Like nearly any player that makes it to the sport’s top league, Kevin Huerter was used to winning.
“And, then, you get to the NBA — and I was here right at the start of a rebuild,” Huerter said in a recent interview with The Daily Gazette.
The “here” is with the Atlanta Hawks, a franchise set Sunday to play in its first playoff game since 2017 against a New York Knicks franchise that last played in a playoff game two years before Huerter led the Shenendehowa High School boys’ basketball team to a Class AA state championship.
The Hawks drafted Huerter as part of their rebuilding effort with a first-round pick in 2018. In Huerter’s first two NBA seasons, the former Mr. New York Basketball winner from Clifton Park played on teams that lost more than twice as many games as they won.
This season has been much different, and has offered a fitting reward for Huerter and the fellow Hawks — such as lead star Trae Young, who was drafted the same year as Huerter — who were around for the franchise’s recent rough years.
“It was definitely tough, so it’s been great this year because we added a lot of pieces, but there’s still a good core of guys that have been here and it’s nice to see all the hard work we’ve been putting in pay off [after] everything we’ve talked about the last couple years in building this thing up, and trying to create something that’s going to last and become a team that’s going to win for a long time,” Huerter said. “To finally see those results, and probably a bit sooner than we thought, has been great all year, and made it a lot more enjoyable.”
The season was one that tested Huerter, too. After finishing 24-58 in the season before Huerter joined the franchise, the Hawks have added significant talent to their roster each offseason. He started 107 of the 131 games he played during his first two seasons, but Huerter started this season as a reserve for the Hawks. Huerter’s first 11 appearances were made off the bench this season, but he ended up starting 49 of 69 games he played. He averaged 11.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game, and that was after his numbers took a slight dip following a late-season shoulder injury that arrived after he’d registered double-digit scoring in 14 consecutive games.
Huerter had sprained his left shoulder in April and missed two games before returning to the court. Huerter sat out the Hawks’ final regular-season game, which was played last Sunday, but said he’s been practicing and working out without any limitations and that the ailment “shouldn’t be too problematic moving forward” for the 6-foot-7 perimeter player.
In preparing to play in Sunday’s 7 p.m. Game 1 at Madison Square Garden, Huerter said the Hawks had some full-contact, full-speed workouts this past week as they readied for the intensity of a playoff series.
“But, other than that, it was a lot of film [work], walking through the stuff they do, and trying to get really good at knowing the Knicks’ personnel and the schemes we know they’ll be using,” Huerter said.
With humor, Huerter had tweeted last weekend that his first-ever playoff game would “because of course” take place in New York. He said playing against one of his home state’s teams didn’t add any extra pressure to the matchup, but thought it was a cool coincidence since he’d also made his NBA debut at Madison Square Garden.
Huerter said he knows he’ll have family and hometown friends at the game, but that would’ve been true regardless of where the Hawks started their postseason run.
“So I don’t think there’s any more added pressure, honestly,” Huerter said. “My family would have been coming down to Atlanta for Game 1 or 2, anyway. . . . But just being able to play there, obviously Madison Square Garden is an incredible arena and it’ll be a lot of fun. I’m sure it’ll be rocking on Sunday.”
Recently, the Knicks announced they had sold out tickets for a reduced-capacity crowd for Sunday’s game of 15,000 fans. Game 1 of the playoff series is reportedly set to be the largest indoor gathering in New York City since the start of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed, the Hawks nearly played well enough this season to host Game 1 of their opening playoff series as they finished with a matching record to the No. 4 Knicks. Huerter said the Hawks “knew” they could be a playoff team this season, but competing for home-court advantage — especially in a season that saw Atlanta make a coaching change from Lloyd Pierce to Nate McMillan following a 14-20 start — outdid internal expectations.
“If you were to tell me at the beginning of the year that we’d be in the hunt for the fourth seed up until the last [regular-season] game, I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” said Huerter, who played at the University of Maryland for two seasons before joining the professional ranks. “Obviously, we have a lot of confidence, but getting the fourth seed in the conference is really tough to do.”
This past week, Huerter said staying “mentally locked in” was the most important thing for the 22-year-old in preparing for his first NBA playoff games. Keeping that focus, he knows, will be tested in the hours leading up to Game 1 of the best-of-7 series.
“It’s going to be a different level of excitement,” Huerter said.