This past off-season, Atlanta Hawks GM Travis Schlenk had one mission: surround Trae Young with good NBA players. This might be the most simplistic and “you don’t say” sentence I have ever written, but Schlenk wasn’t interested in having Trae grow alongside a young core as they were developing. He went for veteran talent to supplement the roster and hoped a competitive atmosphere would help the likes of De’Andre Hunter and Onyeka Okongwu develop.
Their biggest acquisition was undoubtebly Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Serbian was plagued by inconsistency on a Sacramento Kings team that ran a frustrating half-court offense, as I noted in this piece on Premium Hoops last year. He was a streaky shooter whose minutes went up and down under Luke Walton. This lack of certainty affected his performance and meant the Kings didn’t really want to bring him back. When I wrote on Bogdanovic in November, I felt the piece was very positive. But the Serbian managed to take jumps as a playmaker and become more efficient as a scorer, which meant I probably wasn’t high enough on him.
Bogdanovic has had a season that you could call a breakout season for Atlanta. He posted career highs in points, steals, rebounds and shooting efficiency. On the whole, Bogdanovic is the shining example of a player who has athletic deficiencies but makes up for them by playing within those limits and maximising the skillset he does have. His intelligence, positioning and patience are a perfect mesh with the pick-and-roll mastery of Trae Young.
In the first round series against the Knicks, Bogdanovic was superb. His shooting numbers weren’t as high as in the regular season. However, he offered playmaking and highly effective off-ball defense, which was key in Nate McMillan’s unique way to defending Julius Randle.
Let’s start with the shooting. Bogdanovic’s release is quick and he needs minimal time to get looks off. He works extremely well off the ball in terms of making spontaneous cuts, which is a good mix with Trae and possibly needed as Nate McMillan’s offense doesn’t consistently have screen plays built in to generate threes within the flow of the scheme. It is also reasonable to infer that spot-up threes become more important than off-screen threes in the post-season, so Bogdanovic’s timely off the ball movement is welcomed.
The play above is perhaps the prototypical example of how well constructed this Hawks roster is. Trae enters a pick and roll. As the trap comes, John Collins slips to the right, knowing Derrick Rose will think about tagging him, as this is the core read in Tom Thibodeau’s defensive system. As this happens, Trae hits a dart to Bogdanovic. He needs almost no space to get his look off and he’s capable of hitting contested shots. On the play below, he relocates, gathers and shoots all in one motion. Processing speed is a way we evaluate guards, but release speed is a way to analyze shooters as they can make a small window into a much more feasible and advantageous situation.
Shooting can be tough to evaluate because having a good percentage doesn’t always mean much if the volume isn’t there. But this discussion takes me to an article by the King of draft Analysis PD Web. In his deep dive on Jalen Suggs, he discusses his five-point analysis of guards. Step five is “show me the special.” With regards to shooting, he says “It has to be over length and through a tiny window.” Bogdanovic fits this bill, and makes tiny windows more slightly less small because he relocates well and releases fast. On the play below, Bogdanovic scores a pull-up three out of a pistol keep type action on an ATO play.
What separates Bogdanovic from other shooters is that he has more to his game. Bogdanovic is not a devastating athlete but he’s a craftier ball-handler than the majority of players who are categorized as volume shooters. This makes him a plus playmaker, which is really what makes him such value on his contract. Atlanta runs most of their offense through Trae, but Bogdanovic is capable of creating looks on the inside and continuing possessions off the catch and off the dribble. Per Cleaning the Glass, he ranked in the 90th percentile in assist percentage, the 84th percentile in assist to turnover ratio, and the 85th percentile in turnover percentage which in particular was a drastic improvement on what we saw in Sacramento. His playmaking went to the next level in Atlanta.
The play below showcases how smart Bogdanovic is as a ball handler.
