At last year’s trade deadline, the focus was on what kind of draft picks the Hawks could get. As this trade deadline approaches, there’s still some of that but also the sense that the Hawks have something going right now.
It doesn’t show in the standings, despite their 8-9 record since Dec. 18 with some quality victories. The Hawks are 12th in the Eastern Conference with a big gap to 11th-place Orlando, which just hammered the Hawks in their building. The Hawks will take more lumps during a seven-game, 14 -day trip that starts Wednesday in Chicago, goes West and ends in D.C.
That journey, plus the Super Bowl, will put the Hawks even further out of the local consciousness. Watch the Hawks play enough games, though, and you’ll see they have the makings of a good, young core with second-year standout John Collins and promising rookies Trae Young and Kevin Huerter.
“Core” became a dirty word around here when it was associated with a Hawks team that had topped out but was stubbornly kept together. Now it represents genuine hope for a better Hawks future. A lot still must go right for the Hawks to become a contending team, and it’s possible they never will, but those young players from their past two drafts give them something to work with.
It’s here that I note, as always, I don’t blame those Hawks fans who don’t like the rebuild. Sometimes that means perpetually moving the goalposts for some hypothetical better future. But even tanking skeptics must acknowledge that Collins, Young and Huerter make that future much less hypothetical than it was a year ago.
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The Hawks are building a team to general manager Travis Schlenk’s “dribble, pass, shoot” specifications. Young, Huerter and Collins can do at least two of the three right now. They have the potential to develop into complete offensive players.
“Those guys are going to make everyone else look good with their playmaking abilities and skill,” Collins said. “Being the athlete that I am, and the chemistry we have, it looks beautiful out there on the court.”
Well, it doesn’t always look that way. Young, Huerter and Collins all have high turnover rates on a team that ranks last in that statistic. That’s a byproduct of the Hawks relying heavily on inexperienced players while pushing the fastest pace in the NBA (though their veterans also have been turnover machines).
There’s some entertainment value in watching the Hawks play fast and shoot a bunch of 3-pointers, even if it’s ugly sometimes. There’s basketball value in allowing Young, Huerter and Collins the freedom to make mistakes and grow their games.
“Worrying about the turnovers is playing cautious,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said. “We want to be aggressive. We could slow the game down, but now you don’t get the (right) kind of mentality.”
The Hawks want to attack. Collins, Young and Huerter can do that.
Collins is a relentless force at the rim while averaging 18.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Young, the point guard, is a superlative ballhandler and passer (7.2 assists per game). Heurter is a playmaking wing who’s been one of the best three-point shooters at his position (39 percent on 4.4 attempts per game).
Young makes the Hawks go with his vision and feel for the game. As expected, he couldn’t sustain his strong start to the season as his offensive efficiency dropped off. But there’s evidence Young is figuring some things out.
His efficiency has been much better over his past 23 games than it was the first 23. Young is taking and making more mid-range jump shots — Pierce said he’s learning to take the shots that are available. Importantly, Young is getting to the free-throw line more frequently.
“All good scorers know how to get to the line, and I consider myself a good scorer,” Young said.
Young won’t be that until he’s much more efficient. But he’s improving as a scorer, and that’s really all you can expect from a rookie running the offense for a bad team.
Collins is at the apex of potential and production. It’s no coincidence that Hawks are better in nearly every statistical category when he’s on the court vs. off. Collins still is just 21-years old, so there’s room for growth.
Huerter was billed as a shooter out of Maryland and he’s lived up to that. He’s got a good feel for the game, like Young. Huerter’s also got good size for a wing, allowing him to see the floor as a passer and create shots in the short mid-range area.
The Hawks have a good nucleus of 21-and-under players with Young, Huerter and Collins. Schlenk can add to it in the next draft. The Hawks figure to have two top-10 picks, their own and the top-five protected pick they acquired in a 2018 draft-night trade with Dallas.
Schlenk got it right with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 draft (Collins). He appears to have done well with the No. 19 pick in the 2018 draft (Huerter). Young will have to do a lot to live up to his status as the No. 5 overall pick, but he’s already providing value as a great passer and has the potential to do more.
To acquire Young Schlenk traded Luka Doncic, who is the heavy favorite to win Rookie of the Year. But Doncic always was viewed as the most NBA-ready prospect. That trade can’t be fully evaluated until we see where that Dallas pick ends up, which player Schelnk selects with it, and how Doncic and Young develop over the long term.
All that comes later. Already, the Hawks have some promising young players who look like they can be part of the core on a good team someday. That’s a start.