Revisiting the five keys to the Hawks’ season

The Hawks believe that they have not unlocked their full potential through nearly the first quarter of the season. There have been plenty of ups and downs, as they sit at 9-10 through their first 19 games. Their focus, though, remains on learning from each outing.

As they continue to adapt to the system of first-year Hawks coach Quin Snyder, they feel confident the habits he preaches will become second nature.

Here, we revisit the five keys to the season that we listed in mid-October:

Young and Murray’s off-court chemistry

So far this season, Hawks guards Trae Young and Dejounte Murray have put up some productive minutes that continue to show the potential of their partnership. The two both average at least 20 points and five assists, with Young putting up 27.1 points and 10.7 rebounds per contest, while Murray averages 20.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists per game.

While their production has fluctuated throughout the first quarter, they’ve helped the team become one of the league’s better offenses. The Hawks currently average the second-most points per game in the NBA, behind the Pacers, putting up 123.2 per game.

The Hawks have been far from perfect, though, continuing to hover around .500 in the early part of the season.

So, the team will look to them for even more consistency on both ends of the floor to help right the ship.

Young players have to step up

The Hawks have had some strong performances from their young corps, led by the emergence of forward Jalen Johnson. The 21-year-old made an early case for the league’s Most Improved Player award, averaging 14.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game.

In 15 games before going down with a wrist injury, Johnson became a dynamic force for the Hawks. He gave them length and size that proved disruptive on the defensive end, and his ability to crash the glass and get the ball out in transition allowed them to push the pace and find higher percentage shots.

The Hawks have needed to make adjustments to the lineup in Johnson’s absence, including the use of Saddiq Bey as a regular starter. That has affected the Hawks’ offensive production off the bench, with the Hawks dropping from 39.6 bench points per game to 28.

Bey averages 12.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game, which now bolster the starting unit.

Onyeka Okongwu has had a stronger start to the season than he did last year, averaging 8.8 points per game versus the 7.7 points over the same time frame. With Johnson out because of injury, Okongwu has played minutes at power forward when the Hawks look to add a little more defense and size to a lineup.

With Johnson’s absence, minutes should have opened for second-year wing AJ Griffin in the team’s mostly nine-man rotation. But he largely has been on the outside as the team continues to develop his off-ball defense.

Collective defense

So far this season, inconsistency and not playing through possessions have plagued the Hawks on the defensive end. Through their first 19 games, the Hawks rank 26th in the NBA in defense, with a rating of 118.4.

The Hawks have upped their effort on defense, forcing opponents to make extra passes and work for their shots. But the Hawks have not finished those possessions by crashing the defensive glass, averaging 31.2 defensive rebounds per game. They know that in those situations, they need to send more bodies to box out and make contact to help their bigs.

Despite that and because of their increased defensive activity, the Hawks lead the league in steals per game, averaging 9.3 per contest. Murray and Young rank among the top 15 players in steals per game, and the Hawks have three players in the top 25. Murray is tied at seventh with the Pelicans’ Herb Jones, at 1.8 per game. Young ranks 14th, averaging 1.6 per game, and Bogdan Bogdanovic comes in at 24th, with 1.5 per game.

Remaining as healthy as possible

The Hawks have had a few long-term injuries, one of which forced them to have even more flexibility in their rotation.

Veteran guard Wesley Matthews (calf soreness) missed the first eight games of the season, and the team has been without rookie Kobe Bufkin (left thumb fracture) and Mouhamed Gueye (right low back, stress fracture).

Though the injuries limited the Hawks’ overall depth, they did not throw the rotation completely out of whack.

But Johnson needed to exit the team’s matchup against the Wizards on Nov. 25 with a left wrist injury later diagnosed as a distal radius fracture. Johnson’s absence has forced the Hawks to have a little more flexibility with their front court, and they’ve needed to adapt the rotation accordingly.

In-Season Tournament

Though the Hawks started the inaugural In-Season Tournament with a win, they lost their final three games. They ended up missing the knockout rounds despite running up the scoring totals, a factor in advancing, in their games against the 76ers and the Pacers.

Though the Hawks put up 499 points in group play of the In-Season Tournament, their losses sealed their fate.