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Oladipo, a Tough Self-Critic, Turns to Wale for Advice

Victor Oladipo is a tough self-critic. He needs to win to be satisfied, and has high expectations for himself.

Jessica Camerato

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Victor Oladipo isn’t satisfied. Being selected with the second overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft was only the beginning of his quest to succeed, not the end result of his work to get to the pros.

Now that he is halfway through his sophomore season, he has shown improvements from his rookie year. His scoring has increased, his offensive rating has improved and he was named to the Slam Dunk Contest and Rising Stars Challenge for All-Star Weekend. But the Orlando Magic (15-33) are still in the losing column, and that doesn’t sit well with Oladipo when assessing his performance at this early stage of his career.

“‘A’ being the best, [I’d grade myself] maybe a ‘D’ or a ‘C,’” Oladipo told Basketball Insiders. “You’ve got to win. That’s a big thing. I just feel like if I continue to keep getting better, sky’s the limit. I can get to an ‘A+.’ I think the big involvement in that is winning and being a huge part of that. I think when I do that, I’ll get to the ‘A+’ that I’m looking for.”

Though only 22, Oladipo feels a sense of accountability for the Magic’s results. The shooting guard ranks first on the team in steals, second in assists and third in scoring. Over the last 10 games, he is averaging 21.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals. Oladipo looks to himself after losses and said he feels like he has to play well in order for the Magic to win.

“You have nights when you don’t shoot well, you don’t think you played up to your abilities,” Oladipo said. “But again, it’s all part of the process. As a competitor, I feel like I shouldn’t have those nights. That’s just how I feel. It’s rough, but I’m only in my second year. I’m in a great position and I’m still learning. I’ve had some bumps and bruises, but I’m just going to keep working hard. I feel if I do that, then there will be a positive outcome.”

Putting pressure on himself while understanding the adjustment is an approach Oladipo began taking before the NBA. Unlike many other high draft picks, he was not named a McDonald’s All-American. He doesn’t consider himself to have been highly recruited, and he was only viewed as a three-star recruit coming out of high school. He went to Indiana University, where he played three seasons and graduated early. Oladipo succeeded because he set high expectations for himself and pushed to meet them.

“That’s how I’ve been all my life,” he said. “Before any of this, I was not in a great position. Coming up, it was hard. I was never the greatest player.”

When Oladipo is looking for motivation, he can turn to friend who is well known outside of the basketball world. Even though they have different professions, they are driven to succeed.

Oladipo met Wale when the rapper attended one of his college games. Both are Nigerian, both are from the Washington, D.C. area. They quickly clicked.

“In our culture, when you meet someone of the same background, he’s automatically like your brother. That’s like my big brother,” Oladipo said of Wale. “[The relationships within the Nigerian community] are very important because it’s like when one of us does something big, we all do something big.”

The friends, who give each other shout outs on social media, share a common passion for basketball as well. This season the Grammy-nominated, award-winning Wale was named the creative liaison for the Washington Wizards while also working on a new album.

“I think the biggest similarity between me and him is we want greatness,” Oladipo said of he and Wale. “We want to be great, but yet it seems like it’s a struggle. Sometimes you’re faced with adversity and it seems like you’ve worked so hard, but then you come up short. But at the end of the day, it’s part of the process and we can’t stop doing it. He’s given me a lot of advice on just keep working hard, it’s going to turn out for the better. I tell him the same thing. It’s good to have somebody so positive in your corner.”

Oladipo has his own set of criteria for greatness, mapped out in the beginning phase of his career.

“I don’t think anybody would be considered great without winning,” Oladipo said. “At the end of the day, I want to be great at this game. I was the number two pick, but I’m not really satisfied with that at all. I want to be successful in the league. I’m a competitor, I want to win. I want to be one of the greatest to ever play. I’m not just here to be here. I’ve just got to keep working hard. It’s rough because there are some bumps and bruises but my confidence can never waiver.”

He avoids complacency, appreciates the accolades but keeps his focus set on the bigger picture further down the road. Oladipo is a work in progress, a young player aware of the potential he is reaching to achieve.

“I think I’ve done okay,” Oladipo said. “I haven’t won yet so I wouldn’t consider myself doing pretty well until we start winning. That’s the whole key for me.”

Jessica Camerato is a bilingual reporter who has been covering the NBA since 2006. She has also covered MLB, NHL and MLS. A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Jessica is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and the Association for Women in Sports Media.

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Dallas Mavericks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Dallas Mavericks appear to have two future franchise-leading talents, but will that be enough to get out of the conference basement? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Mavericks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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In a season where there will be plenty of wild cards, Dallas just might be the wildest of them all.

