IF EVERYTHING WERE to come up perfect for the Atlanta Hawks on May 14, the NBA’s draft lottery, they could have the following:
- One of the top two picks of the draft so they could add Zion Williamson or Ja Morant to their team.
- As high as the No. 6 pick in the draft, thanks to a trade with the Dallas Mavericks.
- Five picks in the top 42 of the draft.
- Maximum salary-cap space.
- A compelling case to make to top free agents such as Kevin Durant. If you don’t have the Hawks on your list of free-agent destinations, please see above and reconsider.
OK, so being honest, the chances of this scenario aren’t great. The Hawks currently have just a 21 percent chance of getting a top-two pick. The Mavericks have a 38 percent chance of leaping into the top five and keeping their pick. And Durant might end up giving the Hawks a meeting, but his actually signing in Atlanta? Well, that seems unlikely.
But that doesn’t mean these aren’t exciting times for the Hawks, who are in the second year of a rebuild that is showing tremendous promise regardless of lottery luck or free-agency dreams.
They have several exciting young players, led by rookie Trae Young, in addition to that horde of draft picks and cap space. Just as important, they are sticking to a plan that is bearing fruit faster than it was imagined.
It was simple in concept. Find players with potential in the draft and pour resources into developing them. Lots of teams plan to do this, not all of them actually execute it.
Owner Tony Ressler tracked down the best scout he could find — at the recommendation of his L.A. neighbor Jerry West — and hired Travis Schlenk away from the Golden State Warriors to become the team’s general manager. Then Schlenk, after letting coach Mike Budenholzer out of his contract, tracked down the best development coach he could find when he hired Lloyd Pierce away from the Philadelphia 76ers.
The result? Players taken with potential in the draft have been developing.
“From the first day I was here, and I mean before the draft when I came in for a workout, they have preached development,” Young said. “We do it every day. Even on game days, sometimes we focus as much on working on our skills as preparing for the opponent.”
What does development look like? Well for Young, it has happened out in open. Already entering the season with a bit of a stigma because he’s undersized by NBA standards and because he was traded for budding star Luka Doncic, Young got off to a poor start.
The electric shooter and playmaker from Oklahoma looked unready, struggling to get his shot off, turning the ball over at a high rate and getting toasted on defense. He shot just 20 percent from 3-point range in November and the Hawks started 5-20.
“I saw players were giving interviews talking about how the freedom of movement rules was making things easier,” Young said. “But it was still a big jump from college. It felt really physical to me.”
In the sixth game of the season the Hawks played in Philadelphia and Pierce assigned Young to guard JJ Redick, who ran Young around the floor through screen after screen. Redick didn’t have a good game, he shot just 4-of-15, but it exhausted Young, who made just 1-of-6 3-pointers and had 11 points.
“I told him I didn’t care about his 3-point percentage or his turnovers. At the end of the season some of the best players have the most turnovers,” Pierce said. “He shoots his 3-pointers off the dribble. That’s hard and sometimes you’re going to miss some. What I wanted him to do was keep working. And he has.”
But Young did care about his 3-point percentage. He was so upset, so embarrassed, that after home games he’d wait for the arena to clear out and then go back into the bowl for shooting practice. He worked with his AAU coach from Kansas City, Rodney Perry, who came to town. He had long talks with his father, Ray, who played professionally overseas, and relied on friends to keep his spirits up.
“I was so frustrated. I’d worked so hard over the summer to get ready,” Young said. “I just couldn’t get my 3s to fall. That’s why I’m here. I’m known for hitting those shots.”
Meanwhile, and this couldn’t have helped, Doncic was blitzing through the league and getting rave reviews from nearly every opponent. With better size and experience playing against full-grown men in the top leagues in Europe, Doncic was better prepared and it showed. Fair or not, Young and Doncic are going to be linked for a while, if not for their entire careers. This is part of the deal when high picks are swapped.
Young couldn’t help himself. He looked at social media and read the criticism.
But the Hawks kept up the developing scheme. Day after day, Young did extensive film study with assistant coach Marlon Garnett trying to learn how teams were defending him and how defenses moved.
He gave them opponents’ game tapes and challenged them to study up and come up with a game plan to use against certain plays opponents ran. Pierce, knowing his team was doing a lot of losing and the rookies were getting beaten down, did it to try to fast track their accepting of responsibility and buy-in.
The team’s veterans — Vince Carter, Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon — did it too. When the vets’ chose a scheme to defend the pick-and-roll it helped the Hawks win a game in Chicago in January. The younger players doused them with water in the locker room.
Young’s hard work and improving feel for the NBA game saw his numbers start to creep up. Young’s confidence, on display nightly in college with his willingness to fire up 30-footers, never went away.
Recently, Young has made a couple game winners. There was a brilliant floater over Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. Then another shot to beat Milwaukee in overtime last weekend. But when you ask Pierce about them, he’ll refer you to a game in Toronto a few months ago when Young bravely went for a game winner against Kawhi Leonard. Leonard mercilessly swallowed up his attempt to get to the rim as the Raptors won. It wasn’t the ideal decision from Young, but Pierce took the larger picture.
“He loves big moments and he’ll remember that one,” Pierce said. “He knows how to create and deliver and he wants to be in that spot.”
Since Feb. 1, Young has probably been better than Doncic, who has been in a shooting slump and dealing with injuries. Young has averaged 23.4 points and shot 38 percent on 3-pointers over the two months and his turnovers have come down. Even with the physical pounding, Young has played in every game and has shown elite playmaking skills.
He has 200 more assists than Doncic and has shown tremendous touch setting up his athletic teammates for alley-oops. Young running the high pick-and-roll with power forward John Collins is the new highlight factory in Atlanta, Collins rolling to the rim to accept lobs from Young in traffic and slamming them down.
We’re devoting a lot of space to Young here but Collins’ role in the Hawks’ machine is just as impressive. Just two years into the development program, Collins has blossomed into a future All-Star, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds in his second season.
Neither Young nor Collins can defend a lick, and that’s a long-term problem, but boy do they also provide a lot of answers. Add in rookie Huerter, who has lots of promise as an 3-point shooting wing, and you start to get the picture.
The Hawks are 9-10 since the All-Star break. Young isn’t going to catch Doncic for Rookie of the Year but his steady improvement has been terrific. Collins isn’t going to win Most Improved Player, but he’s going to get votes. Huerter looks like a steal at the No. 19 pick.
The scouting and developing is happening. The real winning may not be far behind.