The Hawks kick off the regular season Wednesday as they hunt to better last season’s early end to their trip to the NBA playoffs.
A sense of optimism hung in the air and at the team’s practice ahead of Wednesday’s opener at home against the Rockets. The team also has high expectations after reconfiguring the roster to address its needs.
Here are five keys to the coming season:
Finding the right team chemistry in a timely manner
The Hawks have several new players this season, and finding the right balance within their rotation is crucial for a solid start. The team acquired Dejounte Murray and Justin Holiday from the Spurs and Kings, respectively. They signed Aaron Holiday and Frank Kaminsky during free agency.
Murray and Trae Young will have the task of trying to figure out how they will coexist on the court. But, Hawks coach Nate McMillan has tasked them with building chemistry within units that they will run individually.
The team understands that building chemistry will take time, and McMillan has said there isn’t a set timeline. McMillan and his players understand, though, that there is an expectation for them to settle as quickly as possible.
“I think when you commit to, you know, what your vision is, and everybody’s on the same page as far as trying to accomplish that,” McMillan said. “You know, who knows how long it will take, but we hope that it’ll be quick.”
The Hawks showed in their first four exhibition games that they are on the right path to building harmonious units. But Wednesday’s opener against the Rockets kicks off the beginning of the real deal.
Defense can’t dawdle out of the gate
The Hawks understood that they had to improve on defense, so they used the offseason to find players who could provide the right spark to turn things around.
With Murray, Aaron Holiday and Justin Holiday in the mix, the team brought in veterans who could help fast track the development of the right mindset.
The Hawks also saw forward Jalen Johnson take some positive steps forward on defense in the team’s final exhibition game against the Pelicans. The team tasked Johnson with sticking mostly with Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram, and he leaned into the challenge. Johnson limited Ingram to 2-of-5 shooting overall after the veteran did not miss a shot in the previous quarter.
The Hawks also return several key defenders in De’Andre Hunter and Clint Capela.
So, Wednesday’s season opener will be the perfect test to see where the Hawks’ defense stands. The Rockets have a high-scoring backcourt in Jalen Green and Kevin Porter, as well as a rookie forward, Jabari Smith, who averaged 16.9 points at Auburn.
“Obviously, we’re not that team that gave up 40 points in the first quarter against the Pelicans,” Murray said. “And, obviously, we want to grow in that. We preach our goals and what we want on the defensive end as a unit from the coach to the players, and we got to keep building, and we got to trust each other, you know?
“Understand that, if I get beat, somebody has my back; help the helper have your teammates’ back. So, we got to do it together. And I think we’ll get there because you got a bunch of guys here that want to win. So when it comes to winning, it starts on the defensive end, and if you don’t do that, then you won’t have no chance to win.”
Outside shooting must fire on all cylinders
Since the Hawks did seemingly go all in on defense, there has been some worry about whether their outside shooting was a casualty of that choice.
The Hawks will play without Bogdan Bogdanovic for the early part of the season as he continues to rehab following knee surgery. Bogdanovic has yet to participate in live play with the rest of the team, but McMillan said the sharpshooter is getting better every day.
So, it will be up to the remaining players in the rotation to get things going.
The Hawks shot 39.5% on 3-point shots on nearly 30 attempts per game during the exhibition season. They have options in, of course, Young, who they anticipate will play more minutes off the ball when he plays with Murray. They also have Hunter, Murray, John Collins, Johnson and rookie AJ Griffin in the mix. All five made more than 40% of their shots from 3-point range.
The Hawks also have Justin Holiday and Kaminsky, who are proven shooters and could get hot at any moment.
De’Andre Hunter and Jalen Johnson must take right steps forward
Both players showed plenty of positives during their exhibition minutes, and the Hawks will lean heavily on them to help them become contenders.
The Hawks and Hunter agreed on a four-year, $95 million rookie extension, and now the 24-year-old can focus on having a healthy and strong season.
Hunter averaged 13.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 53 games last season and showed that he could shoulder some of the responsibility of being one of the team’s top scorers. He scored a career-best 35 points on 11-of-21 field goals, adding 11 rebounds, three steals and two assists in 43 minutes at the Heat in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first round.
“I mean, he’s a big part, I think he’s a key to us, his ability, to his versatility to play four positions. He can handle the ball, he can play one through four, he can guard one through four,” McMillan said. “So it just gives us a lot of options when he is on the floor being able to use him, really at four different positions.”
Johnson spent much of his rookie season in the G League, and now he’s poised to have a breakout second season. The Hawks will rely on Johnson’s versatility and ability to handle the ball to give them another scoring option within the second unit. Johnson averaged 2.5 assists in both exhibition games he played.
As of now, Basketball Reference projects that Johnson will average 16.6 points per game, and the Hawks certainly would benefit from that.
Remaining as healthy as possible
The Hawks took advantage of a healthy offseason to try to get themselves in the right condition to withstand 48 minutes of basketball. Now they’ll look to maintain that conditioning for an 82-game season.
While it’s difficult to be in full control of injuries, they often have been the Achilles’ heel of the roster.
Bogdanovic already has been ruled out of the team’s opener, and the team has to keep an eye on Capela after he strained his thumb in the third exhibition game against the Cavaliers. Murray missed the team’s second exhibition game against the Bucks with back spasms but played in the final two games.
So, the team will have to take advantage of the current status of its roster to get out to a good start.