I don’t often get surprised by the things that basketball players tell me in interviews. When it does happen, as it did in 2015, it leaves a lasting impression.
At the time, the Hawks had just finished a stretch of winning 33 of 35 games. Kent Bazemore had played well enough to lock down a rotation spot, no small feat on a veteran team that was thriving, especially for someone who had just started getting regular NBA minutes about 12 months earlier. So I asked the then-25-year-old “Who on this team has helped you develop your game?”, fully expecting that he would name one of his older teammates.
Bazemore flipped my expectations upside down. He picked a player four years younger.
“Dennis Schröder,” he said. “Just with his aggressiveness and the angles he uses to attack the basket. I’ve tried to copy that in my game.”
Even though I had seen the same things in Schröder’s game, Bazemore got my attention by picking a teammate who himself hadn’t played a full season in an NBA rotation. I started paying even more attention to how Schröder made it all work. NBA players know their game better than anyone, and when they say something unexpected, I try to see if I can observe the same. And now, after years of looking for it, I think I can best explain it this way: Dennis Schröder is the most photogenic Hawk since Mike Budenholzer took over as head coach.
I’m talking, of course, about photos taken of Schröder amid game action. In those pics, he does two things that transfer beautifully to a still image, and both correspond to basketball skills that he performs as well as any NBA player.
One is his layups. Schröder uses every bit of his 6-foot-8 wingspan to create shot openings at the rim. If his defender isn’t planted precisely between him and the basket, Schröder always finds a way to lunge his body — diagonally and directly — through the space between him and the spot on the glass where he wants his underhand layup to carom.
The other opportunity to catch a prime photo of Schröder is on his drives to the rim (see photo below). As Bazemore noted back in 2015, Schröder wastes no motion when he wants to dribble past the player assigned to defend him. He starts with a burst of speed to align himself with the hip of his defender, and when he gets there, he amps up a dynamic torque that only gets stronger until he curls past. The shifting of his upper body is incredible. It’s basketball ballet: athletic and graceful.
Making Schröder a Centerpiece of a 5-Out Offense
Two and a half seasons later, the Hawks are ready to feature Schröder as the centerpiece of their offense, and Bazemore fittingly was the one to hint that the Hawks were ready to revamp around him.
“Today was Coach (Budenholzer)’s first time introducing the new offense,” Bazemore said on Day 1 of camp in Athens, Ga. “We fared pretty well. We’ve got a lot of guys that have semi-been playing together for a little bit.”
Then Bazemore suggested a little bit more about what to expect.
“Dennis being Dennis, with all that space out there, he is going to be a tough task to stop.”
Close observers of the Hawks may have seen these changes coming, as the Club made moves in the offseason that foretold these strategical tweaks. After Paul Millsap signed in Denver and Dwight Howard was traded to Charlotte, the Hawks needed to replace a pair of players who cumulatively averaged 64 minutes per game while doing the bulk of their offensive damage in the paint. To fill some of those minutes, the Hawks re-signed Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala, and signed Luke Babbitt, all perimeter-oriented bigs who combined to make 275 three’s at a 38 percent rate in 2016-17. And more shooters should equate to more space for Schröder to do his thing.
When asked about Bazemore’s “new offense” comment, Budenholzer more or less agreed.
“I guess it’s all in the eyes of the beholder,” he said. “You could argue it’s subtle changes, but in some ways I would say they’re pretty significant. We’ll see.”
Since he arrived as head coach, Budenholzer’s Hawks have made spacing a goal. This season, he intends for Schröder to make good use of it.
“We’ve been talking about and emphasizing just more space, more driving lanes for him,” Budenholzer said. “I would say that some of them are just random. Some of them are just created and not necessarily a play called for him. Hopefully, when he is attacking initially, and when he is getting a second look (when the ball is reversed back to him) — there are more driving lanes and more opportunities for him to attack with or without a screen.”
That quote is an interesting one from Bud for a couple of reasons. One is the hint at the spontaneity of the system — one that prioritizes principles over play calls — which is something that Bazemore also echoed in his comments.
“Offensively, we’re just going to play,” Bazemore said. “It’s not a structured system as to where we’ve got to run certain things. It’s kind of us playing a read-and-react (scheme) and moving around and cutting and slashing. A lot of dunks, a lot of three-pointers, so I’m excited about that.”
Budenholzer also revealed that Schröder will be doing some work without screens, as he did in the opening moments of the first preseason game. Here, Taurean Prince gets the ball from Schröder after curling around an off-ball screen from Ilyasova. Once Prince draws some extra attention, Schröder gets the ball back in space at the top of the key in prime position to drive without a pick.
Note the location of center Dewayne Dedmon on this play. The Hawks have used a lot of “5-out” sets in the preseason where no big man positions himself near the hoop. When Dedmon hasn’t been involved in an on-ball play like a pick and roll or a dribble handoff, he has found a new home in the corner of the offense. Against Cleveland, he made the first three-point shot of his career.
“The first time I came (to Atlanta) and worked out, they had me shoot a couple of three’s,” Dedmon said. “I was making them, so it just kind of grew from there and progressed. I met with Coach (Budenholzer) and he told me he wanted (me) to shoot them.”
Dedmon doesn’t mind his new role.
“It’s fun,” Dedmon said. “It spaces the floor out for our point guards to get to the cup and make plays.”
Of course, there are still plays where Dedmon is working on the ball with the guards, and on those plays, his ability to pass has been an asset. Expect to see more situations like this one where the play begins with a dribble handoff.
The point guards perhaps stand to benefit most from the new scheme, but Schröder may also have the most responsibility for its success. He says he welcomes the change and he is seeing progress.
“I think we’re getting a little used to it,” Schröder said. “The point guards can attack. I kind of like it. I can be aggressive and try to look to score by driving the basketball and trying to get open shots.”
The challenge, of course, is a big one. Schröder will have to adjust to a larger role, a new offense and a handful of new teammates. But if he can score at the rim while also hitting his teammates in stride as they move to open spots, the Hawks could have a picture perfect offense this season.