Finally, the NBA season is upon us. Even though it hasn’t really been that long, it has been a while since Hawks fans had something to look forward to. Last year was virtually a lost season, as the Hawks cleared house in complete rebuild mode. In 2018-2019, fans will get the opportunity to witness a glimpse of the benefits to that.
The headliner is Trae Young, and it’s well-deserved given the amount the Hawks have invested in him. They exploded social media when they famously traded out of the 3rd slot to draft Young with the 5th overall pick. No matter how much success he has in the opening weeks of the season, he is going to be the most polarizing rookie in the NBA.
However, the Hawks actually acquired a host of new assets with three first-round picks in the most recent draft. Kevin Huerter will make his debut tomorrow after missing Summer League and playing in only 5 preseason games. His 1.4 points a game on 20% shooting over those 5 games left much to be desired as well, but this 20-year old has the potential to turn into an efficient scorer with his shooting touch and ability to slash to the rim.
Omari Spellman rounded out the 1st round as the 30th overall pick. Spellman is an undersized center that can defend in the paint and out on the perimeter. Think of him as a poor man’s Draymond Green. He comes from a winning culture out of Villanova and manages to stretch the floor as a big man when left open.
In the long run, the Hawks are hoping one or two of these players can look like the kind of player John Collins did in his rookie campaign. Unfortunately, Collins will miss the beginning of the season with an ankle injury, but he is the one expected to take the next step this season as a full-time starter. Once again, he was a dominant force during the Summer League and the pre-season, and I believe he has the opportunity to become the best Hawks draft pick since Al Horford, and maybe even better.
Another starter the organization is excited about is Taurean Prince. A couple seasons ago, Prince worked his way into the starting lineup at the end of the year as a rookie. He took a giant step forward in his sophomore season, averaging 14.1 points and 4.7 rebounds as a full-time starter. What is really worth watching is his improved shooting. Prince upped his three-point percentage from 32.4% to 38.5% last year, and had an even better pre-season, shooting 55.9% from the field and 53.3% from behind the arc.
Of course, if you’re into feel good stories, the Hawks have those too. They signed the oldest player in the NBA, Vince Carter, to a one-year deal. There’s a real chance this is his final year in the NBA, meaning this will be a bit of a retirement tour for the future NBA Hall-of-Famer. Atlanta also made the move to acquire Jeremy Lin from the Nets. The former Harvard standout turned New York Knick star has beat all the odds and proven he can be a valuable NBA piece.
And don’t forget Lloyd Pierce, the longtime assistant coach that worked his way up the ranks to earn his first head coaching gig. Most recently, Pierce was the assistant under Brett Brown for the majority of “The Process” in Philadelphia. He joined their coaching staff in 2013-2014, helping with the development of stars like Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. That took some patience, which is something the front office is expecting from him in Atlanta, as the Hawks begin a similar process.
That was an ordeal, former coach Mike Budenholzer did not want to be a part of. Budenholzer was, without a doubt, the best coach in franchise history over the past 20+ years and possibly ever. Losing him was as big a loss as any player the Hawks decided to cut ties with. Following Bud is going to be no easy task, but Pierce won’t be expected to be competitive for a few years.
Since there will not be a lot of winning this season, you are going to have to find some excitement in the little things, like the trade deadline. No, the Hawks will not be looking to trade for Jimmy Butler or Kawhi Leonard when the deadline approaches, so don’t hold your breath. Atlanta will most definitely be sellers, and could really speed up this process with some key transactions.
Priority number one would be unloading the contract of Kent Bazemore. Slowly but surely, this albatross of a deal is starting to wane away. Sure, we are technically only half way through it, but as it inches closer to the end it becomes easier for other teams to justify taking it on. No return on Bazemore will be jaw-dropping to the average NBA fan; however, ridding of the contract in and of itself should be enough to make Hawks fans giddy.
The trade deadline will also be a place where the Hawks can continue to stockpile assets. That’s what Hawks GM, Travis Schlenk, has been all about since arriving in Atlanta. Whether it be by taking on money from other teams or finding value for some vets like Jeremy Lin and Dewayne Dedmon, you can bet on Schlenk searching far and wide for deals that will make the organization’s future look brighter.
So how can we determine if the Hawks season is a success?
Success for this team will not be determined by win total. Quite frankly, it helps the Hawks if they finish with less wins so they receive a higher draft pick. That’s part of the reason Coach Bud is no longer here. The success of this team will be determined by the development of young talent.
The Hawks have their own poor man’s version of a big three. Their last three first overall selections: Taurean Prince, John Collins and Trae Young all give reason to believe they have All-Star potential. The likelihood of them all three becoming All-Stars is unlikely, so the goal should be that at least two of these players stay on the developmental path towards becoming an All-Star.
For Taurean Prince, that would be increasing his scoring to around 16-18 points with a field goal percentage near 50 and three-point percentage in the mid-40s. Defensively, he will also need to take steps toward being the lock-down defender many thought he could be coming out of Baylor.
The one who I am most confident in, John Collins, will look to become a double-double machine in his second season. As a scorer, I look for him to expand his game beyond highlight dunks towards the perimeter where his jump shot has improved mightily. 16 points and 9 rebounds would be a steady improvement, but he could realistically sniff 20 points a night, he has that kind of talent.
Trae Young is going to be much harder to judge as a rookie because he will surely go through some growing pains as he transitions from a freshman in college to the NBA. We all know about his shot, but the keys to him becoming an All-Star lie in secondary areas. Will he be a major liability on defense? Can he avoid turning the ball over 5 times a night? What kind of passer can he be in the NBA? As long as he doesn’t look excruciatingly bad in any one of those areas, he should have a nice rookie campaign.
Beyond this youthful Big 3, is a secondary tier of developing players: De’Andre Bembry, Tyler Dorsey, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman. All these guys are wild cards because any one of them could be out of the league in a few years, but one of them could turn out to be a star player. To really view this year as satisfactory, at least a couple of these players have to show signs they can be valuable role players in the future.
Outside of player development, acquiring future assets and clearing long-term money off the books is goal #2. There probably won’t be a ton of opportunities for Schlenk to acquire meaningful draft picks, but expect him to find a clever way to make it happen at least once. And of course, if they can find a way to move Bazemore, that would be an incredible feat.
It may be a long season full of missed shots, turnovers, growing pains and losing, but Atlanta fans have a lot of reasons to be eager for the 2018-2019 season. We will find out a lot about the direction of the organization and have a better gauge of just how long it will be until the Hawks are back in the playoff picture, and it all starts tonight at 7:30 ET at Madison Square Garden.