Archives For Eric Yeboah

What a year it was covering this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. The acquisition of Dwight Howard jump started the summer with a jolt of excitement. The Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy alum came aboard with hopes to bring a championship to his hometown.

Instead, he ended the season sitting on the bench as his teammates clawed back from a 19 point deficit, only to come up short in game 6 versus the Wizards. That wasn’t the first time this season he sat during a crucial run, and the first year of the Howard experiment can be deemed a failure.

“ It doesn’t matter about matchups, said Howard in his exit interview. “ I want to play. I don’t care who is out there. I want to give the best for my team and the city. That is why I came here. So it is upsetting when you want to get out there and play. You work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you, not the coach taking it — but Washington taking the opportunity of us moving to the next round.”

First-year starter Dennis Schroder took advantage of his opening round matchup against All-NBA point guard John Wall — as he did against several elite point guards throughout the year — validating that the organization made the right decision when they handed him the keys over Jeff Teague. Paul Millsap’s free agency talk dominated and overshadowed much of his big-time all-star performances, as if his game needed further neglect on the national stage. However, to the credit of head coach and team president Mike Budenholzer, it never seemed to become a distraction.

Whether it was Millsap’s free agency, Schroder and Howard’s argument in the third quarter versus the Warriors during a live possession or Schroder’s late arrival from All-Star break due visa issues — the team remained positive and focused.

In the last four seasons under Budenholzer none of his teams were more inconsistent, erratic and perplexing than this 2016–2017 ballclub. The hot 9–2 start occurred so early it now qualifies as a mirage. By the end of December they were a more realistic 16–16. At that time they had a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (and would later win the season series 3–1), but suffered losses against the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.

The month of January was very telling in terms of just how unsettled they were. Starting on the 13th until March 6th they never notched a winning streak more than two games. Win one, lose the next, win another, lose the next, identity crises at its finest.

Kent Bazemore expressed the same sentiment to me after asking him about the team’s issues following a 131–120 loss in December to the Orlando Magic that dropped their record to 12–13.

“This is a very deep team and we have a lot of guys who can play so it’s all about finding that rhythm as a unit”, Bazemore said. “We’ve had glimpses of both units doing well. The bench started off the season doing well, then the starters got going, so it’s a lot going on and not enough consistency. But we are not going to get it back all at once and we are still trying to figure out who we are.”

The lows were pretty damn low and can be summed up in a moment I personally witnessed covering the Brooklyn Nets routing on March 26th that handed the Hawks their seventh loss in a row. A fan casually strolled down from his seat into the credentialed media seating, nachos and soda in hand, and took a seat with the rest of us. Clearly he’d come to the conclusion at that time that the Hawks didn’t care, so why should he? Security never approached the gentleman or redirected him back to his original seating. He just sat there, apathetic, disinterested, scarfing down some nachos.

Their identity never seemed to take shape and why a large portion of the season Budenholzer experimented with several lineups during games looking for a spark on a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Millsap spent plenty time at the five, Bazemore took over point guard duties at times and even Kyle Korver played power forward occasionally. Compound that with a defense that poorly defended the three-point line in today’s NBA and well you’ve put yourself in a tough spot.

Those spots ranged from out of playoff contention momentarily midway through the season to losing 9 out of 11 games (with Millsap and Bazemore missing games due to injury) down the stretch that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy and having to wait until the 79th game to breath a sigh of relief.

Schroder struggled limiting turnovers, Howard hurt the defense by staying in the paint during pick-and-roll situations and Bazemore’s $70 million contract seemed to cause him to press. The list goes on and on, but nuzzled in it all were some of the most thrilling moments in Hawks history. The 26 point deficient at the start of the fourth quarter comeback victory versus Cleveland on April 9th, the overtime upset over the San Antonio Spurs and of course who can forget what took place on January 29th — the quadruple overtime victory over the New York Knicks — just the 11th time in NBA history.

The game lasted four hours as people stood by the exit doors with one foot in the arena one foot out not able to tear themselves away from what was taken place.

Rookie Taurean Prince and pending restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. also provided optimism and excitement throughout a treacherous seven months. Prince took advantage of Bazemore and Sefolosha’s injuries by showcasing his versatility and therefore cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Hardaway deserved Most Improved Player consideration after turning his 2015–2016 woes into a distant memory by becoming the team’s scoring spark they severely needed especially after Kyle Korver was dealt.

