Lucking into Zion would transform the Hawks 

Please believe me when I say I’m trying not to get carried away, seeing as how there’s an 89.5 percent chance It won’t happen. But what, we ask again, if it does? What if the Hawks luck up and land the No. 1 pick in the draft, and what if that pick is – as everyone in this world expects — Zion Williamson? Would Tuesday’s lottery mark … 

(Pause for breath.) 

The biggest night in the history of the Atlanta Hawks

This club has been here since 1968. A lot has happened. The Hawks drafted Pete Maravich in 1970. (Third overall, after Bob Lanier Rudy Tomjanovich.) Julius Erving logged three exhibition games as a Hawk until the Virginia Squires of the old ABA went to court. The Hawks took defending champion Washington to Game 7 in 1979. They took the Celtics to Game 7 in 1988 and again 20 years later. They made the Western Division finals in 1969 and 1970, the Eastern Conference finals in 2015. 

Hubie Brown coached here. Lenny Wilkens coached here. Mike Fratello and Mike Budenholzer coached here. Dominique Wilkins became a Hall of Famer here. Spud Webb ascended here. Moses Malone worked here. So did Lou Hudson and Walt Bellamy. So did Dan Roundfield and Joe Johnson. So did Al Horford and Paul Millsap.

Having been around since 1984, I categorically reject the notion that nothing good, NBA-wise, has happened in the A-T-L. But winning the lottery and (surely) landing Zion? That would be a huge deal. Maybe, to get grammatically incorrect, the hugest. 

Steve Holman has been the radio voice of the Hawks for 35 years and the broadcaster of the past 2,581 games in succession. Asked where an outrageously fortuitous Tuesday night would rank, he said: “It would have to be right up there, maybe along with getting Dominique Wilkins. That was a pretty big deal, too.” 

It was. But Wilkins became a Hawk only in September 1982 after the Utah Jazz, who’d drafted him No. 3 behind James Worthy and Terry Cummings, agreed to trade him for John Drew and Freeman Williams and $1 million in cash. There’s your unchallenged greatest trade in Hawks history, but it didn’t have the oomph of a lottery win — the lottery arrived in 1985, just in time for the big-market Knicks to nab Patrick Ewing — and Wilkins, who’d been a pretty big deal at Georgia, wasn’t a worldwide sensation. Zion Williamson is a worldwide sensation. 

Here Holman, as he’s wont to do, offered food for thought: “Are we sure the Hawks would take him? I don’t know what (general manager) Travis Schlenk is thinking. He never says. That’s why he’s able to do what he does – he never tells you what he’s thinking.” 

I considered this for two seconds. My conclusion: There is no way — NO WAY — any team, the Hawks included, could win this lottery and pick anyone else. Even if you’re not sure that Zion is an ideal fit (and I’ve mentioned that Zion could indeed be a fit for the Hawks), it’s beyond question that he’s the biggest talent in this draft, probably the biggest talent in any draft since Anthony Davis in 2012. He’s one of those guys you can’t not draft.

(Is Zion bigger, you ask, than Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Greek Freak? As it stands, yes. Giannis was drafted 15th overall by Milwaukee in 2013. He was coming off a season in which he’d averaged 9.5 points for Filathlitikos, a second-division team in Greece. Zion averaged 22.6 points at Duke despite blowing a shoe.) 

We may never know if the rumor regarding Trae Young’s drafting — that ownership, seeing promotional windfall, strongly suggested that Schlenk take the shooter from Oklahoma — has any basis in truth. We do know that Young became the centerpiece of the Hawks’ marketing and, in a happy marriage of hype and production, the centerpiece of their actual team. Any organization drafting Zion will be the focus of hype beyond measure. Heck, a triumvirate of Zion, Young and John Collins could make this rebuilding team the favorite to win the tepid Southeast Division next year.

Remember how hysterical things got when the Hawks signed Malone and traded for Reggie Theus to team with ’Nique, Spud and Doc? That’d be nothing compared to this. The history of this franchise is of things that didn’t quite happen. The Hawks beat hated Detroit 101-99 to all but clinch the division in April 1987, only to lose in to those Bad Boys in five in the Eastern Conference semis. The Hawks won Game 5 in Boston Garden in ’88 but gagged on Game 6 here two nights later. In Game 7, Wilkins scored 47 points on the parquet; his team lost by two. 

The three times the Hawks were within sight of the NBA finals, they lost in five to the Lakers (Wilt, West and Baylor), were swept by the Lakers (same again) and swept by the Cavaliers (LeBron). They wound up with the No. 2 pick in 2005; they also wound up with Marvin Williams. 

You know all the above. We all know all the above. Since the ’Nique/Mo/Reggie experiment went splat against undermanned Milwaukee in Round 1 in 1989, the Hawks have never been Atlanta’s team of choice. They’ve made the playoffs a bunch and had some nice teams, but we as a city scarcely noticed. There is no way – NO WAY – that Zion could go unnoticed. (For one thing, ESPN would never allow it.)

If somehow the gods who concern themselves with ping-pong balls decide, just once, to bless these Hawks, Tuesday night mightn’t be just a franchise-changer — it could be a city-changer. There’s a 10.5 percent chance it happens, which are a heck of a lot better odds than the Patriots had when they trailed 28-3 with 17 minutes left.

I know, I know. That Super Bowl marks the absolute worst in the crowded field of Atlanta sports flops. But think of it this way: We’re a half-century overdue for something wonderful to happen. Zion Williamson would be a wonderful thing.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.