Hawks have realistic chance to draft future superstar with No. 1 pick

Every NBA draft from 1976 to 2013 had at least one
FILE - UConn center Donovan Clingan, right, deflects a shot by Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) during the first half of an Elite 8 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, March 30, 2024, in Boston. Clingan is among the headliners of the big men in the upcoming NBA draft.(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

FILE - UConn center Donovan Clingan, right, deflects a shot by Illinois guard Terrence Shannon Jr. (0) during the first half of an Elite 8 college basketball game in the men's NCAA Tournament, March 30, 2024, in Boston. Clingan is among the headliners of the big men in the upcoming NBA draft.(AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Hawks general manager Landry Fields has insisted that he’s more inclined to use the No. 1 overall draft pick rather than trade it. I believe Fields should select the center that he determines is the best prospect, Alex Sarr or Donovan Clingan. Recent mock drafts by experts indicate that the Hawks are eyeing French forward Zaccharie Risacher.

At least no one is predicting the Hawks will add yet another guard when they draft tonight. That is not a good plan for a smallish, defensively challenged team that struggles to slow attacks on their rim. Please, Hawks, don’t draft a guard.

Anyway, you may have heard that the player the Hawks choose will not be a franchise-changer. After years of drafts with multiple can’t-miss prospects, this draft is said not to include even one. According to this narrative, the Hawks can hope to draft a future good pro, not a great one, with the No. 1 overall pick.

I’m not buying that angle. No one knows with a high degree of certainty which players in this draft will turn out to be superstars. Basketball executives obviously do a lot of homework, but it’s all projection. And history shows there’s a near-100% chance that at least one player from this draft will have a special NBA career.

The NBA merged with the ABA for the 1975-76 season. Every draft from 1976 to 2013 except one (2000) included at least one player who would go on to be elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. (Players must be retired for four years to be eligible.) That trend will continue with the 2004 draft when Dwight Howard makes the Hall (if you doubt it, look closely at his resume and the relatively low bar for basketball’s Hall). It will happen again with Chris Paul (2005 draft) and probably again with Kyle Lowry (2006).

Drafting a great player hasn’t been about finding the only diamond in the rough. All but eight of the drafts from 1976-2013 included two or more players who are now in the Hall. I’m sure the basketball experts declared that some of those drafts were weak. That didn’t matter for the teams that picked the right players.

That should be the expectation for the Hawks. They hold the No. 1 overall pick for the first time since 1975, when they drafted David Thompson. He opted to begin his Hall of Fame career in the ABA. Now the risk for the Hawks isn’t that the player they draft will play in another league. The risk is they’ll pick the wrong player.

Admittedly, the current front office’s track record doesn’t inspire confidence that the Hawks will get it right. But, historically, the chances of a big mistake with the No. 1 pick aren’t as high as you might think. Nearly 30% of the No. 1 picks from 1976 through 2013 (11 of 38) are in the Hall of Fame (LeBron James will join them if he ever stops playing). Another No. 1 pick, Brad Daugherty was voted to five All-Star games.

So, 13 of 38 players (34%) selected with the No. 1 pick from 1976 through 2013 went on to enjoy distinguished NBA careers. Just seven of the 38 players (18%) failed to make at least one All-Star team. The Hawks have a real chance to draft an elite prospect and help them develop into a top-tier NBA player for many years.

I don’t know if Sarr or Clingan is that guy. I do know that either player would immediately give the Hawks more size and defensive resistance at the rim. Sarr also would make a great lob partner for Trae Young. Clingan would set effective picks for Young with his massive frame and help the offensive flow with his passing ability.

I understand the intrigue with Risacher. He fits the NBA “point forward” mold with the size to play in the frontcourt and the skills to be a lead guard. The Celtics just won an NBA championship with the point forward prototype, Jayson Tatum. The Hawks have a potential star in that blueprint, Jalen Johnson, but adding another would be good. Maybe Risacher is that player.

The Hawks could decide to trade down in the draft. Any deal should include replacements for the two picks (2025 and 2027) they still owe the Spurs for the Dejounte Murray deal. That wouldn’t necessarily mean starting over for the Hawks so long as both Young and Murray aren’t part of the deal and they draft the right player(s).

The history of No. 1 picks suggests that if the Hawks use it, they have a one-in-three chance of drafting a player worthy of it. I believe they should select the center they like best, Sarr or Clingan, and be done with it. Picking Risacher would be defensible. Picking a guard would not be defensible.