2018-19 Atlanta Hawks
Projected Record: 24-58 (14th in East)
2016: 24-58 (15th in East)
- Trae Young (Pick #5)
- Kevin Huerter (Pick #19)
- Omari Spellman (Pick #30)
- Vince Carter (Free Agency)
- Alex Len (Free Agency)
- Jeremy Lin (Trade)
- Justin Anderson (Trade)
- Dennis Schroeder
- Mike Muscala
- Isaiah Taylor
- Antonius Cleveland
- Damion Lee
- Carmelo Anthony*
*Traded for then waived, never appeared for Hawks
- Big-time offensive upside
- Interesting young prospects
- Just not built to win right now
Is it possible for one of the worst teams in basketball to be one of the most fun? With this year’s Hawks, we might just find out.
While Hawks University has closed its doors, with Mike Budenholzer taking his talents to the Milwaukee Bucks, the Hawks remain far from rudderless. As it stands right now, they’re incredibly well-stocked on interesting young players. Sophomore John Collins and third-year man Taurean Prince have shown significant upside, and they’ll be joined by incoming rookies Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman to form a core that could anchor the Hawks for the better part of a decade. Alongside veterans like Kent Bazemore, Jeremy Lin, Dewayne Dedmon and Vince Carter, the new-look Hawks might not necessarily be good, but they’ll almost certainly be competitive.
General manager Travis Schlenk is a disciple of the Golden State Warriors, and it’s shown in his roster construction — we’re seeing the building blocks of a versatile, active motion offense built (of course) around the three-point shot. Huerter and Spellman will almost certainly receive comparisons to Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and while such comparisons are supremely unrealistic, there’s plenty to like about both players in their own right. There will always be a role for a tall, sweet-shooting wing like Huerter or a multi-positional stretch-big like Spellman, after all.
Trading away European phenom Luka Dončić is a decision that will linger over this franchise for some time, especially if Young struggles to make in impact in his first NBA season. Even if he does, though, the Hawks are in good position; the pick they received for Dončić is likely to land somewhere in the lottery, and vets like Bazemore and Lin could very likely bring back more assets at the trade deadline. They’re also well set-up to take on unwanted salary in exchange for picks, like they did with the Thunder and Carmelo Anthony this summer — call it “Pulling a Nets.” The Hawks are a franchise with a plan, and that’s the best position for them right now.
That said, as bright as the future may look, the Hawks are not likely to win many games this season. The offense will be appointment television at times, but the defense has a long way to go, and there isn’t a proven star on the roster — yet. Expect the Hawks to be fun, and expect them to sneak up on a good team every now and then, but for now, don’t expect much more than that.
Most Valuable Player: John Collins
John Collins has the unique advantage among NBA players of being completely impossible to dislike. He’s just too much fun. If you dislike John Collins, I dislike you.
Very little went wrong with Collins’ rookie season, if anything. He piled up 15 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes on an impressive 59% effective field goal percentage, operating primarily as a rim-runner and hustle guy. He plays with ridiculous energy and dominates the offensive glass, and even started knocking down a handful of threes in the closing act of the season. Defensively, the numbers aren’t great — the Hawks had an ugly 107.1 defensive rating with him on the court — but the whole team struggled on that end of the court, and he at least looked like he knew what he was supposed to be doing. There’s plenty of upside for him as a rim protector and defender in space, and we may see more of it now that he has his sea legs under him.
We know Collins can play, but now the focus has shifted: what is his ceiling? Can he develop into a more impactful individual defender? Will there be more dimensions to his offensive game? Is the three-point shot legitimate? These are the kinds of questions that could prove to be the difference between “useful rotation player” and “borderline All-Star,” and while Collins is an undeniable hit for the 19th pick in the draft either way, the Hawks will certainly be hoping he’s closer to the latter.
X Factor: Trae Young
Much of the “fun factor” of this year’s Hawks rests on the performance of Trae Young. Considering Atlanta may well have traded away this year’s Rookie of the Year to attain him, things start to look quite a bit more bleak if Young doesn’t show some flashes.
Young’s a bit of an odd prospect. His lone season at Oklahoma was one of the most remarkable campaigns in NCAA history. Carrying an absolutely absurd offensive burden, he piled up 27 points and nine assists per game. He was appointment television for much of the season — one of the most exciting scorers in the nation with his limitless range and fearless pull-up jumpers, and one of its most prolific passers. When you’re drawing comparisons to Stephen Curry, you know you’re doing something right.
And yet, the holes are obvious: Young is tiny, and he turns the ball over a lot. Generously listed at 6’2″, 180 pounds, he’ll immediately become one of the smallest starters in the NBA. Chris Paul is shorter, but makes up for it by being one of the strongest guards in the league. Kemba Walker is in the same general range as Young, but he’s a superior athlete. Will Young be able to hold up against NBA defenses — particularly in the playoffs — at his size? Meanwhile, his 5.2 turnovers per game at Oklahoma absolutely will not cut it at the NBA level. He’s going to need to take much better care of the ball.
