the offense, despite being the starting point guard the past two years. For his first three seasons, he often deferred to Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford, and last season, Josh Smith.
This is the first time Teague has been handed the reins to an offense and told to run it. Through the first ten games Teague has a usage rate of 27.4%. His career-high came last season when he had a 23% usage rate and prior to that, during the Joe Johnson era, his highest usage rate was 20.3%.
Per the new SportVU tracking statistics, Teague is 10th in the NBA in total touches per game with 84 and 5th in front-court touches (touches on the Hawks’ offense half of the court) with 75.6 touches per game. Being among the top of the touches list (which is essentially the list of NBA point guards as LeBron James and Gordon Hayward are the only non-PGs that are in the top 25) shows his expanded role as the primary ball-handler (SportVU stats are not available for previous seasons as this is the first season all 29 arenas have been outfitted with the cameras). Teague’s usage rate and his touches per game shows the involvement he has in the offense and the increase in responsibility he’s been given by Bud, and it is impressive how he has played so well this quickly with that added responsibility in a new system.
Teague has quickly grasped the concepts of Coach Bud’s system and is making good, quick decisions with the ball. Teague’s assist-to-turnover ratio this season has been excellent at 2.72-to-1. As we’ve detailed at length before, Bud’s system is predicated on ball movement and pace. Teague has embraced those aspects of the offense and is running the Hawks offense, both in the half-court and transition, efficiently and with pace, while keeping the turnovers to a minimum.
After his career-high 33 point performance against the Sixers on Friday, Bud said the message to Teague since preseason was being aggressive.
“We just keep hammering that to him. We want him to be more aggressive. Sometimes that’s going to mean a lot of assists, sometimes it will mean a lot of points. When he’s putting pressure on the defense, good things happen for us.”
Teague’s aggression on offense has been pretty consistent through the Hawks’ first 10 games. He is taking 14.4 shot attempts per game, his previous career-high was 12.2 last season, and he is getting 52.8% of his shot attempts (76 of 144) within eight feet of the basket. Teague is converting 50% of those opportunities near the rim, which is below the league average, but his persistence in attacking the rim opens up opportunities for dump-off passes to bigs and has gotten him to the free throw line at a very high rate.
Teague’s free throw rate (number of free throw attempts per field goal attempt) is 0.556, which is a massive jump from his career-high rate of 0.319 in his second season. Getting to the free throw line was never one of Teague’s strong suits, but this season he is getting to the line eight times per game and his 80 total free throw attempts are fifth in the NBA. For reference, Jeff Teague went to the free throw line eight times in only two games last season. He has gone to the stripe eight or more times in seven of the ten games so far this season and has four games with double-digit free throw attempts. Even though Teague is converting shots at the rim at only 50% (which figures to improve), it is getting him a lot of chances at the free throw line where he is shooting 76.3% (also down from 88.1% last year).
Teague’s shooting percentages across the board are down this season at 43.8% overall, 76.3% at the free throw line, and just 25% from three-point range.
Despite these early shooting troubles, Teague is averaging 19.4 points per game, thanks to his ability to get to the free throw line. Coach Bud said after the Magic game that Teague’s play is encouraging but what excited him the most was the opportunity for it to get better, because the shooting numbers should improve.
“Jeff’s in a good place. I think he’s starting to really understand that he’s got a lot of opportunities and responsibility the way we play, and he’s done a lot of good things. I think he’s going to get better and better. You look at the stats, and it’s impressive, but I think he can do even more. So, that’s the exciting part thinking about Jeff.”
Teague reiterated that point prior to the Knicks game.
“It’s just getting a rhythm, it’s early. I’m just trying to do other things on the floor right now. Hopefully my shot will start falling and when that happens, it will be pretty good for us.”
Playing with that aggressive style, particularly in pick-and-roll/pop play, has also been a reason for his success distributing the ball to his teammates. Teague and Horford’s chemistry has shined early in the season, as Teague has assisted on 37 of Horford’s 81 made field goals this season.
The pick-and-pop play between Horford and Teague has become a go-to for the Hawks when they’ve needed buckets. As the above charts shows, 18 of Teague’s 37 assists to Horford have come off of mid-range jumpers, and a vast majority of those have been in pick-and-pop. 16 more assists to Horford have been in the restricted area off pick-and-rolls and the aforementioned dump-off passes when defenders collapse on Teague’s forays to the rim.
While the chemistry between Horford and Teague comes as no surprise, Jeff has also built quite a rapport with Paul Millsap early this season. Millsap provides another pick-and-roll partner for Teague, and he has assisted on 22 of Millsap’s 61 made baskets this season.
