Nobody told Jeff Teague he had to stick to the script.
Before last summer’s Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Hawks and top-seeded Bulls tipped off, Teague was cast as a bit player. The 6-2 point guard, Atlanta’s first-round draft pick in 2009 who was on the verge of being labeled a bust, had averaged just 4.5 minutes of action in just two appearances during the Hawks’ first-round series. But when injuries forced Teague into a starting role â€“ and a nightly matchup with league MVP Derrick Rose â€“ he responded like a man ready to steal the show.
In the six-game series, Teague averaged 14.8 points and 4.2 assists. He hit 53 percent of his shots from the field. He dropped 21 points apiece in Game 2, Game 3 and Game 5, adding seven dimes in Game 5 and three steals in Game 2.
True, Rose posted a shade under 30 points and 10 assists per game while leading the Bulls to the series win, but that’s what he was supposed to do. He was the MVP. Teague didn’t win any award, but he was the one who turned in a breakout performance.
Since then, Teague has become one of the many victims of the NBA lockout. Though he is in line for a bigger role on the Hawks next season, he has been unable to capitalize on his playoff momentum. Last week I got a few minutes with Teague to talk about the next step.
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Dime: Where have you been this offseason?
Jeff Teague: I’ve been back and forth. I’ve been in Atlanta and Indiana. There’s a lot of guys out here in Atlanta playing ball.
Dime: Have you played in any big-time exhibition or charity games?
JT: We had one in Indiana where I played against John Wall‘s D.C. team. And I played in the Southern Hospitality game with Marquis Daniels here in Atlanta.
Dime: I’m looking at those games and seeing scores like 175-170. From your perspective, is it anything like a real NBA game, or more like being on the playground?
JT: You’ll definitely see more highlights, great dunks, great moves. Guys will take chances in those types of games that they wouldn’t normally take. You could say it’s like the playground, but it gives you a good workout against some NBA guys. You can get up and down the court, five-on-five. You can get in some real-life game situations, but it’s mostly all fun out there, playing for the crowd reaction.
Dime: What are you working on with your game?
JT: Shooting from the NBA three-point line. I haven’t had great shooting percentages (31.3 percent career beyond the arc), but I’m working to get better. When this season starts, I think I’ll take more open threes because I feel more confident in myself that I’ll make them.
Dime: After your first-ever NBA playoff start, you were given the game ball by Coach Larry Drew. What did that do for your confidence?
JT: It was a confidence booster, most definitely. When I think about where I left off in that series, I know I need to play every game like it’s the playoffs again.
Dime: What was working for you in that series?
JT: I think they didn’t expect much from me. I caught them off-guard a little bit. I knew it was a make-or-break series for me. I might never get another opportunity like that in the NBA, so I had to take full advantage. Even when I wasn’t playing a lot during the season I prepared every day and was ready to play. So when the opportunity came, I made the most of it.
Dime: I want to get your opinion on three rookie point guards you’ll be facing in the Eastern Conference next season. First is Brandon Knight.
JT: I’ve watched him a lot, plus my little brother (Marquis Teague) is going to Kentucky so I know him pretty well. He can shoot the ball.
Dime: Next up, Kyrie Irving.
JT: Cleveland still has a good point guard in Baron [Davis], but Kyrie is an exciting player. He gets up and down the court and has a great handle. I respect his game a lot. He’s going to hold his own.
Dime: Lastly, Kemba Walker.
JT: I like him a lot. He has the heart of a lion. I mean, he carried his team to a national championship â€“ can’t get much bigger than that. All of those rookies, they’re going to a situations where they have good guards on their teams, so they’ll have to work hard and compete.
Dime: You were in a similar spot when you were a rookie, with Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford as veterans in front of you in Atlanta. How did that help your development?
JT: You know you’re not by yourself. Some guys get thrown into the fire right away â€“ sometimes it helps you and sometimes it kills you. I learned a lot my first year behind those guys. I had to give it my best every day in practice.
Dime: What have you been getting into off the court?
JT: Just hanging with friends. Playing a lot of NBA 2K12. I can’t play NBA basketball right now, so I play video games (laughs). I’m a little disappointed, though, because I’m ranked a little low on the game. But I’m not gonna talk about that (laughs).
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