GM Travis Schlenk on Nate McMillan, the playoffs and Hawks’ turnaround

Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk speaks to reporters Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)
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Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk speaks to reporters Thursday, April 26, 2018, in Atlanta. (John Bazemore/AP)

Credit: John Bazemore

Credit: John Bazemore

Getting over the mental hump has been a big part of the Hawks’ turnaround this season, general manager Travis Schlenk said.

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Schlenk, who gradually assembled this roster over the past four years, watched as the team went from starting 14-20 to nabbing the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, finishing on a 27-11 run after interim coach Nate McMillan took over March 1.

The Hawks went from a “here we go again” mindset in close games to believing they’d be successful from the outset, or hang on to win, or make a comeback.

“I really do think it was as simple as players just believing in the messaging,” Schlenk said. “Not that it necessarily changed that much, but I think they started to believe. We’ve won a couple games where we came back, we’ve won a couple games on last-second shots, and I think the confidence just started climbing from there where they started to believe. … Once they started to have a little bit of success, they started to believe. And they became confident. And any time you’re confident, that’s when you start to have success.”

Having gone 20-47 last season, the Hawks’ goal this season was to make the playoffs and play meaningful games the final month of the season. They’ve already achieved that — now, up against the No. 4-seed Knicks, they get to see how they fare on the biggest stage in the franchise’s first trip to the postseason since the 2016-17 season.

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Having veterans around was helpful on this journey, with Danilo Gallinari often telling the team they’d be fine, as long as they stuck with it, Schlenk remembered. But he also gave McMillan credit for the messaging behind the belief that the Hawks have embraced.

“I think one of the big things that he’s done is just be unbelievably consistent with his messaging with the guys,” Schlenk said. “We still play a lot of young guys, a lot of guys new to our team this year, and since Day 1 he’s been unbelievably consistent about what we’re going to do every single day. And the guys took to that. I think one of the other things that he does, he started changing some of the plays to fit some of our players’ skill sets a little bit better. Just little tweaks here and there, and it really got guys confident, got guys believing in what we were trying to do.”

As far as McMillan’s future in Atlanta, Schlenk reiterated that they don’t plan to discuss that until the season is truly over. But he’s very happy with the job McMillan has done so far.

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Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan talks with guard Trae Young (11) during the first half Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan talks with guard Trae Young (11) during the first half Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
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Hawks interim head coach Nate McMillan talks with guard Trae Young (11) during the first half Wednesday, May 5, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

“When Nate decided to take the interim tag three months ago, whatever it was, we told him that let’s just get through the end of the year and see where things stand,” Schlenk said. “Obviously he’s done a great job, I’ve said that publicly. I’ve told Nate that, but our stance is still the same. We’re going to let the season play out and then once the season plays out, we’ll sit down and have conversations. But to this point, short of me telling him he’s doing a great job, we haven’t had anymore in-depth conversations. That’s quite frankly the way Nate likes it and wants to do it as well. We’re obviously extremely pleased with the job he has done; I have no problem saying that. ... But we haven’t had any conversations.”

In meeting with media, Schlenk shared his thoughts on a few different topics:

On how younger Hawks players will react in their first playoff experience:

“I think it’s going to be a great experience for all our young guys, to be completely frank with you. We’re going to be in the spotlight, the Mecca, the garden. They’re going to have, I think somebody told me today they’re up to 13,000 fans they’re going to let in the building. I was telling somebody that the only game I was at this year that felt like a real, regular basketball game was our second game in New York, when they had (1,981) fans in there, and they were all loud and yelling, and it’s going to be that on steroids with 13,000 people in the building. So I think from an experience standpoint, it’s going to be great for our guys, just to be in that environment for many of them, their first trip to the playoffs. So I’m excited about that, to see how they handle it and then to learn from it and grow from it.

“... All of them, really, we have a bunch of young guys on our roster that we feel like are going to be with us for a long time,” Schlenk added on which young guys he was most excited to see in the postseason.

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Atlanta Hawks' John Collins (right) is fouled by Indiana Pacers' Doug McDermott during the second half Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Credit: AP

Atlanta Hawks' John Collins (right) is fouled by Indiana Pacers' Doug McDermott during the second half Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)
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Atlanta Hawks' John Collins (right) is fouled by Indiana Pacers' Doug McDermott during the second half Thursday, May 6, 2021, in Indianapolis. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

On potentially bringing back the majority of this group of players:

“We’re obviously extremely excited about this group. Every free agency, draft, we’ll add players through the draft, we have two picks this year. And then free agency and the trade season. But listen, if this same group came back, it wouldn’t bother me at all. But we’ll have to see how the draft and free agency play out.”

