It’s been a long journey from the Macedonian capital of Skopje to the heights of the NBA for Pero Antic. Yet thanks to hard work and circumstance, Antic has found himself starting in basketball’s biggest league as he competes in his 14th professional season. Injury to Al Horford has gifted him that starting berth in his rookie year and given him the opportunity to show fans around the NBA his versatile skill set. As his face has become more familiar to the leagues followers, the cult of Antic has grown also. When the Hawks go on the road, it’s common to see large pockets of Macedonians decked out in red and yellow to support their sporting hero. It won’t be enough for Antic to be a popular role player though, his skills mean he has the potential to help a stuttering Hawks offense. Wednesday night he showed exactly how he can make the difference in the Hawks’ 10-point victory over the Pacers and Atlanta will hope for more of the same.
In their first season under the stewardship of new head coach Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta’s style of play has been transformed. No longer is their game all about isolation, like it was during the Joe Johnson/Josh Smith era. Instead, the focus is fluid coherent offense characterized by ball movement, unselfishness and high IQ basketball. The Hawks appeared all set to reap the benefits of this new philosophy in this year’s poor Eastern Conference, but then disaster struck. On Dec. 26, All-Star center Al Horford tore his right pectoral muscle against Cleveland, ruling him out for the season. On a superficial level Horford’s numbers are outstanding, but his importance to the team actually increases further when you look beyond that.
In the 29 games Horford played in this year, the Hawks averaged 103.2 points, shooting 47.1 percent from the field per night. In contrast, in the seven games since his injury, these figures had dropped to 97.0 points from 41.1 percent from the field. To put the plummeting field goal percentage in perspective, with Horford, the Hawks ranked fourth in the league in field-goal percentage, they are now 27th. It could be argued that a fall in these stats is to be expected when a team loses one of the most efficient shooters in the league to injury, but let’s also take a look at the difference in some categories Horford wouldn’t be famed for his impact in. Without Horford the Hawks are averaging 7.5 more 3-point attempts and only making one more than they did with him in the team, while their assists have also dropped from 25.9 per game to 23.1 in their star player’s absence. The 27-year-old Horford’s shooting touch, athleticism and intelligence had made him the focal point of Budenholzer’s new offensive schemes. Building a Tim Duncan and Tony Parker-esque dynamic, Jeff Teague and Horford had grown adept at creating high percentage looks, particularly in pick and pop situations. It was simple, when the ball ran through Horford, good things happened. So with that in mind, how can Atlanta survive without him?
The Hawks need to find a way to compensate for the loss of Horford’s productivity and the easiest way to do that is to maximize the output of his direct replacement. I’m not for one second saying that Antic is in the same class as Horford (it’s simple, he’s not), but his game is suited to matching some facets of the Dominican’s style. Antic’s jump shot makes him a real weapon for opposing defenses to try and combat. Shooting 35.7 percent from deep, Antic has that rare gift of being able to drag the opposing away from the center to guard the 3-point line. With Antic being a good long ball shooter, this in itself gives him a big opportunity for him to score. It also helps create space for his teammates, allowing them the freedom to cut to the basket, safe from the shot blocker, if Antic chooses to pass up the shot.
Taking a look at Antic’s basic zone shot chart, something becomes apparent though. Antic has shot twice as many 3s than he has field goal attempts from any other zone on the floor. Although as a consistent shooter this is terrific, there will be a lot of occasions where there is a better option available by moving inside. Equipped with a soft and smooth jump shot there is no reason why Antic can’t get more shots off in the mid range. As i mentioned above, the pick and pop between Teague and Horford had become a key component of Atlanta’s offense, as it helped to create space and find high quality shots. With Antic’s shooting skills, there’s no reason he couldn’t occasionally run that play with Teague either.
One thing that seems for sure, Antic’s level of play is going to have a big influence on the Hawks results from now on in. Although the priority must be to raise his basketball IQ, even with the 3-pointer, Antic will help win his fair share of games.