As Jeff Teague departed and Dennis Schroder acquired the starting point guard role for the Hawks in the 2016 offseason, one key question presented itself.
Would Atlanta experience a bigger drop-off in production from the hole left by Teague in the starting lineup, or the hole left by Schroder on the bench?
The answer seemed to become the backup point guard position — mainly due to a disturbingly quiet offseason in which the Hawks backcourt moves were signing an injured Jarrett Jack and a 27-year old who had never played a minute in the NBA.
Malcolm Delaney has quickly proven that the minutes he received overseas were plenty enough to prepare him for a major role in Atlanta’s offense. Playing 17 minutes per game as the setup man, Delaney has let everyone know that he isn’t your typical rookie.
“He’s been great,” Hawks guard Kyle Korver said. “We were all here in September playing pick-up together, and we all saw right away what kind of player he is. This is his rookie year, but he’s obviously not a rookie. He’s just so steady. He’s picked up the offense well, he’s a great set up guy as far as seeing the spots and seeing what’s open.”
Representing one of the integral parts of Atlanta’s bench, Delaney has played a key role in the NBA’s top second unit early in the season. Of all players to appear in every game this season, only Steph Curry, Lebron James, the Clippers starting lineup, and fellow teammate Thabo Sefolosha have a higher plus-minus per game than Delaney. Overall, the Hawks are plus-85 with him on the court through nine contests this season.
“He makes a lot of good decisions,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He competes defensively. He’s been very good on the ball, keeping the ball in front. He makes decisions, he makes pull-up shots. We have a lot of guys that are playing well right now, a lot of guys that are playing with confidence. We’re mixing and matching well, they’re sharing the ball well. I think to have that kind of wave come off the bench … that’s what it takes for us to be good.”
Despite not overwhelming opponents so far with an abundance of scoring or jaw-dropping plays, the effect of Delaney has been apparent when he’s on the floor. In a role that Schroder occasionally brought up-and-down and unpredictable production to a season ago, Delaney has delivered steady and efficient play to give the Hawks a much-needed boost from the bench.
“When we’ve pushed out leads, it’s usually been guys in the second unit that have done it,” Korver said. “It puts some pressure on the first group to be a little better, because we want to push out leads too. At the same time, it’s just a huge plus for us.”
Saturday night’s win over the Sixers proved to be no different for Delaney. He finished the game with nine points and six assists. The Hawks were plus-10 with him on the court. Primarily operating out of the pick-and-roll with Paul Millsap or Dwight Howard as the screener, Delaney showed the poise of a veteran as he established position as the ball handler and picked his spots to attack or dish it off to the big man.
“A lot,” Delaney said of how much having Millsap and Howard help his game. “People focus not only on me shooting … I’m used to people focusing on me, now they’re focused on them a little, so I get more room. Then if I make one or two shots, they’ve got to play me, so I can help them get a little easier shots too. Europe is all pick-and-roll, so I’m used to playing it. The more play I get and playing with different people, I get to play more of my game, so I felt comfortable today.”
As more trends and numbers develop with each game, the Hawks have shown to be a much better team with Delaney on the court. While the sample size is still relatively small, the on/off splits are telling of his success. With Delaney off the court, Atlanta’s offensive rating is 104.7 and its defensive rating is 105.6. Opponents are scoring .9 more points per 100 possessions than the Hawks when he isn’t on the floor. With Delaney on the court, Atlanta’s ORtg jumps up to 114.9, and its DRtg falls to 88.7. Atlanta is 26.2 points per 100 possessions better than its opponent when he is playing, making Delaney’s on/off net rating plus-27.1.
Perhaps an even more promising and telling sign of Delaney’s effect is making teammates around him better. More than 26 percent of Delaney’s passes to teammates have gone to Millsap this season — the highest mark of any player — while Millsap has received more than 16 percent of passes coming his way from Delaney. He’s only shot more attempts off of passes coming from Schroder, but Millsap’s 54 percent field goal percentage from Delaney passes is his best mark from any teammate. Kent Bazemore is the only other teammate that Millsap has better than a 50 percent mark on from incoming passes.
What came into the year as a huge question mark has turned into one of the most promising early-season results for the Hawks. As Delaney continues to get more confident and grow into the role, the product figures to only get better. Late in Saturday night’s game, the communication and comfort from Delaney in the offense showcased itself in a beautiful way. Driving toward the right baseline, Delaney turned back toward half court and spotted Howard jogging into the paint. With a slight nod to the big man, Delaney quickly spun back toward the baseline as Howard cut at the basket.
With a light lob into the air, the rookie point guard tallied another assist as Howard slammed home the alley-oop.