Impressive rookie AJ Griffin helps Hawks stay afloat

The Hawks are tied for seventh in the Eastern Conference with more than a third of their schedule completed. It could be worse – and probably should be. They’d have two more (deserved) losses without rookie wing player AJ Griffin saving the day with buzzer-beaters.

Griffin did it against the Raptors in November. He did it again versus the Bulls on Sunday. They were impressive plays, but Griffin’s knack for making game-winning shots isn’t why he’s been an important player for the Hawks (14-14). Griffin has played his way into Nate McMillan’s rotation by doing good work for a team that desperately needs it and wasn’t necessarily expecting that now from the No. 16 pick in the draft.

McMillan tends not to give rookies a lot of minutes. He was playing Griffin even before injuries forced the issue. McMillan could have stuck with Justin Holiday, one of his trusted veterans. Instead, McMillan has played Griffin more and moved Holiday closer to the end of the bench, which is what his play warrants.

Griffin should remain part of McMillan’s rotation even after the Hawks get healthier. Griffin is averaging 10.1 points per game. His points per shot attempt are second to De’Andre Hunter among Hawks wings players. Griffin takes care of the ball, which is crucial for his role. He offers the promise of excellent outside shooting for a team that sorely lacks it.

So far, not many rookies have been better than Griffin. Orlando’s Paolo Banchero is one of them. That’s to be expected from the No. 1 pick. Rockets forward Tari Eason, selected one pick after Griffin, has been excellent. Woodward Academy’s Walker Kessler, the No. 22 pick, is one reason why the rebuilding Jazz are doing better than expected.

Griffin has more potential than those rookies and most others, at least in theory. He’s the third-youngest player in the NBA behind Jalen Duren (Hornets) and Trevor Keels (Knicks). Younger players hypothetically have more room to grow. That may not be the case physically for Griffin, who’s already built like a prototypical NBA wing, but he should only get better as he refines his game for the NBA.

Sometimes I swear Griffin is jumping to pass the ball, only to see him twist his body and shoot it. Griffin makes those awkward shots work for him sometimes. His shooting has slumped lately, so better fundamentals could lead to more consistency. Griffin’s good accuracy on 3s and free throws at Duke suggest he should be a good NBA shooter over the long term.

Griffin has supplemented his 3-point shooting with solid ability to score off the dribble. He’s usually under control on moves to the basket, which puts him one up on Hunter. Griffin also has shown flashes of good passing ability. He gets lost sometimes defensively, as rookies tend to do, but makes up for it with his effort and toughness.

Griffin could be an unqualified draft win for Hawks boss Travis Schlenk. He could use one. Schlenk’s first pick, John Collins, was a steal at No. 19 overall in 2017. Schlenk hit a home run the next year with Trae Young (though he could have had a grand slam with Luka Doncic). Schlenk’s moves in the draft since then haven’t yielded a consistent, quality starter to team with Young.

Cam Reddish is flaming out with the Knicks, same as he did with the Hawks before Schlenk traded him. Hunter’s ceiling appears to be as a “3-and-D” wing with little ability to pass or score off the dribble. Onyeka Okongwu’s play has regressed in Year 3. Jalen Johnson is still finding his way in Year 2 after playing only 120 NBA minutes as a rookie.

Griffin could end up being the best of that bunch. He’s got the vision and feel to be a better passer. Griffin is not a great athlete by the otherworldly standards of NBA wings, but he knows how to use his strong frame. That Griffin is already proving to be a rotation-quality player is key for the Hawks. They need contributors playing on rookie-scale contracts as their veteran salary commitments increase.

Atlanta’s payroll is bumping up against the luxury tax threshold of $150 million. That’s not a good place to be for a team that’s not championship contender. Much of that squeeze is because, after four years of getting Young at a huge discount, the Hawks are paying up. His pay took up 6.25% of the salary cap in 2021-22. The contract extension Young agreed to before last season and his subsequent selection to the All-NBA team bumped his pay to 30% of the cap.

Young is worth the cost. He’s facing renewed scrutiny of his leadership and new questions about his shooting. But when Young has it going there’s no better combination scorer and playmaker in the league. The Hawks have managed to post an even record even with Young shooting bricks. That’s not the only thing that’s gone wrong.

Atlanta’s other All-Star guard, Dejounte Murray, has missed the past three games with an ankle injury. He’s the team’s best perimeter defender and second to Young in scoring and assists. Starting forward Collins (left ankle) has missed six games, and there’s little depth behind him. Bogdan Bogdanovic (knee) just returned for the past five games. The Hawks desperately needed his shooting and lead guard ability off the bench.

Those injuries might have put the Hawks in a deep hole if not for their improved team defense and two game-winning shots from a rookie. Those highlights have gotten Griffin a lot of attention. It’s all the other good work he’s done for the Hawks that suggest Schlenk got it right with his latest first-round draft pick.