In the end this team surpassed many preseason predictions that slotted them for a low seeding at best. Another franchise-alternating free agency awaits them in the coming months, but as far as 2016–2017 went they were willing to fight no matter how steep the odds — despite being ill-equipped with the necessary firepower.

“This group was a fighting group,” said Paul Millsap after game 6 loss. “With the ups and downs we had, we found a way to fight and compete. We shut down a lot of naysayers. We had a lot of people that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We just ran into a team that was hot, the Wizards were hot. I like this team and the fight in this team.”

Game 5 Recap

Eric Yeboah —  April 27, 2017 — Leave a comment

What didn’t go well for the Atlanta Hawks

Atlanta never could establish a solid inside presence as Dwight Howard dealt with foul trouble most of the night. In the first quarter, Howard was exceptional at contesting and altering shots. Once the fouls started to add up, the Wizards saw a chance to attack the basket ending the night with 40 points in the paint as opposed to the Hawk’s 32. In a close contest every possession counts and Howard’s presence in the 4th was needed as the Wizards began attacking Mike Muscala and Paul Millsap relentlessly.

One of Washington’s run in that final quarter gave them a nine point advantage with 8:37 remaining might of been a signal for Howard to be inserted, but Budenholzer opted for a more pro-offense mindset with spacing down the stretch.

“Every game is a little different, said Budenholzer. “ Offensively we were kind of struggling to score, so maybe spread them out , get Paul [Millsap]into some space, let him attack and try to get him to the free throw line. But no doubt Dwight can have an impact on the boards and on what Gortat does or doesn’t do. Those are always the tough decisions that you have to make.”

What went well for the Hawks?

Pace means so much to a team like Atlanta that prides themselves on the amount of assists they accumulate as a team every game. The ball moved with a great deal of purpose behind it and consistently found easy targets for high percentage shots. Even when the Wizards started the 2nd half on a 19–9 run, the Hawks remained disciplined in their principles as opposed to moments in Games 1 & 2 when they fell into individual battles.

Tim Hardaway Jr. played a huge role in that success as he provided Dennis plenty of spacing scoring 10 crucial points, including back-to-back threes, in the third quarter to keep the team afloat.

We’ve seen it plenty of times in this league when players begin to play hero ball in hopes of a quick turnaround. Not tonight: this team constantly responded to every Washington run by staying aggressive but never out of control.

“ Stick with what we do, said Schroder. Move the ball after rebound and push the pace. I think Tim Hardaway did a great job. We just had to kick ahead pass and he shot it. We need him to make plays like that. Pull up for three and I think he made two in a row. I keep telling him in the game that he has to keep doing it. We need him to do the same on Friday.”

Suggested change for next game in series for the Hawks?

Washington may elect to double Paul Millsap on the block as they did in Wednesday’s game in hopes of keeping Morris out of foul trouble. It will be very important for the wings to find soft pockets within the defense. In Game 5, Taurean Prince was able to find some openings along the baseline and the same should be reiterated to others like Hardaway jr and Kent Bazemore for a pivotal Game 6. Outside of that, if the ball moves well enough then Washington cannot clamp down on Millsap and would have to play honest.

Prediction for next game:

Atlanta wins a close one back at Phillips Arena in front of crowd that has kept them in this series. Dwight and Markieff will both avoid foul trouble early on, allowing for a much more free-flowing pace for the first three quarters. Atlanta pulls away late in the fourth quarter as the refs will tighten their whistles favoring a tempo more friendly to their style of play and keeping Wall out of transition.

Game 4 Recap

Eric Yeboah —  April 25, 2017 — Leave a comment

What didn’t go well

For the second game in a row, Atlanta beat Washington in several categories, which may leave little to nit pick. However, Dennis Schroder and Jose Calderón did fall into foul trouble with three apiece before the first half ended. John Wall and Brandon Jennings attacked and had their aggressiveness used against them the same way Paul Millsap has done with Markieff Morris over the last three games. Budenholzer opted to stick with Calderon rather than going to Malcolm Delaney, but the amount of ball pressure they are instructed to heap on the Wizard’s backcourt is necessary yet dangerous. However, tonight Jose’s impact was far greater than normal.

“Jose most nights will probably not play enough minutes to foul out,” said Coach Budenholzer. “With Dennis with three fouls it may have been a little risky, but I just thought the way he and the team were playing I wanted to roll with that group.”

