Kobe Bufkin is insurance for Hawks if Dejounte Murray leaves

Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin (2) plays against Wisconsin in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin (2) plays against Wisconsin in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Ann Arbor, Mich., Sunday, Feb. 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Kobe Bufkin might become a good NBA player someday. Right now, he’s insurance for the Hawks. They don’t need a shooting guard for next season. They’ll need one the season after that if Dejounte Murray walks.

The Hawks selected Bufkin with the No. 15 overall pick in the draft Thursday night. Bufkin became a top NBA prospect with a strong sophomore season. He doesn’t turn 20 years old until Sept. 21st.

“There’s a little big of a blank canvas there,” Hawks general manager Landry Fields said. “He’s a guy who will play sooner rather than later, I imagine.”

If Bufkin continues to improve, then he could eventually take over as Trae Young’s backcourt partner. That was Murray in 2022-23.

The Hawks sent away three first-round picks to acquire Murray last summer. Murray’s fit with Young was hit-or-miss in Year 1 of the experiment with two ball-dominant guards. Murray’s contract expires after next season. It will cost the Hawks a lot in salary and luxury tax to re-sign him, if Murray even wants to stay.

Murray and Bogdan Bogdanovic played nearly all the important minutes at shooting guard last season. AJ Griffin can play there, too. The Hawks selected Griffin in the first round of last year’s draft. Bufkin likely is going to have to wait his turn with the Hawks, like he did at Michigan.

Bufkin played just 10.6 minutes per game for coach Juwan Howard as a freshman. Bufkin started 33 games last season and averaged 14 points. His 54.2 effective field-goal percentage ranked seventh among Big Ten guards, per Ken Pomeroy’s statistics.

“My freshman year, I couldn’t guard nobody,” Bufkin said. “I finally just focused on moving my feet and that allowed me to get on the court my second year and have a big impact on defense. And then the offense kind of (came) along the second half of the season.”

Michigan guard Kobe Bufkin (2) defends against Rutgers guard Cam Spencer (10) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Piscataway, N.J.,Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray)

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Credit: AP

The Hawks can use defensive help. A constant refrain by coach Nate McMillan was the inability of his perimeter defenders to keep opponents out of the paint. That didn’t get any better when the Hawks fired McMillan and replaced him with Quin Snyder. The Celtics had easy passage to the rim as they beat the Hawks in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

The difficulty of guarding the NBA’s many skilled perimeter players is why every team covets wing players with size, skills and rugged defense. No surprise that the best of those type of prospects were off the board by the time the Hawks picked. They decided to take Bufkin, who projects as more of a combo guard than a swingman.

At the NBA scouting combine, Bufkin measured a little over 6-foot-4 with a wingspan a little shorter than 6-8. That’s average height and below-average length among the shooting guards in this draft. Bufkin has some good ballhandling and passing skills, so he could end up playing some point guard.

That’s how it worked with Young and Murray last season as they took turns with the ball.

“I showed at Michigan I can be on or off the ball, and do it at a high level,” Bufkin said. “I’m looking forward to playing with those guys.”

That likely will come later for Bufkin. That’s the expectation for a player picked at No. 15 by a playoff team with lots of experienced players.

“We’ll see how it shapes up roster-wise, but he’s a guy we wanted to take a swing at and that’s what we did,” Fields said.

Before the draft, there was a lot of speculation about the Hawks trading up to get a lottery pick. Yahoo! Sports reported that the Hawks wanted to move forward John Collins and the No. 15 pick to the Mavericks in exchange for Davis Bertans and the No. 10 pick. But the Mavericks found a superior deal. They got the No. 12 pick from the Thunder for No. 10 pick and Bertans.

Fields said the Hawks were never close to making a trade. The Hawks stayed at No. 15 and took Bufkin.

“Very mature, the way he sees the game, the feel, the IQ, the confidence he has,” Fields said. “Fluid type of player. He can play on-ball, off-ball and he defends. That’s big for us. And he’s young, still growing.”

Bufkin probably isn’t ready to play much for the Hawks in 2023-24. He can be a bigger part of a Hawks future that doesn’t include Murray.