Ahead of the 2018 NBA Draft, the Atlanta Hawks were in an unfamiliar position. The “Joe Johnson Hawks” are often used as a form of ridicule, as the shining example of a team stuck in the middle but not quite good enough to win the whole thing. For the first time since 2007, Atlanta found itself picking in the lottery. Under the new direction set forth by former Golden State product Travis Schlenk, the Hawks drafted a new high-powered offensive backcourt packed with perimeter shooting in the form of Trae Young and Kevin Huerter.
This backcourt was, of course, hyped as the “Golden State of the East,” but characterizing the Hawks as this just disrespected them before they had even played a game together. This duo, along with John Collins, helped Atlanta become fun again for the first time in awhile. They became a League Pass team towards the end of the season. Teams started to take notice, and some national attention was on Atlanta for the first time since it was the first seed in 2015.
It is unusual for a rebuilding team to be heading into a new season with a completely different roster, but the Hawks lost two of their five starters Dewayne Dedmon and Kent Bazemore. The Hawks have taken on some awful contracts to try and acquire extra draft capital in the future, so there was no place for veterans, no matter how productive they actually are. The team used some of this draft capital to move up and take De’Andre Hunter, a move highly questioned by many NBA Draft experts. They added Cam Reddish, the draft’s most divisive prospect, toward the end of the lottery, and they added another project big man in the form of Bruno Fernando.
The man who obviously runs this franchise is Trae Young, so it makes sense to start with him. Though he had no Rookie of the Year case, the ferocity with which people argued for Doncic meant that people completely overlooked how Young played, especially toward the end of the season. Young averaged 19 points per game on 42/32/83 splits. The numbers might not seem incredible on the surface, but we hold rookies to way too high of a standard. He was handed the keys to an entire offense from Day 1 and had to put up good numbers in addition to ironing out his issues.
Young’s passing is remarkable; he consistently found rollers, and quite often his passes weren’t simple ones. Most draft guys thought his playmaking would be his best asset early in his NBA career over his shooting, and they were correct.
How to take out three players with one pass by Trae Young. pic.twitter.com/DWpzjLBmHi
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) August 15, 2019
He could pass from either side, and as he got better with his shooting and his floaters, it gave him extra milliseconds to make the spectacular passes he pulled off every single night. He began to hit 3-pointers from really deep, which opened extra space in the paint for the likes of Collins and Huerter to make well-timed cuts. Huerter gained incredible chemistry with Young, and he looks to be an elite shooting prospect who relocates well in drive-and-kick actions. But he is no slouch as a creator. Most typical shooters, such as JJ Redick and Klay Thompson, don’t have much of a role as a creator outside of making simple reads, but there is potential for Huerter to be an underrated playmaker.
The Hawks’ core set was the double-drag. They ran it on their majority of plays, as they could use their size advantage in the screen game and also space teams at the same time. Young was incredibly proficient playing out of this set last year. He became excellent at hitting timed passes to Collins and Dedmon, with both being highly capable of filling multiple areas of the court out of this set. It made the Hawks unpredictable. When you combine this with Huerter’s terrific off-ball motion and Bazemore’s consistent shooting, the Hawks had one of the most potent core sets in the NBA.
Many look at how big a loss a player will be to a team based on how big of a name they are. Dedmon is not a household name, but he will be missed massively in Atlanta. He’s one of a handful of players who can shoot 3s at a high rate and also defend both inside and out. Dedmon’s 3-point percentage of 38% was higher than Brook Lopez’s, who was praised throughout the season for being a revived sharpshooting big. Not only did Dedmon shoot the ball well, but he moved well off the ball within the Hawks’ sets. He was highly intelligent and always seemed to be in the right places. On the play below, he moves to the perimeter to the allow the driving angle and he also instructs his team-mate to move back to create the extra space.
Most of John Collins’ assists last year were like this one, felt like they were within the scheme (give and go, handoffs, hitting the corner shooter on the weakside). Think his roll passing is the most important next step for him. Especially given Hunter/Reddish arrivals. pic.twitter.com/FWyoxFGksn
— Joe ?? (@HulbertJoe) August 15, 2019
I’m surprised the Hawks didn’t bring him back, especially given they didn’t draft a big man high in the draft. Dedmon’s proficiency in the double drag will be missed, and an already bad defensive team just somehow managed to get even worse.
The double drag won’t be dead, purely because of Collins. Collins is one of the smoothest players in the league on the interior. Per Cleaning the Glass, he was in the 79th percentile for finishing at the rim. The Hawks play Collins at power forward to give their opponents a size advantage. Some have suggested the Hawks will go ultra-small and play Hunter or Reddish at the four for long spells and play Collins as the center. Many think this would create some mythical “lineup of death.” Sure, if a lineup of death means giving up a defensive rating of 130. This was the most underrated effect of Draymond Green in his prime; he made teams believe it was possible to stick an undersized power forward at the “5” and surround them with four smaller, more offensively minded players.
This is relevant to the Hawks because they will be at their best moving forward with John Collins at the “4.” It allows them to have a major size advantage, and due to his proficiency as a roller and a post-up guy, he would force teams to play bigger unless they were blessed with someone such as the aforementioned Draymond Green. Collins loses a much-underrated double-drag partner in Dedmon, so it will be up to Alex Len and potentially Fernando to attempt to fill the void. Both are downgrades from the new Sacramento Kings center.
The Atlanta Hawks have spent a year stockpiling picks. Travis Schlenk surprised many in the draft by using three of these picks to move up to the fourth-overall selection and take Hunter. Hunter wasn’t overly popular amongst NBA draft writers. Not because he was a bad prospect, but because he wasn’t overly good at anything bar one-on-one defense. That can be valuable in isolation situations, but being a wing defender now is more about making smart rotations, helping and fighting through ball screens on the weak side. Hunter’s offensive game was really difficult to scout because Virginia is renowned for running a ball-screen-heavy offense that leaves next to no room for individual creativity. His release point is slow, though, and he didn’t really show anything above basic-level playmaking. But again, this is difficult to analyze because of the nature of how Tony Bennett’s Virginia teams play basketball. It is also difficult to look at off-ball movement when scouting Virginia because nearly every action is rigidly rooted within the scheme. Hunter should give Atlanta a good one-on-one defender, but it will be intriguing to see what he offers on the offensive side of the ball. Atlanta will need him to flash something as a solo creator to really justify giving up that much draft capital for him.
The Atlanta Hawks will be fun again, but I question whether they will win more games than they did last year. They lost some important veterans and will be relying on younger players to attempt to lift their win totals. Young teams can win, but Reddish and Hunter have so much that they need to add to their games. The Hawks were more competitive than people expected last year. They started the season almost the universal pick to find themselves with the worst record in the NBA, but they were surprisingly good. This year, their win total should drop, but it does give them a chance to stock the team with more young players in a very loaded draft class. They’re very well-coached, but I feel Dedmon’s loss in the double drag will be felt as he was an elite big man shooter and a very passable defender.
Whatever happens, this team will be fun because of its core three, who are growing and all ready to contribute at a good level. But everyone else around them will be growing, which is why I don’t quite think the jump in wins is coming yet.