We’ve discussed Jeff Teague ad nauseum this summer. We’ve all heard of his potential, the hype, and the possibilites. There’s the overwhelming consensus amongst Hawks fans that Teague will finally bust out of his little boy breeches to to take the reigns of his future this season, and while that may very well happen, it’s a bit of an overstatement to predict that Teague is going to become the superstar that some fans are hoping for. I’m partly responsible for feeding the fodder, continuing to write about Teague and his upside. But when it came time to write player previews, I made sure Jeff Teague was under my watch. This may be his year and his chance, but I don’t want to jinx anything. I’m putting everyone on notice right now: do not overhype Jeff Teague. Not only will it, as I said earlier, jinx one of the, at least throughout history, most dysfunctional franchises in NBA history, but it also provides a precedent for us to rip him apart when he’s not everything we hoped he’d be. And that can’t happen.
Having said that, I don’t think there’s any doubt he will improve drastically from last season. He will be a product of a new system and a thoroughbred that Larry Drew would be foolish to lock in the stable.
So if there’s no doubt that he’ll improve but we are not supposed to make these aggrandizing statements about him, where do we draw the line? Where do we say, okay– this is too far? And at what point do I tell myself that I’m only publicly tampering my expectations as a safety net so I don’t look like a moron when my posts all summer have lauded Teague possibly too much?
Screw it. I’ll go out on some limbs, but also try and keep things reserved. Here are 3 things to expect from Jeff Teague this season, including cautionary advice on those expectations:
1. Expect big things, but don’t expect “The Leap”
We all know how talented Jeff Teague is. We’ve seen him tomahawk on Ray Allen and Channing Frye. We’ve seen him swat Keyon Dooling’s shot 5 rows back. We’ve seen him burn Derrick Rose, and we’ve seen him grab 3 steals in a minute. We’ve seen the flashes, but at what point do flashes stop counting as anomalies and start turning into common occurrences? For highlight plays like those? Never. But for a consistent mind-set, a consistent “go-mode?” That’s what we’re all looking for. Teague’s tendency has been to sit back and let the stars handle the ball– to drift away from the offense as it stagnated into isolations and stall-ball. Those days need to be over. He can’t let teammates demand the ball from him anymore, and if he does, he needs to be held accountable. It’s his show now. He’s not the best player on this team, but he is the orchestrator of the offense. Being in a new fast paced system itself should result in more possessions and thus more scoring opportunities, but if Teague wants to move forward with his development, he’ll need to become a better finisher around the rim. Doing so would likely, if we’re lucky, put him in the Jrue Holiday range (and by that I mean the Jrue Holiday of two years ago, not the one last year).
If you read around the Hawks blogosphere, you’ll see comments saying that Teague is the next star in Atlanta, a player who could turn this franchise around and become a perennial all-star. I’m here to dispel that notion. While it would be foolish to say that most fans see it that way, there are a ton that do, and it’s important that we not stunt the development of Teague by submitting ourselves to outlandish expectations. There won’t be a gargantuan leap. Teague does have a ceiling, but it’s a high one. There’s no reason that Teague, in the right offense with the right players around him, can’t become one of the top-10 point guards in this league. He’ll never crack the top-5, but he could become an upper echelon player. Will that happen this year? Probably not. Will we see him take a step in doing so? Probably. Will he ever actually make that leap? Whose to say? Certainly not me. I think it’s possible, but right now he’s far from it, and I think the fans need to relent in their everlasting pursuit of the next Atlanta superstar (that certainly includes myself) and allow him to function in a system where he can be the efficient player that he needs to be in order for the Hawks to succeed. If accolades come with that, so be it, but Teague isn’t destined for stardom– he’s destined for contribution, and it’s up to him to determine the level at which he will do so.
2. Expect Jeff Teague’s assist rate to increase
Teague is not a passer by nature– he’s a scorer and a penetrator. He’s shown good-enough passing skills to make it by, and that’s all he’ll need them in this shooter heavy offense. When Teague’s not managing the heralded spread pick-and-roll offense and is in transition, he should constantly be flanked by knock-down shooters running to their sweet spots. With so many weapons and so many offensive options at his disposal, it will be his job to deliver the ball to whoever is in the best position to score. The opportunities on pick-and-rolls with Josh Smith abound, and we all saw his effectiveness with Horford as the roll man in the playoffs. If Teague can learn to consistently make the right decision when handling the ball, the Hawks offense should be near the top of the league in efficiency. And if it is, you can bet that Teague finding open teammates will be a large part of that.
His lightning quick first step is really the key to his entire passing ability. He won’t stand atop the key and pick a defense apart like Rajon Rondo, but once Teague gets in the lane, the defense has no choice but to collapse. Once collapsed, depending on where the help is coming from, Teague should be able to hit the roll man, hit the forward flashing to the high post, or hit a shooter in a corner. His options seem limitless with an offense that encourages movement and it will likely be exhilarating to watch Teague constantly attack the heart of opposing defenses. Really, there’s no way to stop him from getting to the paint– he’s too quick. Defenses can only hope for a moment of indecisiveness on his part, but it likely won’t happen. After watching Teague play for the past 3 years, I think it’s safe to say that his reactions will be wildly sporadic. Sometimes, he’ll look like a magician, other times he’ll just be forcing the issue. Regardless, it should make some entertaining basketball theatre.
3. Teague will have to carry the load on defense
Trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams sure felt like pushing a one-thousand pound boulder off the shoulders of Hawks fans around the country, but in the short term, the only thing it did was leave gaping defensive holes on the perimeter. The acquisitions of John Jenkins, Anthony Morrow, and Kyle Korver were solely offensive-inspired decisions. They’re defensive prowess is non-existant. They’ll be funneling any guard with a crossover directly to Smith and Horford, so we better hope the two center-pieces of this franchise at the moment don’t find themselves in perpetual foul trouble as a result of that. I would suggest plugging DeShawn Stevenson into the rotation as he is a solid defender, but he doesn’t even remotely fit within the scheme of the Hawks offense. He’s not a slasher and he’s not a shooter; basically, he’s nothing more than an offensive vegetable, and if the Hawks are looking to run, burdening the offense with such ineptitude would not maximize the scoring opportunities that team will be counting on. Sure, as a specialist in certain scenarios, Stevenson will have his niche with this team– he is a useful player, but throwing the defensive burden on him when he subtracts everything he gives you on the other side of the floor just doesn’t seem like the proper decision.
So where does that leave Atlanta defensively? With Devin Harris and Jeff Teague as the only defensive options even remotely close to reliable outside of Stevenson, it’s expected that they anchor the perimeter, if there is even such a thing as a “wing-anchor.” Many bloggers and analysts argue that a point guard’s defense isn’t that important– that it’s the least consequential of all the positions. While I agree with that statement, when you’re point guard is the only wing player with any sort of defensive proficiency, the theory turns on its back. Teague will likely be expected to guard the opposing teams’ best ones and twos, so long as they aren’t too much taller than him (i.e. Tyreke Evans, James Harden, Paul George– anyone over 6’5″, really). It’s certainly a daunting task for a player who loves to gamble the passing lanes as much as him, but one he’ll have to be up to. Unless, of course, you want Kyle Korver to do it.