What went well

Dwight Howard made his proverbial entrance into this series in the 2nd quarter, scoring 10 of his 16 points. The first three games, the Wizards were exceptional at denying any lob opportunities, and Budenholzer was forced to limit Howard’s minutes in search of more shooting in small ball lineups. But the offense moved the ball well in game 4, shifting the Wizards’ defense off of Howard and allowing him to run much more freely to the basket without bodies draped all over him. Kent Bazemore connected with Howard for a couple highlight reel lob sequences that ignited the team and encompassed the do it all game his box score showed.

“I’ve continued to work, watch film and pick my spots,” Kent Bazemore said. “The pace was amazing tonight, the ball was moving and when you get touches your comfort level goes up a little bit. When you got guys on your team that really believe in you everyday is a new day. This is just another product of believing and staying the course.”

The team answered Coach Budenholzer’s transition defense demands to limit John Wall and his ability to find trailing shooters by allowing just 12 points, as opposed to the 21 points the Wizards averaged throughout the first three games. They struggled with controlling the pace and turnovers in the first two games, but on Monday they cleaned up both areas giving them a shot to slow Washington’s fast-break opportunities.

Suggested change for next game in series for the Hawks

The Wizards will be looking to force the Hawks backcourt into committing turnovers, as they did so successfully in games 1 and 2. There will need to be a continued emphasis on setting solid screens and moving the ball with a certain level of speed to counteract the Wizards length. Budenholzer should also stick to keeping at least one ball-handler on the floor at all times to help keep the turnover totals to a minimum, as they accomplished in games 3 and 4.

Dr. J, Moochie Norris, Artis Gilmore and Ben Wallace sported some of the freshest Afros in NBA history. Each possessed a fire and flavor like a legendary Gil Scott-Heron track. The Hawks have had their fair share of Afros as well: from 2004–2008 with Josh Childress and briefly from 2013-2014 with Lucas Nogueira donning the natural. Now rookie DeAndre’ Bembry has taken the torch amidst a league predominantly infatuated with temp fades, high top dreads, mohawks and, of course, the all-around caesar cut. Bembry believes that he is helping to keep the throwback relevant, despite the fact that he has not yet played six full months in the NBA.

“Whether it’s the people that have watched me playing at Saint Joseph, playing high school in New Jersey [The Patrick School] or even back home in Charlotte, I’ve been getting a lot of recognition,” Bembry said. “Seeing kids with my jerseys and afros definitely feels like a trend is starting.”

Similar to Elfrid Payton’s weeknd-esque hair, Bembry’s dates back to high school. He started to grow out his hair around his sophomore year, but, after a notably poor AAU game, he decided to cut it all off. Bembry didn’t feel right without the natural on, though, and decided to grow the ‘fro back once again. He hasn’t cut his hair since.

Some grow out the ‘fro for its style, some in order to emulate their heroes, but, in this country, the Afro’s importance goes far beyond the hairs on one’s head. Since the late 1950’s, the Afro has symbolized black beauty and stands as a protest against Eurocentric beauty standards. Now 22 years old, Bembry understands the symbolism behind the fashion choice and, thus, makes sure that he always carries a piece of the fight with him.

“Back in the day people were growing out the ‘fros — black power and the fist is why when I do carry my pick I make sure there is a fist on it,” Bembry said.

Rocking the ‘fro comes with great responsibility, not only because of its important meaning, but because of the incessant day-to-day maintenance it takes. All of those aforementioned, ‘fro-rocking NBA players didn’t just wake up, pick it out and jump on the court — a lot goes into the preparation.

“I use shea moisturizer, you have to keep them type of juices in there and wash your hair at least every other two days,” Bembry said. “It’s unhealthy to wash your hair every day.”

Periodic picking of one’s hair is essential in order to properly groom and shape one’s hair to his or her liking. The pick is meant to be used in the direction in which the afro grows, giving it shape and texture.

“I pick my hair whenever I feel like it, especially when it feels like it’s a little pushed in and not puffy enough,” Bembry said. “That’s why you always keep the pick in your hair and it’s quick. When I wake up, I pick it out. You always need to have a pick with you — always.”

The culmination of these steps results in one of the most iconic African-American hairstyles. Yet, despite all of its glory and symbolic importance, getting made fun of is a part of the package. Bembry has heard it all, but he doesn’t care.

Original, nonconformist: the Bembry way.

