Back to reality: Hawks’ Payne a nice pick

As we await further development on the LeBron-James-and-Carmelo-Anthony-are-both-coming-to Atlanta front — and maybe it’s best if we assume the freshness date on that whopper has expired — Hawks general manager Danny Ferry was faced with a difficult task Thursday night. How does he improve the team with the 15th pick in the draft?

The problem with NBA drafts is they’re long on mis-projected talent (Marvin Williams!) and short on certain All-Stars. It’s the byproduct of one of the worst decisions the league and players’ union have ever combined to make: lowering the draft-eligibility age, which simultaneously ruined the sport at two levels.

If we’re comparing drafts in terms of viewer appeal, the NBA’s is public-access television compared with the NFL’s. That’s not to suggest any draft is riveting, but at least in the NFL we know who most of the best players are because we’ve watched them play on fall Saturdays. Most wouldn’t know NBA draft picks without intensive, Red Bull-fueled Googling because the players were either on a college campus for five minutes or they played in Europe.

But to Ferry. At least he attempted to take some of the guesswork out of the evening with the Hawks’ first pick. He selected Michigan State forward Adreian Payne.

In terms of basketball, there’s a lot to like about Payne. He has some size (6-foot-10, 245), which the Hawks need. He’s a rim defender (141 blocked shots in college). He can score a little bit (averaging 16.4 points with 7.3 rebounds last season). He played for one of the best coaches in the country in Tom Izzo.

But you know what separates Payne from most players drafted Thursday? He was a college senior. Who knew they still existed?

NBA talent evaluators for too long have fallen in love with “projected” talent. As players get older, there’s a sense that their ceiling is closer to reality and teams sour on them. General managers tend to draft for the higher upside, not what they actually know and can see.

Ferry wasn’t ready to make any predictions about Payne, saying, “That’s something they’ll have to determine on the court. But he is a little older. He has gotten the four years of college. For where we were drafting, that may be a good thing. Maybe he was undervalued a little bit. Sometimes we overvalue the younger guys and undervalue the guys who’ve been in college for four years.”

The Hawks weren’t going to get Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker or Joel Embiid drafting in the middle of the round, and as the draft loomed nearer it seemed doubtful they would be able to trade up (or that Ferry was even that eager to do so).

In Payne, they not only got a nice player, they got a nice story. His close friendship with an 8-year-old cancer patient, Lacey Holsworth, became a national story during the college basketball season. She attended Senior Night with Payne at Michigan State and helped him cut down the nets after the Big Ten tournament. But Holsworth died in April.

“She’s had a huge impact on my life,” Payne said in a television interview after being drafted. “Just (seeing her) being able to fight through adversity.”

The Hawks aren’t title contenders, but they’re certainly not a punchline any more. There’s nothing Ferry can do about the wreckage of past Hawks drafts — I would type some of the names here, but the room might start spinning — but he can control what happens now.

That said, taking an organization from bad to pretty good can be easier than taking it from pretty good to great. Ferry improved the locker room just by taking Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith out of it. That’s not to diminish the work Ferry has done. But history is filled with “pretty good” teams that hit a ceiling.

So the question is: Can he make a move this offseason that tells the fan base, “We’re going to be better now, and here’s why”? Al Horford’s return from an injury will help. Payne should help. But Ferry knows he’ll probably have to spin a trade or two or make a move in free agency to get this team to the next level. We’ll learn more about that after July 1.

LeBron and Carmelo? Probably fantasy. But the Hawks’ reality wasn’t bad Thursday.