NEW YORK — The Hawks are high on the list of likely lottery teams worth watching as often as possible, but with a win total projection of 36 and expectations of fans in Atlanta high after a strong close to last season, how good they’ll actually be is hotly debated.
The reason for long-term optimism in Atlanta is clear. Trae Young finished second in Rookie of the Year voting and is already one of the elite facilitators in the NBA, while showing signs of finding his shooting range in the second half of the year. John Collins made a significant leap in his sophomore season, averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game and expanding his offensive game to be a more dynamic weapon both inside and out. Kevin Huerter proved as a rookie he can be a much-needed sharpshooter for this team to help create space for Young and Collins to work going downhill. This year’s top-10 draft picks De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish enter as highly touted prospects who figure to contribute significantly right away.
And yet, that latter point is also cause for concern. The Hawks have to rely significantly on their young players and with that inexperience comes mistakes. They lost three of their top veteran players this summer — Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, and Taurean Prince — and, beyond getting Evan Turner in return to play backup point guard, will rely heavily on rookies and less-proven young players to replace them.
Offensively they have questions to answer, like whether they can replace the shooting void created by the departure of Dedmon and Prince with Alex Len and the combination of Hunter and Reddish on the wing, if they can create enough offense in non-Young minutes to survive, and whether they can limit turnover issues. However, overall, the offensive upside of this group is clear, particularly if Young can take a step forward, and for those projecting significant success for the Hawks, that is the first thing they point to.
Defense is a much bigger question mark, and one that coach Lloyd Pierce is well aware of. The roster turnover they saw this offseason creates a lack of continuity, and, coupled with the team’s youth, makes for a steep learning curve. Pierce is quick to note that every team has to effectively start over every year on the defensive end because, whether it’s one player or nine, replacing anyone on a team requires everyone to adapt and grow accustomed to new rotations and lineups.
“I don’t care who you are, you’re starting from scratch when you start training camp, because if you have one new player, and he’s an integral part of what you’re doing, one new player can also be the weakness to your defense if he’s zigging and you guys are zagging,” Pierce told Dime on Wednesday night. “The more corporate knowledge you have, and John and Trae and [De’Andre] Bembry and Vince have some of that, now it’s just spreading that corporate knowledge to the new guys and then all of us getting on the same page quicker.”
That process started in Las Vegas where they had their core young players participating in practices at Summer League to help accelerate that understanding and comfort with each other, but the biggest question is whether they have the personnel to make it work.
Losing Dedmon leaves a significant hole to fill as a rim protector, one they’ll hope Len can step into. On the wing they’ll rely on rookies to fill the gaps, the most significant of those being the one left behind by Bazemore. While Reddish provides some much needed length on the wing, it’s Hunter — who you can all but sharpie in as the starting small forward for the regular season — as the player Pierce will quickly admit he plans to lean on on that end. Hunter’s versatility and switchability makes him incredibly valuable as a wing defender, but more than anything it’s his willingness to put full effort in on that end that, coupled with his physical gifts and length, sets him apart.
As Hunter notes, a significant part of being a good defender is a desire to play that end, and part of his job, even as a rookie, is to set a tone on that end that brings up the effort level of his teammates.
“You just have to want to play defense,” Hunter told Dime. “Not everyone wants to do that, so you have to get everyone to buy into the defensive end and it’s something you have to work on. It doesn’t come natural. A lot of people have to work on their defense — have to work on talking, staying low, and things like that. So, just trying to bring that here and bring my defensive ability on that end.”
The weakness for both Young and Collins is on the defensive end, where they both have a ceiling simply by their physical limitations give their smaller statures. However, as Pierce explained last year, his challenge to them was to put forth better effort on that end, telling both the path to 35 minutes per game from the 30 they both averaged was through their contributions on defense. Neither Young or Collins project as high-level defensive players given their size, which means they both have to work that much harder to be passable on that end.
For this Hawks team to succeed, they need a defensive identity which means that even if their potential stars aren’t ever going to be elite on that end, in order for the team as a whole to create that identity those two have to show that defense is important to them. With Young in particular, an increase in effort level has been noticeable. The results haven’t always been positive and sometimes, like in Miami with Tyler Herro, even a little more focus on defense isn’t enough, but to create a culture of two-way play your best players have to show that defense matters to them — not just to the guys like Hunter who come in with a defensive reputation.
The roster construction this year leaves plenty of reason for skepticism that even with an improvement in effort, the Hawks can’t be much better than a bottom-third defensive team in the NBA. However, that ceiling still leaves room for a significant step forward from the 27th ranked defense (113.9 DRtg, per Basketball-Reference) in the league a year ago. It’s not just the only way they have a chance at topping their Vegas win total for this year, but also the only way this season can serve as a legitimate stepping stone to eventual playoff contention.