That’s without mentioning the defensive side of the floor, where Young will be unlikely to contribute anything at all. Young lacks strength and athleticism to the extent that you might be looking at an Isaiah Thomas-esque impact on the defensive end without a lot of improvement. This is where Steph Curry comparisons could be beneficial, as Curry would be a good player for Young to emulate on defense — he can compensate for his physical limitations with good positioning and awareness of passing lanes, where he can generate turnovers and create fast break offense with his passing ability.
Expecting a steady, consistent rookie season from Trae Young is unrealistic. Consistency isn’t in his DNA — he’s too audacious, too willing to take risks. His rookie season is going to be quite a roller coaster, and I’d bet he posts some of the best games from a rookie league-wide this season… right alongside some of the very worst. The good news is that Atlanta doesn’t have much to play for, so Young will have plenty of leeway to figure things out. If he does, Hawks fans will certainly enjoy the ride.
Don’t Forget About: DeAndre’ Bembry
While fellow 2016 first-rounder Taurean Prince has solidified himself as a high-upside starter on the wing over the past few seasons, DeAndre’ Bembry has become something of a forgotten man in Atlanta. He’s managed only 64 games across his first two NBA seasons, with last season being marred by a plethora of injuries (including breaking the same wrist twice).
If Bembry can stay healthy, there’s a very real role available to him as a rotation wing in the NBA. Notably, on the defensive end, where he’s a talented, versatile and intuitive perimeter defender. He’s long enough — 6’9″ wingspan — to match up with just about anybody on the wings, and he has the athleticism to boot. Robert Covington comes to mind as a potential comparison, especially with how Bembry excels a team defender, rather than strictly an individual one. Offensively, he’s not much of a shooter — he shot 31% from behind the arc in his three years at St. Joseph’s — but he’s a smart cutter and a surprisingly great playmaker. There is some Andre Iguodala upside in play.
Bembry simply needs to stay healthy. Keeping his head on straight would help, too — he was arrested for driving 128 mph in a 55 zone back in February. If he can stay on the court, though, this season could be when we finally see him hit his stride as a productive NBA wing.
Jeff Siegel, Early Bird Rights + Peach Tree Hoops (@jgsiegel)
The 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks are substantially different than the 2017-18 team, from the coaching staff to the roster composition, but don’t look for those differences to show up in their win-loss record at the end of the season. In Year Two of Travis Schlenk’s rebuild, the vision of the club is clear, with the influences of the best teams in the league apparent in everything they do, from drafting three shooters in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft to hiring one of the best young assistant coaches in the league to lead their team into the next era. While Atlanta was never far behind the modernity of the league with Mike Budenholzer’s five-out offense, the top decision-makers recognized that the club was stagnant. Mediocrity is death in the NBA – the next few years won’t be pretty, but at least the team is building toward championship contention instead of being happy with a consecutive run of middling playoff appearances.
Trae Young and John Collins are the future of the team, but the influx of youth talent isn’t done yet, as the Hawks are angling for another top pick in next year’s draft, alongside protected choices from Dallas and Cleveland on the horizon. Just like many of the top teams in the league did in the past, the Hawks are hoping for as many top picks as possible over a short period, elevating their odds of finding the franchise-altering superstar to take them to the peak of the NBA, where they haven’t been since Bob Pettit posted an absurd 29/17 stat-line in the Finals to take down the Boston Celtics in 1958. Since moving to Atlanta, the team has only made one appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals, when they were summarily swept out by the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2015. It’s been a long, dark period for the Hawks’ championship hopes and while the immediate future isn’t any brighter, a long-term plan is in place.
This year’s version of the team has a strong mix of young players and quality veterans, but when the best player is likely a fourth or fifth option on a contender, the team is going to suffer through quite a few more losses than wins. Between Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, and Jeremy Lin, the Hawks have a veteran foundation to lean on when their youngsters struggle, which they inevitably will throughout the long season.
It won’t always be fun, but the Hawks have a handful of young, exciting players and are clearly attempting to build toward the future, even if that means sacrificing playoff contention for a short while to do so.
A Moment for Bo Churney
I wanted to take a second at the end of this particular preview to discuss a significant loss in the NBA writing community — longtime Hawks writer Bo Churney, who passed away in May. Bo was an avid Hawks fan, a talented writer and, most importantly, an outstanding friend to many in the NBA community. Personally, he was one of the foremost people who inspired me to pursue basketball writing, back in the days of ESPN’s Daily Dime. He has been dearly missed.
In the wake of Bo’s death, a fundraiser was put together to support at-risk youth in the Atlanta area, and it went on to raise nearly $22,000. Though that fundraiser has since ended, you can still donate to the foundation it supported, Atlanta-based non-profit Lost N Found Youth. Per their mission statement: “Lost-N-Found Youth is an Atlanta, Georgia based nonprofit (501c3) that exists to end homelessness for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (LGBTQ+) and all sexual minority youth.”
Donate to Lost N Found Youth: https://lnfy.org/donate/
And please, if you or anyone you know struggles with depression or suicidal thoughts, seek help. Talk to someone — there are endless resources available for support.
“The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We’re committed to improving crisis services and advancing suicide prevention by empowering individuals, advancing professional best practices, and building awareness.”
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/