Atlanta Hawks Put Fate In D-League For Improvements

Hawks shooting guard Jared Cunningham who has recently returned from a spell in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

In the past week, Atlanta Hawks youngsters Dennis Schroeder and John Jenkins were assigned to the team’s D-League affiliate, the Bakersfield Jam, following disappointing starts to the season for both players. As those two left Atlanta for Bakersfield, second-year Hawk Jared Cunningham returned in the opposite direction after his own spell working on his game in the Development League. Jenkins also spent some time with the Jam last year, as did Mike Scott. These are examples of a developing trend in the NBA, as teams around the league show more willingness to use the D-League as a resource.

Although it’s fair to say Atlanta may utilize the link more than many other teams, the NBA in general has come around to the idea of sending their young talent away from the big league to improve the chances of development. It’s a brave move for an organization to take, as even if it’s only temporary, outsourcing your player development to a team elsewhere is a risk. With that in mind, just how important could the Jam be in shaping the current, and future, Hawks squads?

Based in California, the Bakersfield Jam are one of the 17 teams that make up the NBA D-League. The D-League was devised as a model to help improve players league-wide by offering an alternative for playing time. Although still not the true minor league system that the NBA craves, the Development League continues to gain strength and respect in the big league. The Jam are the affiliate of five NBA teams: the Suns, the Clippers, the Jazz, the Raptors and the Hawks. Atlanta have taken a keener interest in the benefits of the D-League than many other teams though, and there are signs that their increased involvement will start to benefit the Hawks organization.

Mike Scott thrived following two spells with the Bakersfield Jam last season. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Scott is a poster boy for the impact regular playing time can have on a young player in the NBA. Coming out of college, players who were both talented and lucky enough to get drafted have a hell of an adjustment to make. Aside from the top 10 draftees, many of whom are often thrust into starting lineups, players beyond that have a lot of work to do to not only get comfortable but prove that they deserve their place in the NBA for the long term. Drafted with the 43rd pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, Scott found himself in exactly that situation.

As a high level performer, and a go-to guy as a Virginia Cavalier, a lack of playing time would have been a culture shock for the man from Chesapeake. In rare appearances for the Hawks early in his pro career, Scott showed very little in his limited minutes, not doing anything exceptional enough to indicate any chances of a long stay with the Hawks.

At the start of December 2012, Scott went to the Jam for the first time. That followed appearances in only five games during his first five weeks in the league, averaging a measly 0.4 points in 3.4 minutes a night. During a quick spell in Bakersfield, Scott averaged 13.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in 29 minutes a night across four games, and he was recalled to Philips Arena. Immediately Scott appeared more confident and game ready, and the regularity of his appearances increased. His minutes on the floor jumped dramatically, and coach Larry Drew‘s increased trust in his game saw him become a more regular feature of the rotation. In the following two months Scott played in 20 games for the Hawks, averaging 3.6 points and 2.45 rebounds in 8.4 minutes of play per game. Not earth shattering numbers, but undoubtedly progress.

When he was once again assigned to the Jam later in the season, Scott’s development couldn’t have been more apparent. In three games in Bakersfield, he posted 24.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in 37.3 minutes. He returned to the Hawks as an improved offensive weapon that played a significant role towards the end of the season. In the Hawks last seven games of the year, Scott had five games in double digits including 19 against the Celtics, 22 against the Spurs, 17 against the 76ers, and double-double’s in the season’s final two games against Toronto and New York.

Scott’s progress has continued through a strong preseason and a solid start as a role player this year. This has encouraged the Hawks to further explore the benefits of the D-League. The first man to visit Bakersfield this season was sophomore Jared Cunningham. Having been acquired from the Mavericks as a part of a draft night trade, Cunningham had only played four minutes as a Hawk through the first 6 weeks of the season. Sent to the Jam to gain playing time, Cunningham impressed during his five games in California, averaging 15 points, 4.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds in 34.4 minutes a night. With Jenkins and Schroeder struggling, he returned to provide depth at guard for the Hawks, while they try to find form with the Jam.

John Jenkins is trying to regain his shooting touch during his current D-League assignment. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Jenkins had a promising rookie season after being taken by the Hawks as their first round pick in 2012. Coming out of college as a top class shooter, Jenkins quietly impressed in his first season. Averaging 6.1 points in 14.8 minutes, the former Vanderbilt man shot 44.6 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from behind the 3-point line. After struggling with a back injury during preseason, Jenkins has failed to find his shot though. His main objective in Bakersfield will be to find a way to improve his 38.2 percent field goal percentage and his 23.5 percent from long range.

German rookie Schroeder started the season promisingly as the backup point guard option to Jeff Teague. Despite undeniable talent, there are still a lot of kinks that need to be worked out of his game though. Since an altercation with Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins early in the season, Schroeder’s confidence appears to have dropped, and his performance has followed suit. His biggest issue has been turnovers, averaging 1.6 in 13.9 minutes per night, including two games with four give aways. Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer will hope that more time on the floor with the Jam will help Schroeder rebuild his focus, and improve his decisions, making him a viable rotation option upon his return.

Dennis Schroeder is already showing signs of improving his assist-turnover ratio after three games with the Jam. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Having played three games so far in their assignment with the Jam, there have been promising signs for both Jenkins and Schroeder. Jenkins has averaged 22.7 points, 7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 35.3 minutes per game. Most importantly though, his shooting percentage has improved to a much more palatable 44.9 percent, although he still has work to do from deep at 23.5 percent. Schroeder has averaged 15 points, 4.3 rebounds and 6.7 assists in 31 minutes. His turnovers are still quite high at 3.3 per game, but in relation to his better assist-turnover ratio, they are looking less of an issue.

Both players still have a lot of work to do, but along with further growth back with the main Hawks squad in Atlanta, there’s every chance they can succeed in the league. In the grander scheme of things, the method of using their affiliate in the same way that minor league teams are utilized in baseball, seems to be a key strategy for the Hawks. If it can continue to help to improve players, and accelerate the learning process as it has done for them in recent cases, Atlanta will reap the rewards.

Topics: Atlanta Hawks

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