The NBA draft is the most exciting night for a rebuilding team, especially ones in small markets with little hope of landing a superstar in free agency. If you’re going to build a championship team in Atlanta, it starts in the middle of June.
Since Travis Schlenk was hired in 2017, the Hawks have made more out of the draft than any other NBA team. He scooped up John Collins – who is well on his way to being a perennial All-Star – with the 19th overall pick. That might be normal in another sport, but in basketball, there are only a couple of All-Stars available, if any, outside of the lottery. It was a giant step in the right direction, but it was only a glimpse of what he would do the next year.
In the last draft, the Hawks had Luka Doncic land in their laps. It was the obvious choice, but instead, Schlenk went with his gut and traded Doncic to the Mavericks for Trae Young and what is now the 10th pick in the 2019 draft. Neither side will say they lost this trade, but the extra lottery pick gave Schlenk a safety blanket, and he hit on his guy in Young. The Hawks also selected Kevin Huerter with the 19th pick and Omari Spellman 30th overall – both of whom showed a lot of promise as rookies.
Atlanta fans should know not to take these quality selections for granted. Not only has every Atlanta based sports team struggled in the draft, outside of the Braves for the last couple of decades, but the Hawks have been egregious at drafting since moving to Atlanta. They have infamously passed up on Chris Paul, Pau Gasol, and a host of other star prospects for lesser names, but they are finally run by a group worth trusting – that know a perfect draft is all about the process.
Like all NBA organizations, Schlenk focuses on filling out his draft board. The Hawks will compile a list of over 60 names, considering all possible picks and then some. This is a rather simple formula, but a lot more goes into it than what is seen on your average mock draft.
Schlenk says he and his team begin scouting these prospects when they are juniors and seniors in high school. The Hawks had a scout up in Charlottesville, Virginia for the NBA 100 Camp last week. They are already thinking four years down the road; which is why, when the moment comes, Schlenk never doubts his decisions – no matter how bold.
“I’m an overweight bald guy. I don’t have time to doubt myself,” Schlenk said with a smirk on his face.
In the months leading up to the draft, Schlenk and his team will go over their draft board dozens of times, trying to come up with the 60 best names. They also do a ton of mock drafts, just like you and I, attempting to factor in what they believe other teams will do. This allows them to gauge who they realistically expect to be available when they pick and if they will have to trade up to get their guy.
In the event of a potential trade, Schlenk said, “We have an analytics staff that will take a look at the value of the pick, so a big part of it will be where we project the other team’s pick to be that we are receiving.” Obviously, a lottery selection is much more valuable than what you would get in a first-round pick from the Toronto Raptors.
That’s what Schlenk has been spending a lot of his time on the past few weeks. He is in constant contact with several teams talking about every scenario under the moon, leading to a plethora of wild rumors. It is not that there is no substance to them, but Schlenk is evaluating all of his possibilities, checking all of his boxes, so that there are no stones left unturned come the night of the draft.
The final step of the pre-draft process is the individual player workouts. Over the last month or so, the Hawks have brought in a host of prospects to evaluate. At this stage, Schlenk says, “(We are looking for) how they pick up instruction. We put them in situations they haven’t been in and try to judge how quickly they can adapt to different terminology, different sets, how they interact with coaches, how they interact with other players that they have never played with before.”
In essence, pre-draft workouts help determine how coachable a player is, but Schlenk knows it would be foolish to base a selection off of one individual workout and not the entire body of work.
“(Draft workouts) are just a piece of the puzzle – certainly not the biggest piece. Teams have made big mistakes when you disregard what you’ve seen from a player in four years of college, and then he comes in and has a great 45-minute workout, and then you change your pick.”
In two years, Schlenk has proven to be a wizard on draft night and never tips his hand, yet he still allows media availability during pre-draft workouts, which many teams do not. When asked why, Schlenk responded, “I’m not smart enough to trick people, man.”
There is a certain sense of humbleness to him, but only to a degree. This man knows exactly what he is doing. Every move he makes is calculated. Whatever the Hawks decide to do Thursday night will have years of thought behind it, and that’s what leads to a perfect draft night.