by Branden J. Peters
After seeing Atlanta Hawks cornerstone Joe Johnson traded to the Brooklyn Nets in 2012, Jeff Teague had to believe that his stay in Atlanta was not promised. The feeling was almost validated this past summer, when the Milwaukee Bucks, led by former Hawks coach Larry Drew, offered the 25-year-old a four-year, $32 million contract. The Hawks matched the offer, however, but they lost Teague’s running mate Josh Smith to the Detroit Pistons.
Teague’s a chill, mild-mannered and humble guy, so disappearing on the court because of the tumult and just playing for a check isn’t his MO. Instead, halfway into his fifth season in the League, Teague is playing his best basketball to date, and he’s been doing it lately without Al Horford, Atlanta’s best player.
During the Hawks’ solid start to the season (a third-best-in-the-East 23-20), Teague is quietly (except among fantasy heads) averaging 16.2 points, 7.3 assists and 2.8 rebounds per game, all career highs. For his part, the 6-2 point guard gives a lot of credit to first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer.
“With Coach Drew, it was a controlled system,” says Teague. “You knew what you were going to do every night, you knew where your shots were going to come from, you knew exactly what was going to happen. Now, it’s more free flowing.”
With a green light to fastbreak and more set pick-and-rolls in the half court offense, Teague—and the Hawks—are flourishing. Sort of amazing, considering the team’s restructured roster and skittish start to the point guard’s career.
A couple years ago, it didn’t look like Teague would ever get any burn in a Hawks uniform. He was drafted out of Wake Forest, 19th overall by the Hawks in the point guard-heavy ’09 Draft. After playing only 10 minutes a game as a rookie, the slick and speedy Teague showed signs of life in his second season. Still, the knock that he was too little to be an off-guard but lacked the playmaking ability to be a true point persisted.
Finally, in his third season, with Mike Bibby chasing a ring in Miami and Kirk Hinrich injured, the ball was handed over to Teague almost by default. He did the best he could, scoring a little over 12.5 points and handing out almost 5 apg. More importantly, he started all 66 games of the strike-shortened season to help the Hawks to their fifth consecutive Playoff appearance. Then, in ’12-13, he upped his play even more, and in doing so proved once and for all to be the first point guard of note drafted by the Hawks since Doc Rivers was picked 31st overall in 1983.
Ironically, Jeff’s younger brother, former Kentucky Wildcat Marquis Teague, is currently going through some of the exact same growing pains. After winning an NCAA title under Coach Calipari, Marquis was drafted by the Bulls 29th overall and has since languished on the pine in Chicago and Brooklyn.
“I just tell him to stay focused,” says Jeff. “I went through the same thing my first couple of years. The opportunity is going to come, he’s just gotta make the most of it.”
In addition to being an even-keeled guy, Teague is also very mature, which his situation—playing for a franchise that has brought in a plethora of guards via draft and free agency—demands. “I thought Joe [Johnson] would never leave but if you can trade Joe, you can trade anybody,” says Teague. “I just focus on what I can do while I’m here. It’s a business. If something happens, you gotta roll with it. But I love it here and I don’t want to leave. Hopefully I can stay here my whole career.”
It would appear that the Hawks front office reciprocates those long-term feelings. After all, since passing on Chris Paul in ’05, the team has been searching for a home-grown solution at point guard. And now, in the form of the seasoned Teague—an athletic floor general who sees the floor well, runs the pick and roll with good precision and has the ability to posterize anyone—they have that.
As of late January, the Hawks were in the mix in the East—a spot most experts didn’t expect a team filled with solid players but devoid of superstars to be in. Watching the post-Johnson/Smith Hawks play is evidence that they will only go as far as Teague takes them. And thus far, he’s playing at a Playoff level.
The popular opinion would be that Teague has risen to the occasion due to the hole left by Smith’s departure; that he’s merely filling in because there are more touches and shots to go around. Well, there is some truth to that, but on the other hand Teague misses his former teammate on and off the court.
“Josh is probably one of the smartest players in the League,” says Teague. “Even though people don’t think it because he may shoot a lot of jumpers or things like that, defensively his instincts and things like that, you can’t teach it.”
Teague continues, “Joe and Josh are my good friends, me and Joe are really close,” he says. “Me and Josh used to text all the time. Me and him went to the movies every away game or we’d go out to eat or something, we was always around each other.”
Despite only being 25, Teague is already a leader on the team. He’s helped a team full of second-year Hawks (Lou Williams, Kyle Korver) and first-year Hawks (Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll) come together as a unit. The team communicates well with one another, shares the ball and plays with a fire. All of these attributes can be traced directly back to Teague.
Barring an injury, Teague will pass the 3,000-point and 1,500-assist mark this season, both numbers that seemed impossible during his first two years in the League. His propensity to score in the paint and ability to hit jumpers off the dribble combined with his improving court vision make him one of the better young, up-and-coming guards in the NBA.
Only a few years removed from being written off, Teague is no longer pegged as an undersized 2; he’s a legit point who deserved to be in the discussion for 2014 All-Star reserves. Being the humble guy he is, of course he didn’t think he was going to make it. “It’s too many players, you can’t really predict it,” says Teague. “I thought Josh was going to get it so many years and he didn’t make it, so I don’t know.”
If he won’t toot his own horn, the Atlanta Hawks PR department should; Teague is the point guard that Hawks fans have been waiting for since, well, Doc Rivers.