Kyle Korver’s late bloom the high-flying Atlanta Hawks’ huge gain

Kyle Korver, 33, has gone from being a role player for most of his career to one of the most efficient and important players in the NBA this year for the East-leading Hawks.

Kyle Korver of the Atlanta Hawks reacts during his team's win over the Indiana Pacers in the NBA on Wednesday night. Kevin C Cox / Getty Images / AFP / January 21, 2015
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Kyle Korver spent most of his career running around behind the three-point stripe, a guy whose singular quest was to get open for a long-range shot at the basket.

Turns out, he was so much more.

At age 33, Korver has emerged as one of the key players on the NBA's most surprising team, helping propel the Atlanta Hawks to the best record in the Eastern Conference (35-8) just past the midway point of the season.

Even Korver seems a bit amazed by it all.

“A lot of things have come together,” he said. “I’ve played for some really good coaches, been on some really good teams. I learned a lot. Maybe I didn’t play quite as many minutes, but I tried to absorb it all and kept on trying to get better.”

Korver still shoots plenty of threes, still does it better than anyone. But it’s the rest of his game that’s been valuable to the Hawks.

Crushing screens. Banging for rebounds. Crisp passes. Tougher-than-expected defence.

“I’m not sure I understood how much Kyle could help us on both ends,” said coach Mike Budenholzer, whose team have tied a franchise record with 14 straight wins and lead the East by a whopping six games.

“I think he’s underrated defensively and just his versatility, his ability to pass, his unselfishness. He sets the most unbelievable screens. You would think people are supposed to be setting screens for him. “But he loves to be physical, to get someone else open. He loves to pass. He wants to make sure guys are in the right spots. He’s just an unselfish pro in every way.”

Korver is having what could be a historic shooting season. He is making nearly 52 per cent from the field, hitting more than 53 per cent of his three-point attempts, and connecting on 92 per cent of his free throws. Steve Kerr is the only other member of the 50-50-90 club, from the 1995/96 season with the Chicago Bulls, and he wasn’t a starter like Korver.

Of course, Korver wasn’t a starter for most of his career, coming off the bench in 554 of 664 games over his first nine years in the league. Only after he was dealt from Chicago to the Hawks in 2012 – for nothing more than cash and a trade exception – did he land with a team that seemed to appreciate him as more than a role player.

When Budenholzer took over as coach the following year, bringing along a San Antonio-style system that stressed teamwork over one or two guys carrying the load, Korver really began to blossom. He got a tryout with the US national team last summer; while he was cut before the world championships, the experience helped to bolster his confidence even more.

Now, on a team where all five starters are in double figures but no one is averaging more than 17.2 points a game, Korver is being mentioned as a candidate for the All-Star Game.

That really blows him away.

“A couple of years ago, I don’t think people really thought I was a starter in the NBA,” he said, chuckling a bit under his breath. “But we’re all benefiting from each other and the system and coach Bud’s style. “It doesn’t matter what happens with the All-Star selections. We’ll be happy for whoever goes.”

While Korver will tell you he no longer cares about proving people wrong, teammate Elton Brand thinks otherwise.

“He might not say it, but I think so,” Brand said. “He’s working hard. He’s not just working on his shot, either. He’s working on his strength, his athleticism, his movement.”

Hawks forward Paul Millsap said those talents were there all along, but no one gave Korver much of a chance to show them until he got to Atlanta. The two had previously played together for almost three years in Utah, where Korver started just two of 180 games.

“The teams he’s been on, they just relied on him to sit in the corner and shoot the basketball,” Millsap said. “On this team, he’s got a little more freedom to make plays.”

Even to dunk.

After being needled mercilessly by his teammates about his lack of above-the-rim skills, the 6ft 7in Korver pulled off his first dunk in nearly two years in Atlanta’s latest win, a 110-91 blowout of Indiana on Wednesday night.

Korver felt he got some pretty good air on the play.

Later, when he watched a replay at home with his wife, he realised that he barely cleared the rim.

“I thought I was up kind of high,” Korver said. “My wife was like, ‘I’m really glad you’re good at what you actually do’.”

That’s good enough for the Hawks.

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