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Jeff Teague's persistence made him an All-Star

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Jeff Teague has been overlooked his entire basketball life, but that's never stopped him.

Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Before the highlights, before the rise to a top draft prospect, before the honor of being named an All-Star, Jeff Teague was a little-used role player on Courtney Lee's team at Pike High School in Indianapolis.

"Physically he wasn't ready, but he had the speed and he had the agility," said Billy Wright, Teague's former Pike coach, now piloting Western Illinois. "You could see the potential."

That was when Brad Stevens first saw him. At the time, the Celtics' coach was trying to build a program at Butler and Teague was a diamond in the rough. Twelve years later, a lot has changed.

"I don't know what qualifies as a superstar, but I know this: Nobody in the league can keep Jeff Teague in front of them," Stevens said before a Jan. 14 Celtics-Hawks game. "Nobody."

Stevens' voice is firm, a sharp contrast to the slow, monotonous tone he normally uses in pregame media addresses. It's for a purpose. Jeff Teague's game has methodically grown every year before finally being honored as All-Star for the first time. Few know better than the coach of one of his opponents.

***

Step 1 of the rise began in 2006 at the adidas ABCD Camp in New Jersey. After years of flying under the radar, Teague displayed a handle as tight as his old cornrows. He finished top 10 in the camp in assists and shot 38 percent from three-point land. He went from unknown to a McDonald's All-American nominee overnight.

"When you talk about branding at the NBA level, you almost have to be a self-promoter to some degree. He's so reserved," Wright said. "So I think because of that, he was somewhat overlooked [in recruiting]."

Wright's phone starting blowing up overnight, which should have put Stevens at an advantage. He'd already been pursuing Teague eight miles down the road and Wright was a fan of his program. Wright would regularly take his team to Butler to soak in their culture, to understand the seriousness needed to foster a dynamic basketball program.

"When it came time to go to practice or a game, we treated everything like a business trip," Wright said.

As Teague matured, Wright watched him develop head and shoulders above teammates and opponents that frequented Butler's facilities. Teague learned to harness his speed and become one of the most prolific scorers in the state.

But Teague never forgot the sacrifice he learned as a role player. He once scored 44 points through three quarters, just six shy of the school record. When Wright asked him if he wanted to eclipse the record in the fourth, with his team leading by 30, Teague opted to sit.

"I was just a little skinny kid in Indiana," Teague said. "I had to practice my craft and really focus in high school."

All the while, Stevens stayed in Teague's ear. It was Stevens that sat Teague down in his office the summer before his first rise and insisted he needed to get his grades up to be the player he wanted to be. It was Stevens that told Teague he could be one the greatest players to ever come out of Indiana if he could qualify academically.

Teague took the coach's advice and thrived. But when it came time to make a college decision, Teague opted for Wake Forest, a bigger program in a bigger conference. This was before Butler was Butler, the mid-major that went to back-to-back championship games. Nevertheless, the coach continued to admire the player from afar.

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***

Teague's decision worked. He broke out as a freshman, declared for the NBA Draft and was selected by the Hawks with the 19th pick. It took time, but after playing over 33 minutes per game in his third season, Teague showed flashes of brilliance. He was finding a comfort zone and didn't want to leave Atlanta.

That's when the second big rise began, just as Atlanta's subsequent offseason moves threatened his comfort level. The organization fired head coach Larry Drew following that 2012-13 season, hired Mike Budenholzer from San Antonio in May and drafted another point guard in Dennis Schroeder in the first round.

Drew signed to coach in Milwaukee and the Bucks inked Teague to a 4-year, $32 million offer sheet soon after. Reports swirled that Teague was begging the Hawks to let him go. But as it turned out, Teague's admiration for the organization  never wavered.

"It was a tactic to get a deal done," Teague said. "I always wanted to be an Atlanta Hawk. When I got back, they knew it was a business thing."

Teague was intrigued to play in Budenholzer's offensive system, which mirrored the one that allowed the Spurs to be so successful. Budenholzer believed he could help turn Teague into an elite point guard, parting the red sea of opposing defenses through pick and rolls while surrounding him with dynamic shooters. Teague embraced Budenholzer because he believed it was his best chance to grow from a decent, overlooked player into a star.

In preparation for Budenholzer's scheme, Teague set a goal to improve his jump shot prior to the '13-14 season, shooting hundreds of pull-up jumpers and simulating shots after curling off a screen. Setting goals is a common Teague tactic, but he pursued this one harder than most.

His old high school coach noticed. Wright watched Teague work in an Indianapolis gym, this time as a spectator rather than a coach. They were playing one-on-one when Wright first noticed something different, something edgier. Teague jabbed his former coach with an elbow during a spin-move, sprung into the paint and glided towards the rim for an easy layup.

"Right then I knew this kid was taking another step," Wright said.

***

That extra step took time, but we began to see it in last year's playoffs. The eighth-seeded Hawks pushed the Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round because Teague showed how dangerous he can be operating in Budenholzer's open system.

"Everyone was hard on the Pacers, but I think it may have been the Hawks were that good," Stevens said. "We've always seen that [Teague] has the elite speed [of point guards] who have really dominated the game have."

Atlanta needed Playoff Teague to translate over the course of an 82-game regular season. Teague's offseason goal heading into this year: Master the pick-and-roll. That's how his third rise began.

Teague went to work against two white cones, one stationed at the top of the to act as his own defender and the other at one of the elbows to act as the defending big man. As Teague crept into the paint, a coach waited to smack him with a football pad. Teague could spin off the contact or use it to accelerate into a crossover. Once at the rim, he'd meet another coach protecting the basket with a black kayak paddle.

Over and over, Teague practiced against these obstacles, and it's shown. Only four guards generate more points per possession for their teams in pick and roll settings than Teague this year, per Synergy Sports Technology. Only nine players shoot better than Teague's 45.1 percent in pick and roll situations.

"He's really learning how to make different reads of coverages," Al Horford said. "That's made the difference for him."

Atlanta boasts a 110.4 offensive rating with Teague on the floor, which would tie Golden State for tops in the league if Teague never sat out. They are nearly eight points worse per 100 possessions when he sits even though Schroeder is more than a capable backup.

Teague's malleability makes the Hawks' offense. He can serve as the whirring, penetrating point guard that kicks out to the Hawks' lethal shooters, spot up himself, or thrive moving off the ball -- he is among the league leaders in scoring efficiency off cuts, per Synergy.

"He knows how important he is to us," Budenholzer said. "Some nights it's finding teammates and setting others up, some nights it's scoring. He's just doing a lot of things and I think a lot of little things that maybe go unnoticed."

This is what Teague envisioned when he baited the Bucks into signing him so the Hawks would quickly match the contract. Atlanta is soaring into the All-Star break and have taken the league by storm with the same formula as their star point guard: improving gradually every year until it all quickly comes together.

"We're not a very popular team. We're not very flashy and don't have a lot of highlights, we don't really do too many spectacular plays," Teague said. "But when you win, you're gonna get attention."

Teague's All-Star appearance proves he got that attention. Stevens is just as impressed as he was 12 years ago, even if he lost Teague on the recruiting trail.

"He's a blur with the ball," Stevens said. "Some of the hardest covers in the league are these guys that can go downhill a million miles an hour and still finish."

Teague didn't become that player overnight. His All-Star honor is a testament to his lifelong basketball persistence.

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