The Atlanta Hawks entered this season fully expecting to be on the outside of the playoff picture, and the year will assuredly turn out that way. Although not in the absolute bottom of the Eastern Conference (the Knicks, Cavs, and Bulls have a stranglehold on that real estate), the Hawks don’t really have a path to the postseason and can mostly concern themselves with developing players rather than wins or losses for the rest of the year.
But Atlanta is already winning, and quite a bit, actually. In their last 20 games, the Hawks are 10-10, and over the course of a season, playing .500 ball essentially punches a ticket for the postseason in the East. Atlanta began this streak feasting on some subpar squads, but there are quality wins in this stretch, including in Minnesota, in Philadelphia, and against Oklahoma City.
Trae Young is the popular face of the Hawks, with his flashy game and his status as a lottery pick. His shooting may still be looking for a way to get to Atlanta after being left in Oklahoma, but his floor game is already better than plenty of NBA point guards, as Doc Rivers reiterated following the Clippers’ loss to Atlanta on Monday. But the Hawk earning fringe All-Star consideration is second-year forward John Collins, who has produced without the hype of other members of the ballyhooed 2017 draft class.
Atlanta has an overall net rating of minus-6.7 this season, but with Collins on the floor, they are about neutral (plus-0.2). That is remarkable for a team that starts two rookies and features another three rotation players in their second or third year in the league. Collins’ game doesn’t jump off the page (aside from him jumping out of the gym), he just does everything really well.
At the age of 21, Collins averages 19.5 points and 10 rebounds per game while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. The list of players who have put up those numbers for a full season by the age of 25 is Larry Bird, Kevin Love, and Karl-Anthony Towns, elite company for a young forward. Collins has been supremely effective as a scorer, finishing 71 percent of his shots at the rim and 41 percent of this threes, including 55 percent from the corner.
He isn’t creating the majority of his offense on his own, as only 24.3 percent of his field goal makes are unassisted, but he spots up in the right areas to receive the ball from his teammates. Here, he even manages to get the shot up quickly despite the pass being slightly to the left of his shooting pocket.
Collins’ rebounding, particularly on the offensive end, has been important for the Hawks as well. Of his 10 rebounds per game, 3.7 come off of Atlanta’s own misses, which ranks eighth in the league and the highest of any non-center. The Hawks’ offensive rebounding percentage goes up 7.5 percent when Collins is in the game, giving them the sixth-most possessions off of putbacks. Since Atlanta has the worst halfcourt offense in the NBA, the abundance of second-chance opportunities at least makes the total offense 27th in the league, per NBA.com.
With Young in the fold, the Hawks will run a lot of pick-and-rolls in the future to leverage Young’s passing ability and create advantageous switches for their athletic big men, Collins among them. Creating for himself and others is one of the weaker aspects in Collins’ game, but if he can start to make consistent passes out of the short roll, his offensive ceiling skyrockets. In the clip below, Collins does just that, finding Dewayne Dedmon after Dedmon’s defender rotates into the paint.
Atlanta began its rebuild last season and probably expected to be in that phase through 2020. At this rate, they could find themselves back in the postseason next year, with a young nucleus of Young, Collins, and Kevin Huerter as good as any in the bottom half of the East playoff bracket. Even if the Hawks keep winning this year, they’re pretty firmly locked in the fifth-worst record, giving them a 31 percent chance of another top-3 pick to add to their young core. For a franchise that is focused on the light at the end of the tunnel, there are reasons to believe the journey to get to that point won’t take too terribly long thanks to Collins and company.