After their surprise regular season Eastern Conference title in 2014-2015, the Atlanta Hawks could have been forgiven for blindly doing whatever it took to keep their roster intact. When the Toronto Raptors threw $14 million per at Demarre Carroll, however, the Hawks sensibly opted to let him go, rather than invest a fifth of their pre-tax cap space in their fifth starter.
While the Hawks clearly made the right business decision, Carroll does leave a significant, junkyard dog-sized hole in the Atlanta starting five. In his two breakout seasons in Atlanta, Carroll averaged over 31 minutes a game which, if nothing else, is a lot of floor time to fill. Last season, Carroll was also productive in those minutes, averaging 12.6 points, 5.3 boards and 1.3 steals per game. More importantly, as anyone who watched the Hawks play last year knows, Carroll’s impact is only partially reflected in his numbers. The Junkyard Dog also brought a level of intensity, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, that is difficult to replace.
The Hawks have made a few offseason moves to help fill the Carroll void. They brought in Tim Hardaway Jr from the Knicks and picked up Justin “Jrue’s Brother” Holiday from Golden State. While both, particularly Hardaway, will be able to provide some valuable minutes at the three spot and may evolve into impact players down the road, neither will be able to step into Demarre’s role right away.
Instead, the person best positioned to pick up Carroll’s slack is the man that backed him up for most of last year – Thabo Sefolosha.
Sefolosha is currently rehabbing from a serious NYPD-inflicted injury that ended his 2014-2015 season (and seriously hurt the Hawks title hopes) and neither Sefolosha nor the Hawks are yet talking return dates. However, if Thabo can make a full recovery from the injury, he may be more ready than anyone thinks to step into the Carroll’s spot in the starting lineup. While Thabo has never produced on the offensive end in the way that Demarre did over the last two years, the similarities between the two players suggest that Sefolosha may be on the verge of the same kind of breakout season we saw from Carroll in 2013-2014.
To begin with, they are physically virtually identical. Carroll is 6’8, 212 lbs, while Sefolosha stands 6’7 and weighs in at 222 lbs. Both are known for their athleticism and hustle, moreso than for their skills.
When we look at the numbers in the season before each player joined the Hawks, we can see that Thabo actually seems to have been well ahead of Demarre prior to landing in Atlanta. In 2013-2014 Sefolosha’s final season with the Thunder, he averaged 6.3 points, 1.3 steals, 1.3 assists and 3.6 rebounds in 26 minutes of action per game. These numbers are all slightly ahead of Carroll’s 6.0 points, 0.9 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.8 rebounds per game in nearly 17 minutes for the Jazz in 2012-2013. While Sefolosha’s elevated numbers could be viewed as a product of the extra nine minutes per game he played in OKC, the fact that he was entrusted with more minutes playing for a better team is hardly a compelling argument in favour of Carroll.
Sefolosha’s numbers dipped in his first year in Atlanta (except in rebounding, where he jumped to 4.3 per), but this drop off is likely tied to the dip his minutes took when he found himself playing behind Carroll. When we compare the two on a per 36 minutes basis, Sefolosha’s stats are better than Carroll’s in rebounding, steals, assists and blocked shots, with Carroll edging Sefolosha out only in scoring.
Carroll and Sefolosha also seem to be developing along a similar path. Both began their careers as defence and energy guys, with Carroll adding his offensive abilities later on. His big leap in Atlanta seemed to come from the three point line. Carroll did not shoot a meaningful sample of threes until his final year in Utah, when he averaged 1.1 attempts per game. It was not until he arrived in Atlanta that he was able to shoot with sufficient proficiency to justify attempting any more, shooting 36% in 2013-2014 and 39% in 2014-2015. Thabo, on the other hand, arrived in Atlanta having already proved that he can be deadly from beyond the arc. Prior to a drop off in his final year in OKC, Thabo shot 43% on 1.7 attempts per game in 2011-2012 and 41% on 3.2 attempts per game in 2012-2013. Whereas Carroll arrived in Atlanta needing to develop a 3-point shot, Thabo showed up fully formed.
It is clear that Sefolosha has all of the skills and natural ability needed to step in and replace Demarre Carroll as soon as he’s healthy enough to return to action. The biggest question mark is whether he will be able to bring the same energy and intensity that Caroll brought every time he stepped on the floor. If so, the best move the Hawks made this offseason may have been letting the Junkyard Dog get away.