Trae Young’s injury will have silver lining if Hawks play young guys more

Player-development program needs more wins.
Atlanta Hawks guard Kobe Bufkin (4) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Zhaire Smith (19) and guard Sharife Cooper (00) during the second half of a NBA preseason game at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, October 10, 2023, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 108-107. (Jason Getz /



Atlanta Hawks guard Kobe Bufkin (4) drives against Cleveland Cavaliers guard Zhaire Smith (19) and guard Sharife Cooper (00) during the second half of a NBA preseason game at State Farm Arena, Tuesday, October 10, 2023, in Atlanta. The Hawks won 108-107. (Jason Getz /

It should go without saying that the Hawks are not a better team without Trae Young, the NBA’s best scorer/playmaker. They had a tenuous hold on the final spot for the play-in tournament with Young available. It’s going to slip away now that he’s out for at least a month because of a torn ligament in his left pinkie.

If there’s any positive to come out of Young’s injury, it’s that the bad circumstance forces Hawks coach Quin Snyder to see if the kids can play. The Hawks have been stuck in a middling spiral for two-plus seasons. To climb out of it, they’ll need more of their young players to become major contributors as the team’s payroll pushes against a luxury-tax threshold that owner Tony Ressler has been reluctant to cross.

When the Hawks hired Snyder a year ago, he and GM Landry Fields talked a lot about the importance of a player-development program. A year later, it’s produced one smashing success (Jalen Johnson) and a lot of unknowns because the other young guys hardly ever play. No team in the league plays their rookies and second-year players less often than the Hawks.

Rookie guards Kobe Bufkin and Seth Lundy have played 87 minutes combined (all statistics before Tuesday’s games). Second-year wing A.J. Griffin has played 132 minutes. The Hawks (25-32) have had more losses than wins since Dec. 2, they didn’t get much from their injury-replacement veterans before the trade deadline, and the team made no moves before it. Yet the young guys remain on the bench.

That’s going to change for Bufkin, at least. The combo guard is in line for more playing time with Young sidelined. Bufkin played 11 minutes during Sunday’s victory over the Magic. That’s only the second time in six games that he logged more than three minutes. He didn’t look lost, which is the first thing you look for with a rookie. Bufkin has great potential as a defender, which is something the Hawks desperately need.

The Hawks selected Bufkin with the No. 15 overall pick in last year’s draft. He had a rough Summer League stint, and a fractured thumb sidelined him from Nov. 4 through Dec. 22, but he was getting good reviews at College Park in the G League since then. Bufkin still made it into only four games for the Hawks during that time, with two cameo appearances.

At this point, Bufkin should be playing ahead of Patty Mills and at least one of Garrison Mathews or Wesley Matthews.

“I think it’s always tough when you are not exactly where you want to be,” Bufkin said Tuesday before the Hawks played the Jazz at State Farm Arena. “But the Skyhawks made it easy. The process was great. The progress that I made was great. I’m happy to be back up here.”

It’s time for the Hawks to figure out if Bufkin can be a rotation player. They tried to trade Dejounte Murray before the deadline. If the Hawks decide to move Murray this summer, Bufkin likely would get a larger role next season. He can play both guard positions, and he’s long enough that he may work as a small forward in the right lineups.

Young’s injury opens an opportunity for Bufkin. It’s not clear what would need to happen for Griffin and Lundy to get more chances to play.

The Hawks drafted Griffin No. 16 overall in 2022, and he showed promise as a rookie under former coach Nate McMillan. He fell out of the rotation soon after Snyder was hired. Griffin took a leave of absence for personal reasons in December and has played in only six games since then. There’s still time for Griffin to get back on track this season.

Lundy came with lower expectations as a second-round pick (No. 46 overall) in last year’s draft. But he’s the kind of prospect that player-development programs are supposed to help. The Hawks have gotten next to nothing from second-round picks over the past decade.

One exception is center Bruno Fernando (the Hawks acquired him in a draft-night trade in 2019 and traded for him again in 2023). Fernando has a unique perspective on player development because he’s been the No. 3 center for three teams over five seasons.

“It’s about continuing to stay professional, understanding what the game is and the circumstances,” Fernando said. “Work on my game and continue to find ways to get better. I think that’s really one of the hardest things is staying engaged when you’re not getting what you want. That’s one thing I’ve always had, and just keeping my spirits high.”

It’s not easy for an NBA coach to develop young players while also trying to win games and do right by the team’s veterans. It can be a delicate balance. Experienced teams with higher aspirations than the Hawks have found a way to do it this season.

The Warriors, Bucks, Heat, Cavaliers, and Nuggets all have at least one rookie or second-year player who has logged at least 450 minutes. The Nuggets have three such players, and the Warriors have two. Some of those teams have veterans at the end of the bench who are better than the Hawks’ collection. The coaches for those teams decided to play the young guys ahead of them.

Snyder has more minutes to go around with Young out. This is new ground for Young and the Hawks. He never missed more than four consecutive games during his first five seasons. He didn’t miss back-to-back games in two of those seasons. The NBA’s smallest star has been remarkably durable.

The Hawks are going to be worse with Young out for a month. But Snyder can get something positive out of a bad situation by leaning on his young players more with the Hawks stuck on the fringe of the playoff race. They need to find out if those guys can play.


Hawks at Nets, 7:30 p.m., BSSE, 92.9