At his best, Jeff Teague swells forward in aggressive surges that forge sinuous paths to the rim. But the 25-year-old Hawks point guard—and second-year starter—is feeling his way through the NBA and still vulnerable to drifting from game to game, play to play. It takes only a few moments for Teague's creativity and energy to ebb and for all of his forward progress to subside into empty overdribbling. He's certainly not alone in that sort of inconsistency, but the range of his highs and lows provides a particular dilemma for general managers: This summer Teague will hit the market as a free agent, thus forcing talent-hungry teams to assign a dollar value to his flickering performance.
Faults and all, the 6'2" Teague is ultimately—after Chris Paul, who looks certain to re-sign with the Clippers—the best point guard option available. He's less risky than the mercurial Brandon Jennings, and his game is more balanced than Monta Ellis's. Teague's game isn't completely actualized, but he'd make for a great long-term addition as is, provided that an interested team can set a price point that would lure him away from the Hawks, who (assuming they extend a qualifying offer) will have the right to match any offer sheet he signs.
Determining Teague's value is a tricky proposition for NBA general managers, especially because he has had little opportunity to explore his full potential. Since being drafted out of Wake Forest with the 19th pick, Teague has played the last three seasons for coach Larry Drew, who was reluctant to entrust him with too much offensive responsibility. His top teammates over the years have helped mitigate Teague's weaknesses even as they've marginalized his talents. Ball-dominant shooting guards such as Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford forced Teague into a more passive role. Al Horford's ability to facilitate offense from the high post decreased the need for Teague to work on his pick-and-roll game. Josh Smith's rare ability to make plays and handle the ball as a power forward rerouted even more possessions away from Teague. There was so wide a safety net that Teague inevitably became tangled in it.
G.M.'s have only glimpsed what Teague might one day be. When he's fully committed, he's an explosive dribble-drive player capable of creating the best shots in basketball: open looks at the rim and beyond the three-point line. Teague doesn't have transcendent court vision, but he has expanded his passing game with more timely and accurate feeds.
That willingness to set up his teammates also positions Teague as an effective dual threat, as capable of finding the open man as he is at completing his own plays. He averaged a career-high 7.2 assists in 2012--13, a 47% increase over his 4.9 the year before, and he did it in fewer minutes. He also improved his scoring by 2.0 points per game, to 14.6. Those are averages that only three NBA players of Teague's age—Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and John Wall—matched last season. There are more dangerous scorers and more gifted passers than Teague, surely, but few who have produced so well in both regards at such an early stage.
What's more, his greatest weaknesses—decision-making in a crowd, navigating through screens as a defender, idle —dribbling—can be remedied through experience. Not all fits of inconsistency are created equal, and in Teague one can already see the enduring value of his positive contributions and the waning impact of his defects.
The league has only just begun to see what Teague might be capable of in a role of greater latitude. Atlanta G.M. Danny Ferry has replaced the coach with former Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer, meaning that if Teague re-signs, his new coach will have a commission to mold him into Tony Parker. Teague has Parker's natural ability to attack defenses with his speed, but Parker's instincts and skills were refined on the job from the time he was a 19-year-old rookie, whereas Teague didn't average more than 14 minutes until he was 24. Already Teague is a fine complementary type, fit to get an offense in motion, space the floor and streak to the rim. He'll only be better, and under the right coach's tutelage he could be honed into a weapon that may one day be worthy of the Parker comparison.
After Chris Paul, the improving (if erratic) Hawk is the best free-agent point guard.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED