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Bogdan Bogdanović Turned His Season Around. Can He Help The Hawks Beat The Knicks?

Very few NBA players had a more eventful 2020-21 season than Bogdan Bogdanović. The 28-year-old wing was widely considered one of the top free agents available during the 2020 offseason, and the Milwaukee Bucks apparently wanted Bogdanović so badly that they negotiated a sign-and-trade agreement to acquire him from his former team, the Sacramento Kings, before league rules permitted them to do so. The only problem with that was that Bogdanović himself never actually agreed to sign with Milwaukee (though he may have told Giannis Antetokounmpo that he wanted to), and so the deal fell apart when Bogdanović instead elected to hit the market.

That decision resulted in Bogdanović landing a four-year, $72 million offer sheet from the Atlanta Hawks, who added him to their much-ballyhooed free-agent class that also included Danilo Gallinari, Rajon Rondo and Kris Dunn. A 6-foot-6 sniper who hit 37.4 percent of his threes with Sacramento and proved himself a capable second-side playmaker, Bogdanović made for a perfect conceptual fit with a team that centers its offense on a heavy dosage of Trae Young pick and rolls.

But while Bogdanović’s fit with the Hawks seemed perfect, his start to the year was much less so. Former Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce had Bogdanović primarily coming off the bench early in the season, and the sharpshooter just looked lost. He averaged just 9.9 points in 23.7 minutes a night during the first nine games while shooting 38.5 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from three. Making matters worse, he suffered an avulsion fracture in his right knee during that ninth game — an injury that ultimately sidelined him for nearly two months.

Bogdanović’s first game back on the floor coincided with Nate McMillan’s ascension to the head coach’s chair. McMillan, like Pierce, had Bogdanović coming off the bench early in his tenure. And while Atlanta won each of the first eight games with McMillan at the helm, Bogdanović remained ice cold. In 22.4 minutes per game, he averaged just 9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 38.9 percent from the field and 28.6 percent from deep.

After Atlanta lost back to back games to the Clippers and Kings early in an eight-game road swing, McMillan flipped Bogdanović and Kevin Huerter in the lineup. That’s when both the Hawks and Bogdanović himself took off.

The Hawks took a big jump

2020-21 stats for Bogdan Bogdanović and the Atlanta Hawks before and after he became a regular starter on March 26

Team stats Before starting Since starting
Team games 44 28
Team record 22-22 19-9
Offensive rating 115.5 117.4
Bogdanović stats Before starting Since starting
Games played 19 25
Minutes 23.4 34.4
Points 10.2 21.1
Rebounds 3.4 3.8
Assists 2.2 4.2
FG% 40.5% 50.3%
3PT% 34.5% 48.6%
Games w/ 3+ threes 6 21
Games w/ 5+ threes 3 11

Source: Basketball-Reference.com

There was not a hotter shooter in the league over that latter portion of the season than Bogdanović. According to Second Spectrum, Bogdanović outperformed his expected effective field-goal percentage by 10.23 percentage points from March 26 through the end of the season. (Second Spectrum estimates expected conversion rates based on the distance of the shot and the closest defender, and the identity of the shooter, among other factors.) In terms of outperforming shooting expectations, the efficiency gap between Bogdanović and the next-closest player (Hornets forward Miles Bridges at 7.25 percentage points) was equal to the distance between Bridges and Stephen Curry in 14th place in the same list.

The key to Bogdanović’s success is that while he’s a fantastic standstill shooter (he knocked down 45.3 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes this season, per NBA Advanced Stats), he’s not merely a standstill shooter. He never stops moving, and he’s one of the best movement shooters in the NBA. No NBA player used more off-ball screens than Bogdanović from the time he entered the starting lineup through the end of the season, according to Second Spectrum, and among the 65 players who used at least 200 of them during that stretch, the 1.228 points per possession Bogdanović generated when he either shot or passed to a teammate who did ranked third-best.

Bogdanović is a wonderfully patient player, and he knows how to leverage every asset in his arsenal to create openings for both himself and his teammates. The Hawks use him in floppy action, staggered double screens, screen-for-screener plays and as the third man in Spain pick and rolls. He’s an expert at moving without the ball and at reading the defense as he comes around a screen.

If he has enough space, he can step right into a shot. If he doesn’t, he can curl around to drive the lane or step out and transition right into a pick and roll. If he beats his own man off the screen and a big man steps out on him, he’ll use change-of-pace dribbles, shoulder-nudges or step-backs to create space for his shot. If he catches his man top-siding or trying to shoot the gap, he’ll often either reject the screen and head back door or flare out to the corner. He routinely takes advantage of on-the-move defenders with his combination of quick decision-making and exceptional balance, and he knows when to hunt his own shot (off the catch or off the dribble) and when to leverage the attention defenses pay him to get the ball to an open teammate.

Much of his value, though, is derived from the fact that putting an ace shooter on the floor alongside Young at times seems unfair. Young’s long-range shooting and foul-drawing capabilities capture a lot of attention, but passing is his single-best skill. He’s a puppet-master manipulating defenders to and fro, then whipping the ball to the open man with a flick of the wrist. 

Bogdanović’s ability to shoot off the catch from any angle, with or without space, makes for a perfect match. Young assisted Bogdanović on 60 baskets from the time Bogdanović entered the starting lineup through the end of the season, the third-most assists from one teammate to another among all teammate pairings in the league during that stretch. 

The few times the New York Knicks sent weak-side help at Young’s pick-and-roll drives in Game 1 of their first-round series, Young made the right pass, and Bogdanović (among others) made the Knicks pay, just as he’s made defenses pay all season.

As the series moves forward, the Knicks seem at least somewhat likely to send more help Young’s way than they did in that first game. His 23 direct drives yielded 34 points in Game 1, according to Second Spectrum. That’s tied for the 11th-most points any player’s drives have created in a playoff game during the player-tracking era. New York’s strategy of baiting him into floaters and runners backfired spectacularly, with their big men struggling to split the difference and contest Young’s shots while not giving him open passing lanes. 

Tom Thibodeau isn’t going to allow his defense to be torn apart the same way over and over all series long, and given that Young also tore the Knicks apart in the teams’ final regular-season meeting before he left with injury, a change in strategy might be in order. If and when the Knicks send that help, the success or failure of the Hawks offense will become much more dependent on their shooters. If recent history is any indication, Bogdanović will be up to the challenge.

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