De'Andre Hunter celebrats a second-half bucket.

Hawks head to Las Vegas looking for more defense

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has dribbling, passing and shooting covered after three drafts. He’s rightly spent lottery picks on skilled offensive prospects in the pace-and-space NBA. It’s more cost-effective to draft such players than sign them as free agents, which hasn’t been much of an option for the Hawks anyway. 

The Hawks showed in 2018-19 that Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter are the nucleus of an exciting offensive team. At some point, though, the Hawks will have to play some defense. They played very little in Lloyd Pierce’s first season as head coach. He came with the reputation as a defensive specialist, but Pierce will need more time and appropriate personnel to fulfill his vision. 

I think Pierce will have more of the latter in Year 2. It’s still going to take time to establish a defensive ethos in his program after Year 1 focused on playing fast, sharing the ball and shooting 3’s. But Pierce has more pieces to work with as he tries to build the kind of barbed-wire defense he ran as a 76ers assistant. 

That process (sorry) starts again when the Hawks convene in Las Vegas this week for a minicamp before Summer League play opens on the weekend. Draft picks De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando will get their first taste of Pierce’s expectations. Eventually they’ll be good defensive complements to the skilled group of Hawks second-year players. 

It’s significant that the Hawks invested their top draft pick (via trade) in Hunter, who is more advanced as a defender than playmaker. Their other first-round pick, Reddish, had his jump shot go missing during one season at Duke but his defensive ability was clear. The Hawks traded up to get center Fernando, who may never be more than a rim-runner in the NBA, but is the physical defensive presence in the middle the Hawks have lacked among their young group. 

Hunter is sure to be part of the wing rotation next season. Reddish likely will be a significant contributor there, too. Fernando’s role might depend on whether the Hawks re-sign free agent Dewayne Dedmon to fill their open roster spot. 

The Hawks will be young with at least two of those players and three second-year players in the rotation. They shouldn’t be so bad on defense, and not just because that would be hard to do. Most of all, the Hawks should benefit from having good size on the wings. 

Pierce had two relatively undersized players, DeAndre’ Bembry and Vince Carter, playing significant minutes at small forward last season. Another, Taurean Prince, is a big wing, but his defense had slipped before the Hawks sent him to the Nets in a trade. The player the Hawks got back, Allen Crabbe, is smaller than Prince, but was part of some very good defensive lineups in Brooklyn. 

Next season Pierce can use Hunter or Reddish at small forward. They will take their lumps, but they have size and defensive ability. New addition Evan Turner also can be deployed as a wing defender. He played 54 games for the Sixers while Pierce was an assistant, so he should know what to expect.

The Hawks are touting Turner as a backup to Young at point guard. He also should be a net gain for their defense. The Blazers got the best of that deal when they traded Turner for Kent Bazemore because Turner is a poor shooter while Bazemore is not. But Turner is the more versatile defender, which should help Pierce find defensive combinations. 

Turner is long enough to guard big wings and power forwards and agile enough to switch on to smaller defenders. Pierce could deploy lineups that include Turner and Bembry with the rookie wings. That alignment lacks shooting, but it could end up being the kind of trade-off that Pierce is willing to accept as he tries to build a defensive identity. 

The new personnel should help with that. It also will take some improvement from Hawks holdovers. It’s reasonable to believe last year’s rookies will improve their play on defense. 

Huerter was a solid defender as a rookie, though he probably could benefit from getting stronger so he can better handle physical wings. Collins slipped somewhat on defense in his second pro season before playing better at that end late. Omari Spellman (the Hawks’ third first-round pick in the 2018 draft) can be an effective defender, especially at the rim, if he gets in better shape. 

Then there’s Young. He excelled as a rookie because of his surgical playmaking, long-range shooting and crafty scoring around the rim. All that makes Young a valuable piece to build around, but he’ll have to develop into least a passable defensive player to become a true star. 

The Hawks can help Young, but that only goes so far. It’s hard to hide a point guard who is easily and consistently shed on pick-and-rolls. Young will have to improve his defensive awareness and better use his quickness to contain ball-handlers. 

There will be more capable and versatile defenders around Young in 2018-19. That should help him and the Hawks. Pierce won’t be able to make them a good defensive group overnight, but the Hawks should get more stops to go along with their dribbling, passing and shooting.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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