The Hawks are 3-0, and if nobody is stocking up on confetti yet it’s because they still have 79 games left and they’ve played the Wizards, Sixers and Kings. Actually, 13 of their first 19 games come against teams that didn’t make the playoffs last season — so feast, young men, and we’ll check back sometime after all the leaves fall.
But it’s worth noting, even at this early juncture, that Dennis Schroder isn’t popping any springs yet. The Hawks’ new starting point guard, who’s enormously talented but also occasionally resembles a pingpong ball in a wind tunnel, has played under control for the most part, and he hasn’t completely driven teammates crazy.
“Dennis has a bit of an edge to him, and he’s always going to be a bit of a wild card,” Kyle Korver said Tuesday. “His talent is so high that there are going to be nights when he’s just amazing. And there are going to be some nights when he’s … still learning.” (Korver has a Ph.D in diplomacy.)
Schroder was a gamble worth taking. His fire burns hot. It’s better that a team keeps the player whose flames sometimes get a little out of control than it is to try to coax a spark out of the guy who seems like a wet book of matches (see: Jeff Teague).
Schroder can be an incredible annoyance to opposing players. He also gets on the nerves of his own teammates and coaches, particularly the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer, who prefers cyborgs.
Asked if he was even a little amused at Schroder getting under the skin of DeMarcus Cousins during a win over Sacramento on Monday night, Budenholzer said, “No. I’m not amused.
“I just don’t really play that game or think that way. But generally speaking I probably have to come a little bit to Dennis, and Dennis has to come a little bit to me.”
But it says something that a coach like Budenholzer made the decision to commit to Schroder long term with a four-year extension. He wouldn’t tender such a deal if he didn’t believe in Schroder’s future.
“Even though I would like him to be more staid and calm and composed, that edge can be a positive for us,” Budenholzer said. “We’ve talked about our team being a little more edgy.”
There is no dull side to Schroder. We saw it in the playoffs last year when he annoyed Boston’s Isaiah Thomas to the point that Thomas smacked Schroder across the head, touching off a scuffle. We saw it again Monday when Schroder, like a constant gnat with his words or actions, poked at Cousins. The Kings’ center committed an offensive foul against Schroder, melted down with three fouls and two turnovers down the stretch and then after the game shoved Schroder in the back.
Schroder smiled when asked about Cousins.
“That’s the reason we put pressure on him, to try to get him out of his game,” he said. “He got an offensive foul, he swung his arm at me. I’m just competing, but he got mad. Coach didn’t like that I reacted. But he hit me and then I slapped him back. So he got mad again.”
There’s some history there. Schroder was suspended one game his rookie season for hitting Cousins in the groin. YouTube has the ugly evidence. Schroder said the contact was not intentional, that he was merely trying to fight through a screen.
“That one was kind of bad-looking. But I don’t do dirty plays because I don’t want players to do that to me.”
There were too many moments in too many games last year when the Hawks seemed to flat line. The loss of DeMarre Carroll likely played a role in that. But Schroder plays with no fear. What remains to be scene is if he play under control, as his position mandates. Can he distribute the ball and make players around him better? Can he lead?
He also needs to improve his jump shooting, so it was encouraging to see him stay after practice Tuesday working with shooting coach Ben Sullivan.
“I want to take my work ethic to the next level and stay after practice or sometimes even come back at night and just work with the shooting coach to get better,” Schroder said. “Being the starter, everybody is looking at you. You have to set the tone.”
So yes: He’s trying to break a lifetime of tendencies. He admits he still talks a lot in practice and irritates teammates, but said, “I’m trying to get them ready for the game.”
His style of play didn’t go over well as a youth in Germany.
“They didn’t like me,” he said. “They never had a player like this in Germany, just competing all the time. They said I’m a different person. They felt like I wasn’t German.”
This was a well-timed import. The Hawks needed a new look in the backcourt, and Korver said Schroder came into the NBA at the right time.
“Dennis is one of those guys where if you’re on the other team you don’t like him very much,” he said. “Luckily, he’s protected by rules now. He’s probably not going to get flattened like in the old days. Guys are too afraid of losing that check.”