Kevin Huerter, the value of movement shooting, and the limitations of heliocentrism

Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

In Sacramento, Kevin Huerter has been empowered to expand his offensive skill set and it’s paying huge dividends for the Kings.

“He’s playing like Klay, Steph. The way he’s coming off the handoffs and shooting the basketball right now — if you’re not a basketball fan and locked in on the league, you gotta watch how Kevin Huerter’s shooting this ball right now.”

That was Kevin Durant, detailing last month why the Sacramento Kings — yes, the Sacramento Kings — have been one of the most potent offensive teams in the NBA and could make their first playoff appearance in 16 years. Durant rightly identified Kevin Huerter, who has broken out as one of the NBA’s best shooters in his first season with the Kings, as one of the principal catalysts of Sacramento’s dynamic, multi-pronged attack.

In less than a year the 24-year-old Huerter has gone from “passable NBA starter” to “central offensive cog” — a transformation that evinces how much a change of scenery can redefine a player’s game.

While he’s undoubtedly broadened and sharpened his skill set, Huerter has also benefited from a greater sense of empowerment in Mike Brown’s system, which has revealed wrinkles in his game. He was always a reliable spot-up shooter and passable secondary creator around Trae Young, but in Sacramento, he’s emboldened to be much more than that. His top-line statistics this year imply modest improvement, but a closer look at the way the Kings have weaponized him within the offense reveals a more substantial leap forward.

What are the Sacramento Kings doing differently with Kevin Huerter?

By unleashing him as an off-ball mover and dialing up his 3-point volume, Sacramento has turned Huerter into one of the NBA’s most valuable offensive weapons. He’s shooting a scorching 41 percent on seven 3-pointers per game (both career-highs), and the threat of an accurate, high-volume movement shooter with deep range has unlocked the NBA’s seventh-ranked offense.

So feared is Huerter’s shot that the mere threat of it pulls defenses out of position and creates seams for his teammates to attack. Huerter leverages his magnetism by running off screens, relocating along the perimeter and cutting into the paint in ways that pull extra bodies toward him. Here, he discombobulates Steph Curry and the Warriors with an action Curry himself pioneered:

Those sorts of gravity assists have become a staple of Sacramento’s offense, and unlike other off-ball specialists, Huerter also exploits some of these advantages as an on-ball playmaker. A solid passer and quick decision-maker with above-average court vision, he can probe and extend plays off the dribble in ways pure movement shooters like Buddy Hield, Max Strus or Klay Thompson can’t:

He attacks aggressive closeouts with patience and guile; his improvement as a pull-up shooter has made him more dangerous in the pick-and-roll, and his feel for when to give up the ball creates open looks when defenders overcommit:

He could probably stand to be even more aggressive from deep as he gets more comfortable in his new role, but Huerter is an otherwise ideal offensive fit with De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis and has developed instant chemistry with Sabonis in two-man actions:

He still isn’t a major threat to pressure the paint, but Huerter has been noticeably stronger inside this year, shooting a career-high 68 percent at the rim and more than doubling his minuscule free-throw rate. That — along with elite 3-point shooting — adds up to a career-best in individual scoring volume and efficiency, and Sacramento’s offense is a staggering 11.5 points per 100 possessions better with Huerter on the court than with him off.

Huerter’s metamorphosis underscores just how important role and context are for non-stars in the NBA. For all the benefits of heliocentric offenses run through one indomitable star, they often fail to maximize secondary players with more varied skill sets. That isn’t to say those stars don’t make their teammates better in other ways, or that teams with an elite creator shouldn’t run their offense through that player; but that one-dimensional approach has its limitations.

Offenses run through a single creator are often static and predictable, and failure to integrate ball and player movement around a superstar keeps dynamic support players confined in narrow and rigid boxes. Ball-dominant players also tend to be inactive without the ball, so they’re rarely involved in plays they don’t directly create.

Meanwhile, players like Steph Curry, Nikola Jokic, Jayson Tatum and Ja Morant catalyze their teams’ offenses without monopolizing them, instead empowering teammates to make plays and staying active away from the ball. Consider the contrast between Young’s deliberate spread pick-and-roll sequences and Curry’s constant, unpredictable off-ball movement; or the way Luka Doncic and James Harden methodically pound the ball in isolation while Jokic continually spreads the action out across the floor. One mode of attack allows defenses to load up on the ball while the other forces them to make multiple efforts as the ground constantly shifts underneath them.

Huerter is the latest addition to an increasingly large swath of players who have broken out after leaving heliocentric environments — players who couldn’t have become the best versions of themselves without the freedom and agency to blossom. Now Huerter is an integral part of a top-10 offense that gorgeously blends his skills with those of equally central teammates, while his previous team spins its wheels with a predictable, inefficient attack. New circumstances can be transformative, and Huerter exemplifies how stark that transformation can be.

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