Hawks need rapid development from No. 1 pick Risacher, other young players

It starts with NBA summer league this weekend
The Hawks' Zaccharie Risacher (left) and general manager Landry Fields hold up the rookie's jersey during a press conference at Emory Sports Medicine Complex, Friday, June 28, 2024, in Brookhaven. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



The Hawks' Zaccharie Risacher (left) and general manager Landry Fields hold up the rookie's jersey during a press conference at Emory Sports Medicine Complex, Friday, June 28, 2024, in Brookhaven. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

No. 1 draft pick Zaccharie Risacher is headed to the NBA’s Summer League this weekend along with other young Hawks players. To break free from mediocrity, the Hawks need Risacher and at least one other prospect to become good pros on an accelerated timeline. Really, that’s probably the minimum necessary for the Hawks to avoid being awful next season.

An awful season would be fine for the Hawks if they controlled their own draft pick, but the Spurs own it. The Hawks have All-Star point guard Trae Young and four other veterans players who’ve played major roles for winning teams. The outlook is murky beyond those five now that Dejounte Murray is with the Pelicans.

The Hawks have pocket change left to spend on free agents. Improvement must happen internally. Young players have the most room to grow.

With Risacher in the fold, now would be a good time for the Hawks to get better results from the player-development program that they’re always bragging about.

“I think in a new (salary) cap environment right now, when you have limitations on how you are going to be able to roster build, that leaves you with the option of changing your roster through development,” Hawks general manager Landry Fields said.

Trades also are an option. The Hawks sent Murray to the Pelicans for two first-round picks and a package of players who are not as good as Murray. The Hawks were a borderline play-in team last season (Young missed 28 games because of injury). That’s their ceiling in 2024-25 unless Risacher is an instant star and young Hawks holdovers make big leaps.

The Hawks are part of the NBA’s lower middle class. That’s not a good place for an older team that employs a player with a $43 million salary in 2024-25. Those circumstances fuel the speculation that Young soon could be following Murray out the door so the Hawks can start over.

Fields didn’t provide much clarity on that point when asked if Young will be on the roster next season:

“We have a lot of value in Trae. We really do. We had a lot of value in Dejounte. But (there are) those moments where you have to make those hard decisions. From there on, we’ll continue to build.”

That wasn’t a “yes,” but it would make no sense for Fields to box himself in by committing to Young. The meat of the Murray trade was two first-round picks and former lottery pick Dyson Daniels. Expect to see Young at State Farm Arena again next season unless Fields can find a similar deal for him.

Guards Trae Young (11) and Dejounte Murray (5) were the Hawks' stars but Murray has been traded. (Jason Getz / jason.getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

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Credit: Jason Getz/AJC

If Young stays and the Hawks make no other trades, it wouldn’t be the worst team he’s played on. The Hawks tanked for two more seasons after acquiring Young with the No. 5 pick in 2018. In Year 3 the Hawks added a group of better players that included Clint Capela and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Capela and Bogdanovic are still with the Hawks, but the current team doesn’t measure up to the one that made it to the 2021 Eastern Conference finals.

It would be a huge boost if Risacher can contribute to winning as a rookie. That’s possible. He’s only 19 years old, but he has some pro-ready attributes and skills.

“He’s able to shoot that ball, and he’s got real size, and he can defend as well,” Fields said. “Some of the ballhandling stuff will definitely come.”

It’s possible Risacher will end up starting ahead of small forward De’Andre Hunter. Hunter was better as a reserve last season. Daniels could play minutes on the wing in certain lineups. Otherwise, the deck is clear for Risacher to take hold of the position.

Another Hawks summer player, Kobe Bufkin, will get more opportunities now that Murray is gone. Bufkin flashed his potential during an eight-game stint to end the season after injuries and a deep guard group held him back. Ideally, Bufkin will develop his jump shot and become like Murray: a 6-5 combo guard who is good at scoring, passing and defending.

Atlanta Hawks guard Kobe Bufkin (4) shoots against Miami Heat forward Haywood Highsmith (24) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, April 9, 2024, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

Summer players Risacher, Bufkin and forward Mouhamed Gueye are sure things to make the roster. Nikola Djurisic and EJ Liddell will be trying to win a spot. It can be hard to draw conclusions from the often-ragged play of summer league, but it would generate some optimism for the Hawks if those five players have a good showing.

The Hawks won’t be signing a veteran free agent who’ll make a difference. That window closed once they agreed to a sign-and-trade for Cody Zeller as part of the Murray deal. That transaction triggered a hard salary cap of $178.1 million for the Hawks. They used most of what little space they had left to re-sign guard Vit Krejci.

The Hawks signed Krejci to a two-way contract in December after waiving him before the season. Krejci ended up playing meaningful minutes because of injuries to others. He’s a big guard (6-8) and he improved his shooting. The Hawks were right to keep him around.

They need more success stories from their development program. They’ve hit on only two second-round picks in recent years, Bruno Fernando and Skylar Mays. With the big exception of Young, the results also haven’t been good for the Hawks closer to the top of the draft.

Cam Reddish (No. 8 overall pick) was a bust. A.J. Griffin (No. 16) looked like a budding star as a rookie before falling off last season. The Hawks traded him to the Rockets for a second-round pick they used to draft Djurisic. Hunter (No. 4) is a so-so starter. Onyeka Okongwu (No. 6) is a backup.

Now Risacher joins the Hawks’ program with higher expectations than all those players. He’s at the Summer League this weekend along with some young teammates. The Hawks need Risacher and at least one of his cohorts to quickly be ready for NBA action if they hope to avoid bottoming out.