The 2017-2018 Hawks were painful to watch. For the first time in over a decade, Atlanta chose to abandon being competitive and undergo a full rebuild. Miles Plumlee and Ersan Ilyasova started a combined 75 games. Dennis Schroder was often wholly disinterested. The lone bright spot was John Collins, and he was only playing in 24.1 minutes per game. The Hawks finished 24-58. It was a year worth forgetting in Atlanta.
In the offseason, the Hawks traded away Dennis Schroder in a salary dump, used their three first-round picks on Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, and Omari Spellman, and signed Alex Len to a two-year deal. It didn’t appear they would be any better. Atlanta was actually projected to be half a game worse according to Vegas who had the Hawks win total set at 23.5.
Trae Young and Company surpassed that total with ease, winning 29 games, five games better than the year before. They were still miles out of the playoff race, but even the harshest critic could not call the season anything other than a monumental success.
The reason? That’s easy: Every player on this team got noticeably better under first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce, starting with the unsung heroes and up to the rookie sensations.
Alex Len came to Atlanta following nothing but disappointment during his five years in Phoenix. But the former #5 overall pick blossomed under Coach Pierce, turning in the best year of his career by a long mile.
With the Suns, Len had only attempted 25 threes. He blew by that in year one with the Hawks, launching 2.6 threes a contest and making them at a 36.3% clip. The expansion in his game turned him into an entirely different player. He is no longer an offensive liability. Instead, Len is a perfect fit in the modern NBA. A 7-foot+ center that can shoot close to 40% from behind the arc.
Len averaged the most points of his young career (11.1) in the least amount of minutes he’s ever played. He also averaged a career-high in PER (17.2). There’s a legitimate chance Len is the starting center for Atlanta next year, and if this season is a sign of things to come, he’s only going to continue to develop.
De’Andre Bembry, whose first two seasons were hampered by injuries, played all 82 games. That cannot be attributed to Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks coaching staff, but his polished offensive game and strides gained on defense can. Bembry even told the Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, “I feel like everyone got better this year, even old ass Vince.”
And Bembry’s right, even old ass Vince Carter, who just finished his 21st season at 41 years old, had his best season since 2013-2014 when he was in Dallas. He shot 41.9% from the field and 38.9% from the three-point line.
Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Jaylen Adams, Deyonta Davis – you name it: they all took positive steps forward. And of course, I’m not going to leave out the most tantalizing part – the Hawks overachieving young core.
Lloyd Pierce told me at one of the Hawks’ practices early in the year that when he first saw Kevin Huerter play – the 19th overall pick in the draft – he thought he would be a G-League guy for most of the season. Turns out all the sniper from Maryland needed was a little confidence, and a couple of months into the season, Huerter was a full-time starter. He averaged close to ten points a game while shooting 38.5% from three on 4.7 attempts per game. Huerter is the perfect compliment to the Trae Young-John Collins pick-and-roll and could not have a better style of play for today’s NBA. 19 must be GM Travis Schlenk’s lucky number, because the first time he got that pick in 2017, he landed John Collins.
Remember how I said Collins was the lone glimmering hope on the 2017-2018 Hawks team? This past season he proved to us why. Collins saw a nine-point jump from his 2018 average (10.5) to 2019 (19.5) in less than six more minutes a contest. The second-year man from Wake Forrest was 0.2 rebounds away from averaging a double-double and very nearly became one of the few players ever to average 20 and 10 in their second season.
That growth can be attributed to a couple of reasons. Collins was in Atlanta all summer honing his craft, and it was most apparent in the expansion of his game. We saw him fiddle with the three-point shot as a rookie, but as a sophomore, Collins made it an integral piece to his repertoire. He shot a hair shy of 35% from three on 2.6 attempts per game, making him a headache for bigger defenders to guard. And if teams opted to put someone smaller on him, they better be ready to get killed on the boards. The second reason, and the foremost explanation for why this season was a raging success – Trae Young.
The pick-and-roll with John Collins and Trae Young was unstoppable in the second half of the season. Young can make any pass in the book, and Collins can go up and get it with the best of them. However, it is Young’s floater that makes the play impossible to guard. Play John Collins at the rim and Trae Young has an easy bucket; come out on Young, and Collins slips in for a smooth jam. That was the go-to play in Atlanta, and it often worked flawlessly.
But Young is much more than just a pick-and-roll maestro. He’s the reason Hawks fans should be more enthusiastic about basketball in Atlanta than they have in the last 20 years. Yes, Atlanta only won 29 games, but for the first time since Dominique Wilkins graced the Highlight Factory, there is legitimate hope.
Now, I’m not talking about the false hope that came with Joe Johnson, ten straight playoff appearances, and even a 60-win season followed by an Eastern Conference Finals berth. I’m talking about the genuine possibility of winning a championship in the coming years. That’s what Trae Young brought to Atlanta.
Travis Schlenk took a gamble by swapping Luka Doncic for Trae Young on draft night. People mocked his decision. Young took those doubts and turned it into one of the best rookie seasons we have ever seen from a point guard. The Oklahoma product averaged more points and assists than Magic Johnson, Steph Curry, and Chris Paul did as rookies. Young is a budding superstar and a player the Hawks can build around with confidence.
The Hawks have a 10.5% chance of landing Zion Williamson and have a much higher percentage of having two lottery picks. Considering the way Travis Schlenk has nailed the draft, the Hawks will not only make the playoffs next year in the East, but there’s also a chance they could be contenders already, something that hasn’t been said about this team since the 80s.