Last year, I postulated that those expecting Jeff Teague to make “the leap” in the 2012-13 season needed to back down. It wasn’t that Teague wasn’t capable of improving as a point guard; it was that Jeff, in only his second year as a starter, still needed more time under his belt to be able to get to that point.
In the post linked above, I said the proper time to expect Teague to take that leap would be the 2013-14 season, his third season as a team’s starting point guard. This was going off data that suggested that many of the league’s top guards (Paul, Williams, Westbrook) all underwent that improvement in their third years at the helm of a team’s offense.
What do we have out of Jeff so far in his third season as a starter? Well, you have the Eastern Conference’s leader in assists per game at 10.1 per contest. He’s kicking in almost 18 points per 36 minutes as well and is turning the ball over — 17.6 TO% last season, 15.4% this season — at a significantly lower rate.
“It’s just being comfortable,” Teague said when asked about his higher assist totals this year. “I know a lot of people like to score, I like to make assists. I like to see other people’s names on the scoreboard and getting points.”
Of course, part of Teague’s higher numbers can be attributed to the absence of Josh Smith, who initiated a lot of sets for the Hawks last season. With Smith gone, Teague’s ball-handling and scoring duties have increased, even with the addition of Paul Millsap.
And, of course, there is coach Mike Budenholzer’s new “Pace and Space” offense that Atlanta is now running.
“To be able to play with that pace,” said Coach Bud, “the point guard is going to be the engine that’s pushing it, making us play at a high pace.”
As for now, that pace is being achieved. Per Basketball-Reference, the Hawks are 7th in the league in pace at 97.6 possessions per 48 minutes. By comparison, the Hawks were 12th in pace last year at 92.6 possessions, which was during a season that was being played at a slower pace than this year.
“I think Jeff deserves the credit,” Budenholzer said, “He’s seeing the floor, seeing the pass. I think when I arrived, that was one of the things I was most pleasantly surprised with was with how well he could pass and the different paces that he could play.”
When you see the word pace, don’t think that means the Hawks are just running up and down the court and chucking the ball at the first opportunity. There’s a reason the team is 5th in offensive rating and first in assist percentage; the Hawks are still focusing on moving the ball a lot and getting the best shot they can.
One of the best ways this has been seen was in the first quarter of Atlanta’s victory over Charlotte. About three minutes in, Paul Millsap drove into the lane and kicked out to a wide-open Al Horford on the baseline. Rather than take what is a very good shot, Horford kicked to DeMarre Carroll, who had an open three-point shot. Regardless of the thoughts of Carroll’s three-point shooting abilities, in this system, that was the best shot available and the Hawks took it.
“Coach Bud stresses that we make the open ones,” Teague said, “or that we take the open ones. To do that, we got to move the ball and be unselfish. When we have a lot of assists, we’re playing well; we’re playing together.”
Of course, to move the ball and to be unselfish, you have to have good players to pass the ball to. With a lot of Teague’s success coming out of the pick-and-roll, he was very complimentary of the guys that were getting the points on his assists.
“When you have Al and Paul Millsap,” Teague said, “it makes your job a lot easier. Just throw it back to them and they’ll make shots. And me, just using my speed to be able to get into the lane, I think more teams pay more attention to it and they forget that Al and Paul Millsap can make shots.”
Even with all of the praise of Teague’s game, there are still some things that the young guard can improve upon. His tendency to sometimes lack aggressiveness is still there, though it has been seen at a lesser amount this season. Teague’s shooting numbers are also down, but Jeff’s career numbers suggest that those should be able to bounce back. Of course, these scuffs that we are still seeing from Teague on the court are something that have excited Budenholzer the most.
“He’s got a lot of opportunities, he’s got a lot of responsibilities,” said Budenholzer after Atlanta’s win Saturday over Orlando. “He’s doing a lot of good things. I think he’s just gonna get better and better. If you look at the stats, and obviously it’s impressive, but I feel like he can do even more.”
So what is more for Jeff Teague? As of now, he’s averaging 17 points and 10 assists during a shooting slump, aka, he hasn’t been playing his best basketball. In an offense that affords him equal opportunities at passing and scoring, it really isn’t too much to think that Teague could become a 20-point, 10-assist player. Dennis Schröder and the return of Lou Williams could eventually cut into some of his production, but what Teague is showing us now is that he has taken a leap as a player and that he should be considered one of the better point guards in the league.