On a night where Lawrenceville’s Lou Williams made his return to the Atlanta Hawks’ lineup, it was Indianapolis native Jeff Teague who stole the show. Unfortunately, few people got to see Teague’s magnificent performance, as Friday night’s contest against the Philadelphia 76ers at Philips Arena wasn’t even carried by local television outlets.
With no Michael Carter-Williams for the Sixers, there was a decided lack of star power on the court and the 6’1 point guard stepped in to take the spotlight. He scored a career-high 33 points and had 10 assists on the night, leading the Hawks to a 113-103 win over Philadelphia. He’s now averaging 19.9 points per game and 9.9 assists.
Asked after the game how he felt the game ranked on his pantheon of performances, he responded, “It was OK.”
That’s who Jeff Teague is.
During the preseason Teague said a few things that foreshadowed the impressive start to his 2013-14 season. It’s a season in which he’s leading the Eastern Conference in assists and averaging close to a double-double. It’s a season in which he’s averaging almost 11 points more per game than he has for his career and nearly 6 more assists.
The conversation lasted one minute and 46 seconds.
We talked about his game, his plans for the season, what players he looked up to and his new role as a leader, scorer and star for the Atlanta Hawks. A conversation like that with many NBA stars would likely take an afternoon. With Teague, it was one minute and 46 seconds.
This preseason it seems like Coach Bud has been looking to you handling the ball, and to score late in games, do you feel like that’s what’s going on? Do you feel like that’s going to be your role going into the season?
I’m not sure. You’d have to ask him about that. I’m just excited for the opportunity, if it does happen. Al [Horford]’s still one of our go-to guys and Paul Milsap can make plays and when Lou gets back, it’s like his prime-time position, but, you know, if it happens to come to me I‘m looking forward to it.
We talked a little bit during the All-Star Break about your development as a player. What do you feel like you’ve added between then and now and in the offseason?
Just my development as a point guard. [I’m] not looking to score as much, just getting more players involved and just being a leader. My shot’s improving every year, so hopefully I can continue and just trying to get better overall.
Was there anything you had a main focus on in the offseason? Any one particular aspect of your game?
Nah, not at all. My mid-range [jump shot], you know, I’m still working on that constantly, but that was one thing I really focused on, just making mid-range shots and hopefully I’ll shoot a better percentage this year.
Are there any players right now in the league, obviously at the point guard position, that you’re watching or who you’re talking to and they’re giving you any kind of advice or pointers or anything?
Nah, not at all.
Just trying to play like Jeff Teague?
Yeah, just trying to play like me. I don’t wanna be nobody else.
Any predictions for the season? All-Star team, anything like that?
Nah, not at all. I don’t do anything like that. I just want to get better every year.
That drive to get better obviously made an impression on new Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, who has been stoking the fifth year point guard’s confidence every chance he gets. So far it’s paid off and paid off in a big way. His scoring has him tied for fifth in the league among point guards and he is behind only Chris Paul in assists per game.
When Coach Bud talks about his point guard in post-game press conferences he uses the word aggressive, and he uses it a lot. After Wednesday night’s primetime contest on ESPN against the New York Knicks in which Teague scored 25 points and dished 8 assists, but committed 4 turnovers, Budenholzer said he just wanted more.
“I think during a lot of the stretches of the game, Jeff’s aggressiveness and Jeff’s ability to get in the paint, get to the rim kind of kept us afloat,” he said. “So I think that that’s what we’re looking for from Jeff and I think there’s opportunities throughout the game where I want him to be even more aggressive. It’s not necessarily for him to score, but when he’s aggressive and he gets in the paint, he collapses the defense, and he can score, he can find our shooters and to maintain that type of aggressive mentality for four quarters is what we’re encouraging him to do. I think whether it’s the first or the third or the fourth there was times when he was really aggressive and really good and there’s other times where we probably want even more from him.”
The Hawks lost the game, 95-91, but Teague’s performance led the team and his 25 points matched Carmelo Anthony for the game high.
“We made mistakes,” Teague said after the game. “We’re still a new group and we’re still trying to figure one another out. We’re getting better every game. [The Knicks] have been together for a while.”
This year Teague’s locker was moved from the far end of the locker room, near the showers, to the opposite side, right by the entrance and right next to Horford’s. Where last year he was the first player out of the locker room after a game, this year he’s front and center ready to answer questions.
Teague is hardly a superstar in the traditional sense. Though he was the only member of the Hawks team to participate in NBA All-Star weekend 2013, he has zero commercials, local or national, no major endorsements and the average fan probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. But if this year’s Hawks are going to be a team people want to see in under the bright lights, it will be because of him.