On what Cam Reddish, who hasn’t played since Feb. 21 with an Achilles injury, needs to focus on in his development:

“The big thing for Cam right now is to get back on the court right now and playing. I think that’s a big part of it is just playing basketball. He’s super eager right now. He’s able to get in some just shooting drills with the guys, but he’s still not up to full-speed running yet. But we’ve spoken with him. The plan is for him to participate on our Summer League team this year just so he can get those reps, to get him a little head start when we get to camp next year. But the biggest thing, and I sound like a broken record, is he just needs to slow down. Right now, everything is just moving too fast for him. He gets in too big of a rush. Just once the game slows down for him, especially on the offensive end, we’ve seen what he can do on the defensive end. But it’s really just about getting experience. I think we all see the potential, see the flashes. But we all have to remember, he’s 21 years old. So it’s really just getting him reps.”

On what he views as the biggest priority this offseason, from a team-building perspective:

“Obviously we have (John Collins’) restricted free agency to deal with, I guess that’ll be the biggest one we have. We also will have our first-round draft pick that we’ll make, and a second-round draft pick, so those are the three known things that we have. As far as other guys on the roster, obviously (Lou Williams is) a free agent, so we’ll see how all that plays out with him. He’s been great for us. Obviously has the ability to go out there and win a game by himself in the fourth quarter with his ability to score. Kris Dunn’s got a player option that we’ll see what he does with, so those are the biggest things I think, moving into the offseason. We’re fortunate, I guess, this offseason that most of our guys are under contract, moving forward.”

On Trae Young being extension-eligible this offseason:

“To be honest, I haven’t even really talked with any of his people yet about any of that stuff. Kevin (Huerter) and Trae are eligible. We’ll certainly look to talk to their groups at the appropriate time.”

On Young’s development this season with a better roster around him:

“I think we’re seeing growth, for sure. But I still think there’s room to grow in his development as well. I think we’ve seen growth in his ability to get his teammates more involved. But I think that he still has room to grow with game management. When a guy hits three shots in a row, to go back to him, things along those lines. When to push tempo, when to slow it down, even though I think we’ve seen growth from him in that situation as well, managing the game late in the game. Those are the kinds of things that we continually, he will improve at, but he continually needs to improve that, but I think we’ve seen growth in that. All of our guys, not just Trae, we have a very deep team, and all of them have taken hits statistically, for the betterment of the team. And I think that’s a big step for all our young guys, and older guys.”

Caption
Hawks rookie forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second half Sunday, May 16, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won the regular season finale 124-95. (Ben Gray/AP)

Credit: Ben Gray

Hawks rookie forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second half Sunday, May 16, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won the regular season finale 124-95. (Ben Gray/AP)
Caption
Hawks rookie forward Onyeka Okongwu (17) dunks against the Houston Rockets during the second half Sunday, May 16, 2021, at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. The Hawks won the regular season finale 124-95. (Ben Gray/AP)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

On rookie Onyeka Okongwu’s development:

“I guess that’s the world we live in, too, everyone was calling him a bust at the beginning, but you have to remember, this is a young man who didn’t have a Summer League experience because of COVID, didn’t have a training camp because of his foot, and we’re playing games and as we said earlier, every game, we’re trying to win. And just trying to get him on the floor, had meetings with (former coach Lloyd Pierce), had meetings with Nate, just give him four, five minutes in the first half, if he doesn’t play great, that’s fine. But just, we didn’t have a G League to send him to, so the only place he was going to get minutes, experience, was in our games. We all know that we were trying to win this year, it wasn’t like years past where the main goal was to develop. This year, the main goal was the outcome. And so, what we saw, slowly but surely with Onyeka, as you guys who watched all our games know, he’d play three minutes one game, he’d play two minutes the next game, and then all the sudden, he’d have a good first half and he’d get minutes in the second half, and we just slowly saw that start to climb and climb and climb. ... In the long term, he’s got a really good touch around the basket. I think you’re going to see him be able to become a good shooter. He’s going to be a good foul shooter. I anticipate he’ll be able to make jump shots. I think he’s got a great feel for the game. ... Defensively, as you guys have seen, he’s got great timing, and he’s got great hands. So being able to get steals, being able to get strips and being able to protect the rim, I think are what you’re going to see out of him.”

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