It wasn’t exactly a Wally Pipp scenario—baseball’s New York Yankees first baseman who famously missed a game due to illness and was replaced by Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig, never to regain his spot—but when Kirk Hinrich injured his right hamstring in the final minutes of Atlanta’s 2011 first-round playoff series-clinching win over Orlando, it might have changed the course of Jeff Teague’s career, or at least sped up his ascendance.
Teague, then a seldom-used second-year point guard, was thrust into the Hawks’ starting lineup for their second-round series—ironically, against the Bulls, Hinrich’s current and former team—in which he performed well against that season’s league MVP, Derrick Rose. The Indianapolis native never looked back, playing a complementary role to the likes of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford over the past few seasons.
Now, Johnson is in Brooklyn—the Nets acquired him two seasons ago—and Smith signed with Detroit in free agency this past summer, while Horford was recently lost for the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle. But even before Horford’s injury, Teague was having a breakout season under first-year Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer, averaging approximately 17 points and eight assists per game.
Hinrich, for one, believes Teague is now an All-Star candidate as a key player on the third-best team in the East.
“Yeah, I don’t see why not. I think he’s playing at that level. It just depends on whether he gets selected or not,” Hinrich said. “He’s playing great. I think he got an opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it. He’s getting better every year. You can just see his confidence getting higher and higher. He’s having a great year.”
Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau concurred, saying he’d consider Teague for the honor: “Teague is playing at a very, very high level.
“He’s been terrific,” the coach added. “He’s really helped their team, too, and each year I think he’s gotten better. So usually, what I do, whenever it is that I do have to vote, I look at the teams that are doing well and the guys that are having good seasons and have helped their teams win, and I base it off that.”
Teague is the older brother of the Bulls’ second-year point guard Marquis, 20, who is currently on a D-League assignment with the Iowa Energy. In four games, the younger Teague is averaging 13.5 points, 4.8 assists and 3.5 turnovers in 24.8 minutes per game.
Thibodeau said his return to Chicago could be based on the Bulls’ schedule, though it’s likely the continued health of Hinrich and backup D.J. Augustin could also factor in. Teague’s best game was his Dec. 27 debut, in which he scored 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting and dished out six assists before suffering an ankle injury in his second outing, then subsequently losing minutes to fellow point guard and Bulls’ training-camp invite Kalin Lucas.
“Well, the first game was great. Then he tweaked his ankle, so we’ll see,” Thibodeau explained. “But as I said, for him it’s getting the playing time to continue to develop. It wasn’t a demotion or anything like that. But I think it’s good for him.”
Teague had 15 points and seven assists in an Iowa loss Friday night. Thibodeau said that the Bulls’ other rookie, seldom-used second-round pick Erik Murphy, could possibly log time for the Energy later in the season.
“We need him in practice right now,” he said. “But at some point, we’ll take a look at that, as well.”