The Hawks flow into a basic side pick-and-roll. Bogdanovic freezes Gibson then takes a step backwards. This step gets RJ Barrett further from the play and gives Capela more of a rolling lane. Bogdanovic knows the Knicks priority is to defend the paint. De’Andre Hunter cuts through the paint and Bogdanovic stays patient knowing that Rose will tag Hunter, and the result is an open three for Collins. Bogdanovic doesn’t have the speed to blow past people, but makes up for this by playing at his own pace and making smart reactive reads as a ball handler. Cutters are a good way of creating drive and kick situations for him that he might not be able to make himself. With Bogdanovic, the ball handling is opened up by smart dribbling and a highly efficient mid-range game fueled by east-west moves, as opposed to being a devastating interior player.
Bogi’s scoring prowess is well covered, but his defense has been slightly above average for most of the year. He ranked above average in Defensive RAPTOR, and the tape matched this. He was in the 79th percentile in steal percentage, something which is often used to measure feel for the game. He’s not a game changing athlete who will disrupt anything, but he will be in the right position and is a good team concept defender. This was massively evident in the series against the Knicks, in which he was a huge part of their unique plan to defend Julius Randle. He grabbed seven steals in five games and was a pest as a nail help defender when the Hawks overloaded Randle and tried to force him right. Bogdanovic uses his hands well as an individual defender and got steals at a high rate.
Team defense is what won Atlanta the series, and it makes sense to take a brief look at how they defended Randle. There are multiple parts to it, but here is the base concept.
They defend Randle aggressively, and combine this with having Capela aggressively coming across to help. Generally, the Hawks forced Randle to his right with the angle their on-ball defender took. Note how De’Andre Hunter doesn’t want him reversing to the left. But even if Randle was able to, the entire Hawks team is zeroed in around the paint. You can see that Bogdanovic is in a position to defend the passing lanes, which was largely his role. Randle on the whole is more of a reactive passer who doesn’t process the passing lanes well, so this approach completely shut him down. They essentially rotated hard to the paint and lived with the perimeter players being open because they knew Randle wasn’t going to consistently find them if his first reads were disrupted.
This is where Bogdanovic came in. He executed the plan to perfection and showcased his overall feel for the game on the defensive side of the ball, take the play below as an example.
Watch Bogi on this possession. He tags the dunker spot briefly, then jumps into the passing lane. As Randle rather unconvincingly tries to adjust in mid-air, Bogdanovic remains in position and plays the first passing lane, knowing that Randle will try and do everything in one move. He just isn’t comfortable making long-range passes and isn’t helped by the Knicks not having a stretch big to play alongside him. They essentially disrupt his first read and it shuts the Knicks offense down.
On the play above clipped by Polarfall (a highly underrated follow on twitter), Bogdanovic is attached to Taj Gibson at the dunker spot. This is a good assignment for Bogdanovic because he can effectively hawk off ball as Gibson doesn’t necessarily require much attention, and the presence of all the other Hawks around the paint can cover for him. Watch Bogdanovic first take his step after Randle tries to attack with his left hand, then mirror him in the passing lanes, taking away his first option, and forcing him to look elsewhere. It’s an off-ball masterclass and something that was required from whoever was attached to the Knicks center when The Hawks were overloading off the ball. This was effectively always the nail helper and the first guy because Capela generally shaded towards Randle as soon as he got the ball.
The last play is an example of great help. He times his hand in perfectly to help knock Randle off. He does this while not fully committing to him and leaving Burks. He uses his wingspan well and makes the play. He maintains taking the first pass away but ensures he sends some form of help on the mismatch. Bogdanovic was never an awful defender in Sacramento but their lack of success meant his prowess as a team defender was never really able to be explored. He fits well in what the Hawks do, and is by no means a one-way player. He is at worst, a neutral defender. For someone who meshes so perfectly with Trae Young on offense, this is a fine trade-off. The Hawks will go as far as Bogdanovic’ shooting, playmaking and smarts.