ATLANTA — The Hawks have two games in two days starting on Tuesday, with coach Larry Drew currently viewing Devin Harris and center Zaza Pachulia as doubtful for the first game at Indiana.
As a result, when it comes to the depleted backcourt, Drew might have to lean more on rookie guard John Jenkins, the team’s first-round pick in 2012.
The veteran point guard Harris has struggled to remain healthy since about the quarter-pole of the season, missing 14 of the last 24 games, while shooting guard Anthony Morrow sat 18 of 19 games, due to injury. On top of all of this, the Hawks’ third-leading scorer, Lou Williams, was lost for the season on Jan. 18 with a knee injury.
During this time, Jenkins has gone from barely getting on the court – he had a brief stint in the NBA Development League – to becoming a dependable reserve. Over the last 24 games, Jenkins has logged 89 percent of his seasonal minutes (310 of 348). While he has failed to play twice during that time frame, Jenkins still averaged 14.1 minutes and 4.6 points over that span. He also shot 43.5 percent during that stretch, ranking him in the top third of NBA guards in that category.
When the Hawks play the Pacers on Tuesday, Harris could miss his second straight game and his fourth in the last seven, leading to the necessity that Jenkins continues to contribute.
“John is coming along,” Drew said. “He’s still learning. He’s a guy that the more he plays, I think the better he’ll get. As long as he’s in a situation (where) I see he’s learning and getting more and more comfortable, I’m going to keep throwing him out there. I like his size (6-foot-4, 215 pounds), I like his shooting ability, obviously; but what I really like is he’s making a conscious effort to defend at his position.
“That’s a tough position to defend but (Jenkins is) working at it. As long as I see him working at it, I’m going to keep him out there.”
A seemingly natural shooter, Jenkins’ evolution as a pro has meant having to work harder on his defensive game, but it also has meant trying on different roles. For example, he has never played point, but in Saturday’s 17-point loss to Chicago, Drew tried him out at that spot.
Jenkins played 23 minutes, making two of three shots, and finished with five points, two assists, one turnover and one foul. Defensively, Jenkins posted a minus-6 tally – one of the Hawks’ best ratios from Saturday’s home defeat.
“Any time I come in, just play hard defensively and do something on offense and I played some point guard, too, when (Jeff) Teague got hurt (with a hip contusion),” Jenkins said. “I’m just trying to be a threat a whenever I’m out there.”
For a player who was drafted with the label of a shooter, three shots in 23 minutes hardly qualifies Jenkins as having no conscience. He’s trying to do more than just fill the void in terms of field-goal attempts.
“I was just trying to take good shots,” Jenkins said. “I don’t want to force anything. A couple times I could’ve shot, made the extra pass, the ball went in for them so if I can just get an assist on that. I’m not coming in and just shoot a bunch of shots just because Lou and Devin are out. I got to make sure I’m playing good basketball.”
Jenkins concedes the quickness of NBA defenders at point guard is beyond his previous experience, but he also likened it to the constant double-teams he encountered while playing at Vanderbilt. He said NBA defenders are longer and taller, but there also is more.
“Guys guarding me are usually veterans, so they know all the little tricks so it’s definitely tougher,” he said.
With Jenkins’ increased playing time has come new challenges, such as keeping his confidence strong.
“I just tell him to play,” Teague said. “That’s the biggest thing. He’s worrying about the wrong things. I was like, ‘Just go out there and play your game. Don’t beat yourself up over a mistake. Just keep playing and good things will happen if you just play free.'”
Uncharacteristically for a shooter, Teague said Jenkins might have a hard time shaking off a missed shot.
“You know if he misses a shot – you know he’s a shooter – you miss one shot and you start getting down on yourself,” Teague said. “If you miss five in a row, you’ve got to believe the next one’s going in and he’s started doing that.”
Jenkins knows he’s going to miss shots, of course. But he won’t fret about it too much on the court.
“The NBA game, defensively there’s a lot of technicalities to it – movements on offense and movements on defense, transition stuff – all that is different from what I’m used to,” Jenkins said. “Of course, like any rookie you want to make sure you do everything right. You don’t want to mess up, so I think the biggest thing for me is to go out there and play carefree.”
Sometimes for a 21-year-old whose game is still evolving, that’s easier said than done.