“I’ve been called a bunch of stuff, like ‘Jackson 5’ and ‘mushroom head,’” Bembry said. “For me, it’s all about being different. A lot of people try and do what they see others do and I feel like this is something that actually stands out. It’s not in my plans to twist my hair right now. I want to be different and have my own wave.”

From a 9–2 start to out of playoff contention, from a streaking team to now stumbling into the postseason, the Hawks have seemingly endured it all this season. Sunday afternoon’s loss to the lowly Brooklyn Nets completed their second seven-game losing streak of the season. Thabo Sefolosha was a late game scratch and, with the Hawks already without Kent Bazemore, Tauren Prince was tapped for his first career start. And, if you’ve noticed the flashes that he’s shown throughout the year, the start went exactly as expected.

 

“He did what he normally does,” DeAndre Bembry said. “He was aggressive offensively, got a few steals, created fast-breaks and of course the good defense. That’s what Coach likes about us as rookies — we play on both sides of the ball.”

 

Tim Hardaway Jr. has been the surprise spark for the Hawks this, but Taurean is giving him a run for his money. Taurean has accomplished what very few rookies under Head Coach Mike Budenholzer have ever done — gain his undeniable trust. At the wing, where the Hawks have a logjam of veterans, Prince has emerged post-all star break shooting 40 percent from three while showcasing his ability to guard all positions except centers all while also playing with a spirit this team desperately needed.

 

“I’ve just come into the second half of the season with a different mindset of how I approach things, how I approach practice and different preparation,” Prince said. “It’s helped me out this far and I think it’s helped the team out as well and I plan to keep doing what I’m doing, but turn it up a little more. Especially since it’s coming to the end of the season.”

 

Currently, he sits as the team’s fifth-best defensive player according to defensive Box Plus/Minus. Especially given the troubles that Dwight Howard has faced in this particular defensive scheme during pick and roll situations and given Bazemore’s increased role as a ball handler throughout this season, there was an opportunity for Prince to earn his keep.

 

He’s done so in so many ways, displaying his ability to chase-down blocks, rotate over from the weak side, contest shots at the rim, anticipate steals and utilize his length in passing lanes. Prince has brought another dimension to this Hawks team that they desperately needed.

 

The bravado that Prince carries onto the floor isn’t always prevalent within many rookies, but it’s something Bazemore noticed earlier in the season. He spoke about it with me in November following Prince’s 19 minutes outing in a 107–100 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

 

“Just another testament to the Atlanta Hawks player development system,” Bazemore said. “A guy works hard every day and when he gets his name called he’s ready. That’s one of his [Taurean’s] greatest attributes — he’s fearless, he’s out there chirping, hitting people, finishing above the rim and that’s his game. It’s good when you can get a young fella this early in his career and be that confident.”

 

The confidence was always there, but every rookie needs that breakout game or two to reassure themselves they belong. Just a few weeks ago, following a 16 point performance — his career high is 17 — against the Memphis Grizzlies, he acknowledged that that moment had arrived. In addition, his five points, five rebounds, three steals game against Portland on February 13th and again his eight points, 12 rebounds and two steals in Boston on February 27th  were a testament to his work ethic and another indication that he belonged, according to Prince.

 

“I’m a firm believer in if you put in the work then everything will take care of itself,” Prince said. “This summer Deandre and I were here, so credit to him and the coaching staff for putting us in the best position. Just being in the gym — especially at the beginning of the season when I wasn’t playing much — I was in the gym a lot more just trying to get reps. I just always had that confidence because I put in the work and believe in myself.”

 

Who would have guessed that? As a young player, especially a first round pick, the images of walking in and being a bonafide stud play through your head on several occasions. However, understanding the importance of how to be the best at what your role is on the team takes some time. Once that hill is climbed and embraced there is more room for growth, and Prince has acknowledged that truth.

 

Now, with the regular season coming to a close, Prince has caught on at the right time. The core players are fully aware of his value to this team and believe he will be a difference maker when they need it the most.

 

“It means a lot when you have guys like Paul Millsap, Dennis [Schroder] and Dwight [Howard] have that type of confidence in me and it’s another reason why I continue to play with confidence,” Prince said. “For me, it starts on the defensive end. I feel like in the beginning of the season I had a different mindset, but I’ve learned to focus on what’s more important. I just want to continue to get better and that’s the great thing about it is I have a lot of room to improve.”