Hawks’ GM Schlenk on John Collins’ future, roster building, goals

Hawks general manager and president Travis Schlenk (left) and owner Tony Ressler take in the scene before game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Friday, June 25, 2021, in Milwaukee.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Hawks general manager and president Travis Schlenk (left) and owner Tony Ressler take in the scene before game 2 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Friday, June 25, 2021, in Milwaukee. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Under general manager Travis Schlenk, the Hawks’ rebuild really didn’t take all that long.

They missed the playoffs for three years, from 2017 to last season, then catapulted to the Eastern Conference Finals this year, with Trae Young dominating until a right foot bone bruise limited him against Milwaukee and Nate McMillan leading the resurgence from 14-20 to two wins away from the NBA Finals. Their goal was to simply make the playoffs.

All in all, despite an injury-plagued season, there’s a lot to like about the Hawks’ roster as they enter the offseason. There’s also a lot to consider as they aim to be competitive for years to come.

Schlenk spoke with the media Monday. Some highlights: “interim” tag no longer, Nate McMillan will be the Hawks’ next head coach. Cam Reddish, Onyeka Okongwu, Skylar Mays and Nathan Knight will participate in the Summer League. De’Andre Hunter’s recovery and rehab from lateral meniscus surgery, by all accounts, is going “extremely well.” The Hawks are awaiting a second opinion on Bogdan Bogdanovic’s sore right knee, which limited him throughout the playoffs. Schlenk is open to talking to Lou Williams about coming back for another season.

Here’s a condensed version of more of Schlenk’s answers to questions surrounding the franchise:

On how he feels about the Hawks exceeding expectations this year:

“Obviously really proud of the group. I told all of the guys during the exit interviews, not only how we performed on the floor but really how we went through this COVID season with all the guys adhering to all the testing we had to do, adhering to all the restrictions that we had on us throughout the season. Obviously we didn’t have any COVID outbreaks so I was just really proud of the guys and managing all the difficulties of the season and being able to stay focused on the games with all the other things that we had going on, all the different protocols.”

On John Collins, who will be a restricted free agent:

“I told John yesterday that I was extremely proud of the way he played this year. He made a decision to go to restricted free agency last fall. A lot of times, that can impact a player. I think what you saw from John, he wasn’t playing for his numbers. He was out there playing for the team to win. A lot of cases when guys are going into free agency, you can see the opposite. We didn’t see that at all in John this year. I think that speaks very highly of his character and what he’s about. He’s about being on a winning basketball team. I don’t have anything negative to say about John Collins.”

On if there’s interest in keeping Collins:

“I don’t know why there wouldn’t be.”

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young and forward John Collins get together to begin the game against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On where he thinks this roster needs to improve:

“We’re in a good space. A lot of our guys are under contract moving forward. One of the areas, it’s no secret that we’ve always struggled to field a consistent role is at the backup point guard spot. We’ve had a couple of different guys. I think that’ll be one area where we look to shore up this offseason.”

On his initial expectations for next year:

“We want to be competitive. I told our guys when teams play the Atlanta Hawks next year, they’re going to show up. We were in the Eastern Conference finals. Teams aren’t going to overlook us next year. They have to be ready for that. We want to go out there and be extremely competitive and successful on the court.”

On Young’s playoff run:

“Very pleased, I told him yesterday, the fact that, not just Trae but a lot of our guys gave up some individual stats for team success. HIs shot attempts per game were down this year, his numbers were down across the board, but he did that, sacrificed, for the good of the team. And obviously really pleased with the way he played in the playoffs. That was always one of the knocks on him; there were lots of knocks on him throughout his career, but one of them was could he be on a winning team, could he produce in the playoffs, and I think he proved that he’s capable of doing both. Very pleased with him. Still has work to do and he will continue to work and get better and I think that’s what’s exciting about not just Trae, but all our guys. We’re still, save for a few veteran guys, we’re still a really young team. The core of our team is a young group and that’s what gives us optimism moving forward.”

On Hawks basketball being back and if it’s here to stay, getting support from the Atlanta community on the playoff run:

“I certainly hope so. I think what we saw and how we saw the community get behind this group during this run, you take more pride and joy in that than anything else. To see little kids get excited about the Atlanta Hawks and the players, yesterday I was with my son and one of his friends. They asked me why I had to go to work on Fourth of July and I said exit interviews. They went through every single player on our roster and it was, ‘What did you tell him? What did you tell him? What did you tell him?’ To see 7-year-old boys know all 17 players on the Hawks is pretty exciting. We saw that throughout the community. The support we had from fans was great, and I certainly hope that continues. We’re going to do everything we can to try to continue to make the community proud of our organization.

