Hawks guard Jeff Teague works on his shot during NBA basketball practice in Atlanta. Teague emerged as an impact player at point guard last season when he got a chance to play in the postseason.
ATLANTA — The Hawks are counting on Jeff Teague to prove he can play in the 2011-12 season like he did in last season’s playoffs.
Teague, the 2009 first-round pick from Wake Forest, had only 10 career starts before Kirk Hinrich strained his right hamstring in the Hawks’ clinching win over Orlando in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Teague had to step in against MVP-bound Derrick Rose and the Bulls in the second round.
The results were unexpected. Teague had three 21-point games and finished the series with 25 assists and seven turnovers. The Hawks lost to the Bulls in six games but hope they found their point guard of the future.
“If Jeff can play at that level for the whole season, it will be like having a new player,” said coach Larry Drew.
Hinrich is recovering from shoulder surgery, so Teague is a lock to open this season as the starter.
The Hawks hope the super-quick Teague can take advantage of the momentum he gained in the playoffs as a tempo-changing, sharp-shooting backcourt mate to All-Star Joe Johnson.
Drew said Teague gives the Hawks a different look.
“With that type of speed and that type of quickness, he can impact a game probably like no other player on the floor,” Drew said. “When he’s playing at a high level, it makes us a different team. It makes our offense so much more effective.”
Teague spent most of his first two seasons watching Mike Bibby and Hinrich run the team.
He logged only nine minutes in two games in the Hawks’ first-round series win over Orlando, so few expected the backup to hold his ground against Rose and the Bulls.
Now the expectations for Teague have changed. Center Al Horford had a quick answer when asked how the series against the Bulls affected Teague.
“Confidence,” Horford said. “I think the playoffs really helped him last year. I just hope he keeps that edge. He’s playing hard.”
Hinrich, who came to the Hawks in a trade which sent Bibby to Washington in February, won’t be ready for the start of the season.
It’s Teague’s turn to prove he can handle the job.
“I was able to perform like that in the playoffs and I think now guys believe in me and know what I’m capable of,” Teague said after Wednesday’s practice.
A key for Teague in the playoff series was his ability to control his speed. When coming off the bench, he sometimes was out of control as he tried to make a big impact too quickly. He played smarter against the Bulls.
With Teague running the offense, the Hawks appear primed to set an up-tempo pace. Power forward Josh Smith has lost about 25 pounds. Small forward Marvin Williams is moving well following back surgery.
Drew said Teague is the perfect choice to help the Hawks take advantage of their athleticism.
“I told him before our first practice I expect him to take the bull by the horns,” Drew said. “I don’t want him waiting on anybody. Let’s force the other guys to keep up with him. He’s the type of player who can impact the game with his speed and quickness.”
Hinrich may be out until February, though he appears to be ahead of schedule in his recovery. Even so, Teague will need help at the start of the season.
Drew said veteran newcomer Tracy McGrady could be the first choice to play behind Teague.
“He’s a point forward,” Drew said. “He played at the top a lot with Detroit last year. He did a really good job. We certainly can use him in that capacity.
“The one thing I know from looking at a lot of film on him, when he is at the top with the ball in his hands, he gets the ball to the open guy and certainly we want to take full advantage of that. We have guys who can make shots and it always helps when you have another guy who makes plays and is a willing passer.”
McGrady averaged 8.0 points and 3.5 assists with Detroit.
Drew said Johnson also can move from shooting guard when Teague needs a rest.
The Hawks also may add another point guard before their Dec. 27 opener at New Jersey.
Depth will be important in a brutal opening stretch for Atlanta, which plays five games in six days to open the season. There’s little time for rest after the first week, as the Hawks have nine games in the first 13 days and 18 games overall in January.
“We can’t wear him down,” Drew said of Teague. “He’s young and has fresh legs, but we have to be smart with his minutes. We’ve got to make sure we have a solid backup plan for who is going to play behind him.”
The bulk of the playing time will belong to Teague.
“I’m just hoping that Chicago series was a confidence-booster for him,” Drew said. “I’m just hoping he’ll take up where he left off.”