Hawks need big culture change for No. 1 pick Zaccharie Risacher to become star

More defense, less guard-dominant offense is the path
Zaccharie Risacher leaves the stage after being selected first by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft at Barclays Arena on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 in Brooklyn, NY. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)



Zaccharie Risacher leaves the stage after being selected first by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft at Barclays Arena on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 in Brooklyn, NY. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)

Jayson Tatum is a long wing player who can pass, shoot, score and defend every position on the court. All NBA teams covet two-way stars like Tatum, who just led the Celtics to a championship. The Hawks took a shot with Jalen Johnson late in the 2021 draft. They did it again with Zaccharie Risacher, the No. 1 pick in Wednesday night’s draft.

Hawks general manager Landry Fields decided that Risacher is the best player in the draft. His build and skills fit the Tatum prototype of a big, two-way wing. Risacher might become a superstar if he improves his shot creation and playmaking.

“(He’s) 6-10,” Fields said. “He’s got the ability to play on both sides of the ball. Versatile defender. Really, really good shooter and a high-IQ type of player. The amount of development he’s had up to this point is fantastic and he’s still only 19.”

That all sounds great. But the Hawks won’t get the most out of Risacher without a major shift in culture and priorities. They are a guard-dominant team with a casual approach to defense. Can they become an outfit that lets big wings cook and values stops as much as points? That’s Boston’s championship blueprint.

It will be difficult for the Hawks to make that transition. They are built around point guard Trae Young. He’s among the best playmakers and scorers in the NBA. He’s also the NBA’s smallest star. Young is a defensive liability and hasn’t shown much inclination to play off the ball even after the Hawks added Dejounte Murray to lessen his load.

The Hawks must decide if Young, Murray or both go. I believe they should keep Young and retool the roster around him. But the team won’t reach its potential unless Young defers more offensively and gets more serious defensively. Risacher joins Johnson as another building block for that plan.

I’m intrigued to see what role Risacher will have as a rookie. His talent and versatility make him a good bet to start over small forward De’Andre Hunter. If the Hawks were to trade Murray and get a bigger guard in return — or if A.J. Griffin gets his career back on track — then they’d have great size on the perimeter around Young.

Fields on how Risacher can help the Hawks right away: “Shooting. That looks pretty good from what we’ve seen. Defensively he will have to get stronger and take contract, but he plays with contact. We’ve seen him play through contact. Early on, players that are able to get on the floor typically impact the defensive side, but with him to have both (offense and defense) that should be good for him.”

The Hawks decided to draft Risacher instead of a top prospect at center. That means they didn’t address their rim protection issues in this draft. They don’t have much flexibility to do it in free agency, either. Incumbent center Clint Capela is a solid defender but, with injuries lately limiting his effectiveness, either Alex Sarr or Donovan Clingan would have immediately improved the paint protection.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that one of the centers was the right pick for the Hawks. If Risacher turns out to be at least equal to Sarr and Clingan, then he’ll have the most value as a big wing.

Said Fields: “We took this as an opportunity to take who we felt was the best player in the draft. We weren’t going to sit and project what the roster will look like (later). At the end of the day we felt like this is the guy that, no matter what the roster looks like, we can build with.”

It’s up to the Hawks to help Risacher become a star. The organization has a poor recent track record of doing that with players from the draft. The Hawks got it right with Young even though the player they swapped for him on draft night, Luka Doncic, is better. They haven’t produced a top-tier starter from the five following drafts. Johnson is the best hope for that.

The Hawks took another swing on a big, two-way wing with Risacher. He’s got ideal size for his position. At the Europe NBA Draft Combine, he measured 6 feet, 8 ½ inches barefooted with a wingspan of 6-9 ½ and a standing reach of 8-11. Risacher weighed in at 195 pounds. His frame appears suited for more weight without sacrificing athleticism.

Zaccharie Risacher poses with NBA commissioner Adam Silver after being selected first by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the 2024 NBA Draft at Barclays Arena on Wednesday, June 26, 2024 in Brooklyn, NY. (Hyosub Shin / AJC)


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Risacher has already proven he can shoot well against pros. Last season, he made 39% of his 238 attempts on 3-pointers across all competitions for French club JL Bourg. If his defense is up to par, then the Hawks will have a bigger and better “3-and-D” wing than Hunter next season.

The Hawks will have to play a different style for Risacher and the team to reach their full potential. They need buy-in from Young most of all. I believe he has a strong desire to win big. It should be even stronger now that Young’s reputation has suffered from failing to win a playoff series since making it to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.

If the Hawks don’t trade Young, then coach Quin Snyder will have to convince him that he must change his game for the team to be better than mediocre. That could be a hard sell for an All-Star point guard who’s so good with the ball in his hands. Maybe Snyder can point to Tatum’s Celtics as an example of what can happen if Young acquiesces to allowing the team’s big wings go to work and he digs in on defense.

Risacher has a long way to go to reach Tatum’s level. He’s got the potential to be a two-way star for a winning Hawks team. That won’t happen unless the Hawks transform from a guard-dominant and defensively group to one that flows the offense through big wings and makes it tougher for opponents to score.