Atlanta Hawks fans cheer their team taking the court to play the Milwaukee Bucks in game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday, July 3, 2021, in Atlanta.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

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Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

On if a playoff run like the one the Hawks just had affects roster decisions:

“Maybe a little bit. I was joking with, we had another draft workout this morning and I was talking with one of the guys and they were talking about a particular player and I was like ‘Well, he can’t help us beat Milwaukee.’ So, it does change a little bit. ... How do I say this so I don’t paint myself into a corner, we certainly, we’re excited about the direction we’re on and we don’t want to take steps back. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I anticipate us making deep playoff runs every year, because there’s a lot of different things that go into that, but we want to continue to be very competitive moving forward in the league.”

On how challenging it is to keep a roster in place, with contract decisions looming and trying to improve through internal/external growth:

“That’s the name of the game, right, that’s why we have a salary cap. Every team has to make those decisions. And it does get hard. Obviously it’s a lot easier when you have guys on rookie-scale deals to build out your roster, but once those deals come up, and those players start making bigger money, you really are limited on the ways to add to your team. Mid-level exceptions, things of that nature, but we won’t be in a situation where we have a lot of cap space like we had last year.”

On if Milwaukee dominating in the paint changes how the roster should be shaped:

“Obviously we want to improve, and Milwaukee’s a big, physical team, and we saw that, especially in Game 5, where they really went to work in the paint on us. I have a lot of confidence in our guys and their ability to be physical. But speaking with all the guys yesterday, I think it’s easy to say that playoff basketball is more physical, but until you live it, now they all understand what that means. It’s just a different game. It’s officiated completely different than they officiate in the regular season and everyone always says that but I think until you actually experience that, it can be kind of a shock.”

On the physicality of Hawks’ big men and if they need to add more size:

“I have a ton of confidence in the big guys on our team. Brook Lopez, they call him Splash Mountain. The mountain is there for a reason. He’s an extremely big guy and he’s very talented. When you get to the part of the season where we got to — the Eastern Conference finals — you’re playing against good teams and good players. I have confidence in the big guys on our roster to be able to compete.”

On how important it is to continue building through draft (they’re already in full swing of draft preparation, bringing in guys for draft workout):

“Extremely important ... because of the salary cap. If you can draft a player that can give you production on a rookie-scale contract, that’s going to be extremely important to us as we sit here and project to be a team over the cap in the next few years. You have to be able to go out and find those guys on, for lack of a better term, team-friendly contracts that can help you win games on the floor.”

On Okongwu going from a slow start (limited with an early injury) to flashing major potential in the playoffs:

“I told ‘O’ yesterday I don’t think I’ve ever seen a player improve so much from the beginning of the playoffs to the end of the playoffs. As you mentioned, when we drafted him last year he had the broken bone in his foot. Didn’t have a Summer League opportunity, wasn’t able to participate in training camp. Wasn’t able to play through the start of the season. To get maybe three minutes a game in the beginning to where he’s out there playing against a two-time MVP and holding his own. ... Very, very proud of him. Told him he should be extremely proud. But there’s a lot more there. And ‘O’ knows that and we feel like that. He’s only going to get better.”

On how the Hawks can find consistency next season:

“I think, obviously, we have to become a more consistent defensive team. As the old saying goes, defense wins championships. I think we showed a lot of growth there. The other thing we did better as a group is limit our turnovers. Those are two things that good teams do. They don’t beat themselves by making turnovers. They can go out there and get stops when they need to.”

On which Hawks player pulled off the biggest surprise this season:

“I think there are a lot of guys that improved this year, I really do. Obviously we just talked about (Okongwu) and the growth for a rookie coming in. I thought Kevin Huerter, from the start of the year to the end of the year, what he was able to do on the defensive side of the floor, for large stretches of the season being asked to guard the other team’s best player. I don’t think anyone ever thought of Kevin in that light, so a ton of growth there. But I think really and it’s not necessarily a young guy but a new guy to us, Bogdan, Bogi. Obviously I’ve been a fan of his. I remember watching him all the way back when he played at Fenerbahce all the time, but he’s even a better player than I thought. He’s just a really good basketball player, so I guess I would go with him, but like I said, we’ve got a bunch of guys step up and have good years for us.”