Millsap’s shooting range is a bit deeper than Horford’s, and he has the ability to stretch out beyond the three-point line on pick-and-pop plays, shown by the two above-the-break threes, and step out to the corner to space the floor when Teague drives to the rim. He has also, like Horford, been effective rolling to the basket and has learned quickly how to make himself available for drop-off passes.
Coach Bud’s system has created opportunities for Teague to flourish through the pick-and-roll game and the constant motion of the offense, and Jeff has done well to take advantage of those chances. Playing with pace and giving Teague the green light to push the ball up the court in transition and after made baskets and the heavy dose of pick-and-roll play has been the perfect combination for Teague.
The Hawks pick-and-roll offense has accounted for 20.9% of their offense this season for possessions ending in shot attempts, turnovers, or fouls (those pick-and-roll numbers don’t include kick-outs to shooters like Kyle Korver, Cartier Martin, or DeMarre Carroll). In those possessions the Hawks are fourth in the NBA in pick-and-roll ball-handler scoring at 0.83 PPP (points per possession) and are second in roll-man scoring at 1.19 PPP (per Synergy Sports). Teague has been responsible for 63.1% (94 of 149) of the Hawks’ pick-and-roll ball-handler possessions this season and is at 0.83 PPP himself, good for 21st in the NBA.
Off-ball screens are also a big part of the Hawks’ offense. Creating confusion on the defense and forcing extra switches of screens to create mismatches or creating more separation from the defender is a big part of setting up the pick-and-roll game and also setting up shot attempts.
Korver has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of these off-ball screens, getting 34% of his offensive looks off screens. Flare screens (setting up shots at the elbow and from three-point range) have been very effective for Korver as he’s shot 60% from the field (50% from three) coming off screens for 1.28 PPP, best in the NBA. On spot-ups, Korver is 2nd in the NBA with 1.57 PPP and is shooting 58.3% on spot-up three-point attempts. Teague spoke about how those looks for Korver help open up other opportunities for him and the rest of the offense.
“When we get Kyle going and we get guys making the outside shots, we’re tough to guard. I’m a penetrator, Dennis gets in the lane and penetrates, it opens up the lanes for us. When you have knock-down shooters on the outside you really can’t help, so it’s like pick your poison. You’re either going to give us open layups or open threes. We just have to knock down shots.”
Transition has accounted for 20.1% of Teague’s offensive possessions this season, and he is shooting 62.5% (14-for-23) in transition and he is drawing a shooting foul 18.6% of his transition possessions. He’s turned it over nine times in transition (20.9% of his possesions), but as Bud’s said before, he is comfortable with turnovers so long as Teague is being aggressive and pushing the ball up the court.
Bud’s encouragement of Teague and the trust and freedom he has given Jeff has helped him become a more confident player and play more freely.
“We just play faster,” said Teague. “We get more possessions and I got a little more freedom . Coach just wants me to play. He doesn’t really call too many plays on offense, he just lets us go off. We have our set places we need to run on the offensive end, wide and out and stuff like that, but for the most part he just lets us play off feel.”
Part of that freedom, Jeff says, is diagnosing what is working best and sticking with it until the defense adjusts.
“I think one game Paul was just unstoppable and we went to him down the stretch for the rest of the game. It’s just like that. Playing basketball. He doesn’t have any sort of way that we need to play, he just wants us to play fast and with pace. We do that, he’s perfectly fine doing whatever we’re doing on the offensive end.”
So far, Teague and the Hawks’ offense are working incredibly well. The Hawks’ are first in the NBA with 0.98 PPP and Teague is creating 0.53 points per game per half-court touch (20.7 points via assist + 19.4 points/75.6 half-court touches per game). His assist percentage is at a career-high as he is assisting on 41.3% of the shots made when he is on the court, and he is also leading the NBA in free throw assists per game at 1.1 (passes leading to a foul and the player makes at least one free throw). He has quickly found ways to balance creating his own scoring chances as well as involving his teammates, something he did not do consistently prior to this season, shown by his six double-doubles in 10 games this season compared to 15 double-doubles in 80 games last year.
Despite the small sample size that we are examining, Teague’s success seems more like it will be a trend than an outlier. There are plenty of fundamental differences in the offense he is running this year compared to previous seasons that account for the increases in his points and assists. Having the ball in his hands a more substantial amount in the offense and being asked to be the play-maker on the team, along with the constant encouragement to be aggressive and play quickly, have all been major factors in Teague’s early success and should be sustainable.
Being assertive and aggressive on the offensive end have always been keys in Teague’s success, but it has been a lack of consistency in those areas that have held him back. This season, he is been given more responsibility but also more freedom in the offense and it is paying off as he’s taken that responsibility on and asserted himself well. Since there is still room for him to improve on his shooting efficiency, particularly around the rim, there is no reason to believe Teague cannot sustain this kind of offensive output. Teague is embracing the new system and it is paying major dividends for himself and the entire Hawks team.
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