WASHINGTON — Just three winters ago, Kevin Huerter was playing high school basketball in small gyms in Upstate New York, a late-blooming prospect who was young for his age and still growing into his body. “I think about it all the time,” the Shenendehowa High School graduate Huerter said from his stall in the visiting locker room of Capital One Arena on Monday night, when he looked around at how surreal this all was.
He had just been announced as a starter for the Atlanta Hawks, and would be guarded by Washington Wizards all-star Bradley Beal. He was a few lockers away from his 42-year-old teammate, Vince Carter, a future Hall of Famer who was drafted into the NBA two months before Huerter was even born.
Outside the locker room, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce was holding court with reporters and proudly declared that Huerter, by design, had acquired the most nicknames on the team. He yelled in the hallway at one of his players, Justin Anderson, to prove it.
“Justin! What’s Kevin’s nickname?”
“Red Velvet,” Anderson quickly replied, a play on the color of Huerter’s hair and the soft shooting stroke he has brought to one of the league’s youngest teams. Yet even as the 20-year-old has endeared himself to his teammates and new fans, he’s also quickly won plenty of respect during his rookie season, burnishing a fearless reputation with a style of play that fits perfectly in today’s NBA.
It continued in Monday night’s 137-129 Wizards’ win over the Hawks, where Huerter — whose 6-foot-7 frame and unlimited shooting range was clearly a problem for the Wizards — drained five 3-pointers and finished with 19 points in an arena he knows well, having played here just two years ago as a freshman at Maryland.
“I think what we have learned is that Kevin has a lot more swag than we would’ve given him credit for,” Pierce said. “Soft-spoken, mild-mannered. All of the sudden, he’ll dunk on you. All of the sudden, he’ll whisper something to you after he dunks on you. He’s a very confident player, and as his confidence has grown, you see him do more and more.”
Huerter didn’t dunk on anyone Monday night, but he quickly showed exactly why he was a first-round pick last summer, hitting three 3-pointers in the first quarter alone, all from 26 feet. There was no hesitation in his approach even as he was checked by Beal; he added two more 3-pointers in the second half and a cutting layup late in the fourth quarter as Washington’s defense tried to clamp down on his range. It was far from a perfect performance — Huerter gave up several layups on backdoor cuts, including one that led to a three-point play — but he added five rebounds and four assists against just one turnover. And his team-high 32 minutes underscores the trust Pierce has placed in the young guard, who is still learning to play with fellow rookie Trae Young (10 points, 10 rebounds).
Huerter dealt with a steep learning curve after deciding to declare for the NBA draft following two seasons in College Park. He missed a stretch of summer workouts after having hand surgery, and at different points this season he’s dealt with nagging injuries. But Huerter mostly just had to get out of his own head, even though he often thought both about how recently he was leading his Shenendehowa High School team in Clifton Park, New York, to a state championship and was still considered a developing prospect at Maryland.
“A lot of it was adjusting to the NBA, but really having the confidence to play the way I was in college. You’re going out and not playing carefree, but you’re playing loose and you have confidence in your abilities. You’re trying to make the same moves you did in college,” said Huerter, who is averaging 9.1 points and shooting 41 percent from the field, including 38 percent from 3-point range. “This stage, and the people you’re playing against doesn’t change that. I think it took me a few weeks to figure that out.”
After he did, Huerter started to show shades of his potential. During a daunting four-game stretch against league stalwarts Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City and Boston in January, he averaged 18.8 points with 4.3 assists and shot 50 percent from the field. His best moment came against the 76ers on Jan. 11, when he finished with 29 points on a collection of 3-pointers and a vicious dunk.
“He can create his own shot. He probably had his best game of the year, had Jimmy Butler defending him,” Pierce said.
Huerter has leaned on some veterans for help during his rookie season, including point guard Jeremy Lin, who reflected on his own struggles breaking into the league and used it as advice for Huerter. They’ve gone bowling together and often are workout partners. “Don’t get too high, don’t get too low,” Lin will tell him, and so Huerter tried to not think too much about his unconventional path on Monday night. This was a homecoming of sorts. He created one of his best moments in this arena two years earlier, when as a Maryland freshman, he came up with a game-winning block to beat Georgetown. He had little idea then that he would be here two years later, winning affection and respect as a rookie in an NBA locker room.
“He’s going to be a great player. I think that’s obvious. Everyone knows that by now,” Lin said. “If they don’t know, just watch a few of our games, and you’ll know quickly.”