ATLANTA — Dennis Schroder was back in his native Germany this past summer, driving around with his best friend, when his cellphone began to buzz.
Schroder couldn’t check it out while behind the wheel. Even when he got to his mother’s house, he still didn’t believe what he was seeing.
The Atlanta Hawks had traded their longtime point guard, Jeff Teague.
“When I heard it, I thought they were playing,” Schroder said, still shaking his head. “It’s a big chance for me, a big opportunity. I’ve got to prove myself now.”
While the signing of Dwight Howard generated much of the offseason buzz in Atlanta, the decision to go with Schroder could turn out to be more significant for the Hawks.
Still only 23 but with three NBA seasons under his belt, Schroder has the potential to be one of the NBA’s top point guards, an immensely creative player who can cause all sorts of problems with his speed and quickness.
The Hawks are hoping the pairing of Howard with Schroder will lead a revamped team that reached the Eastern Conference finals two years ago, only to take a significant step backward last season.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “I think he understands what we’re doing at a very deep level, what we expect on both ends of the court. I think he carries himself with a belief and confidence that’s befitting a starter.”
Schroder and Howard are still getting used to each other.
During a preseason game Thursday night against Detroit, Schroder lost one defender with a dazzling crossover, and then split two more defenders as he darted into the lane. He tossed up a lob, expecting Howard to be there, but the ball went right to the Pistons.
Atlanta’s new big man didn’t anticipate what his point guard had in mind. Clearly, it’s going to be an adjustment going from previous Atlanta center Al Horford — really, more of a power forward — to Howard, a dominating inside presence but not as well-rounded as his predecessor.
Schroder expects opposing teams to sag toward the basket at every opportunity, looking both to limit Howard and choke off the potential driving lanes. That’s why Schroder spent much of the summer working on his jump shot. He often stays after practice to get in extra work with Atlanta’s best outside shooter, Kyle Korver.
“With Dwight rolling to the rim and putting a lot of pressure on the rim, we’re probably going to get a lot of open shots,” Schroder said. “I think the mid-range jumper is going to be open all day. I’ve got to shoot them.”
After being drafted 17th overall in 2013, Schroder played sparingly as a rookie. But he made a big leap in Year 2, averaging 10 points and 4.1 assists on a team that set a franchise record by going 60-22.
Schroder continued to play behind Teague a season ago but was often on the court in the closing minutes of big games, including the playoffs. With Teague entering the final year of his contract, the Hawks dealt him to Indiana for a first-round pick and put their faith fully in Schroder, who averaged 11 points and 4.4 assists while Teague’s production sagged.
“It changed in no time, like, everything,” Schroder said. “I’m just trying to get better every day and take the next step.”
With increased minutes, Schroder knows he must alter his style of play. Coming off the bench, he could just go, go, go at both ends of the court.
“Full court (defense) is probably not going to work for 82 games,” Schroder said, breaking into a smile. “I’ve got to get used to playing 30 to 35 minutes a game.”
He’s been getting advice from teammate Kent Bazemore, who earned a similar promotion. A high-energy bench player when he first signed with the Hawks, Bazemore had to learn how to pace himself a bit when he moved into the starting lineup.
“It’s definitely an adjustment for him,” Bazemore said. “He likes to pressure like crazy. Obviously, with him playing a lot more minutes, it’s a lot harder to do that.”
But Bazemore and his teammates have no doubt the Hawks are in good hands with Schroder.
“He’s just trying to find his role, find his niche, find out how he can be more effective at both ends of the floor,” Bazemore said. “He’s definitely gotten a lot better with the ball in his hands. He’s starting to make the right reads, getting a lot of guys involved, getting more vocal as the point guard. He’s doing all the right things.”