With the long-awaited return of Kristaps Porzingis, no one knows exactly how this season is going to turn out for the Mavericks. If Porzingis is — or will be — back to normal, there may not be words to quantify how high their ceiling could be. If he’s not back to normal, then not only could Dallas be one of the worst teams in the Western Conference, but this experiment could turn out to be one of the worst backfires ever. Particularly so after the hefty contract they gave the presumed franchise cornerstone this summer.

That’s a bridge we’ll cross when we come to it, however. And even though Porzingis is the key do-or-die piece for the Mavericks, they still have Luka Doncic and his superstar career ahead of him. With all the uncertainty surrounding the franchise leading up to Dirk Nowitzki’s retirement, Doncic should help the Mavericks rest easy knowing that the future is indeed promising.

But how promising? Porzingis at full strength definitely makes the future brighter, but the Mavericks need more than only him and Doncic if they want another shot at the title. Outside of them, Dallas’ roster isn’t exactly the prettiest. Because of the duo’s youth, they’ve got time to figure out what the best course is for them. For now, they just have to see where their two main cogs are at, plus who are the best players to put around them.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Mavericks should look dramatically different in 2019-20 than they did last year – mostly due to the presence of a 7-foot-3 unicorn. Kristaps Porzingis will change the entire makeup of the Mavericks as Luka Doncic should complement him beautifully. Head coach Rick Carlisle is known for getting the most out of his players and will undoubtedly continue to develop new additions like Seth Curry and Boban Marjanovic. The Mavericks don’t have elite talent beyond their two superstars, but they feature enough versatility — Delon Wright and Courtney Lee, for example — to make noise. The Western Conference is brutally tough; but when the dust settles, expect the Mavericks to finish in the top-eight – albeit toward the bottom of the playoff ladder.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Drew Maresca

The Mavericks have one of the more interesting duos in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Doncic is a budding star, but the major question mark is what Porzingis will look like as he returns from a major injury. Before he got hurt, Porzingis looked like a potential franchise difference-maker. If he can regain close to that form, Dallas may have hit the jackpot. Provided that Dallas maintains a healthy roster, it isn’t inconceivable that they make a playoff push. There’s a lot of good teams in the conference, however, so it’s still unlikely. What it all really boils down to is what condition Porzingis is in and what kind of on-court production will he bring. The Mavericks season hinges on that.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– David Yapkowitz

To say people are fawning over the future of the Mavericks would be an understatement. Who wouldn’t be? Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis may be one of the most dynamic international one-two punches we’ll see sharing the court in quite some time. However, it depends on the health and production we see out of the latter in his first season playing since 2017-18. Yet outside of those two, nothing about this team jumps out. Delon Wright could very well be the player that does — and the bench looks like it could be just as energetic as it was before — but who else can step up as that tertiary option? Tim Hardaway Jr. will probably be the one. Maybe it’ll be Seth Curry.

Here’s the question to ask yourself: Is this a playoff team in the Western Conference? They’ll be battling with a ton of teams for that eighth seed. Whether they can snag it or not, we’ll have to wait and see. This writer isn’t counting on it.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Dallas Mavericks’ offseason is one of the hardest ones for me to fully digest and put a final grade on. Dallas made a lot of significant moves, but I just am not sure that collectively they were overall positive moves. I like the sign and trade to bring in Delon Wright on a three-year contract; while signing Seth Curry to a four-year deal worth $32 million seems fair, despite some injury concerns. But giving Dwight Powell a three-year extension at $33 million seems heavy when, seemingly, there wasn’t going to be a similar offer from other teams.

And when you take all of Dallas’ moves together, this offseason seems very similar to the Miami HEAT’s 2017 offseason, in which they signed several mid-tier free agents (e.g., James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk) to long-term deals without any path forward to continue significantly upgrading the roster.

Unlike Miami, however, the Mavericks have two franchise cornerstones in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis, the second of whom Dallas signed to a five-year, $158 million extension. Dallas has reason to be optimistic moving forward, but it seems like the franchise overpaid on a few of its offseason deals and surrendered future flexibility without having to do so.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

This could finally be the year the Mavericks break out of the lottery cycle and actually win some games. If the talk surrounding Kristaps Porzingis is real, he could be poised for a monster MVP-type season. Given how much work Luka Doncic put in this summer himself, the Mavs have their future franchise players set. Add in some solid veterans and a great head coach in Rick Carlise, everything is set up for the Mavericks to be significantly better. The problem is the conference is absolutely loaded and while Dallas could be significantly improved, it’s hard to see them cracking the 40-win mark unless Doncic takes a big jump and Porzingis is everything he can be after a full year recovering from an ACL tear, all of which is very possible.

If anything the Mavericks are going to be fun to watch, and that is a far cry from the last two seasons where things were just awful.

3rd place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Mavericks had the option of going under the NBA’s $109.1 million salary cap or staying over the cap entirely. They chose the latter, using almost all of their Mid-Level Exception on Seth Curry and rookie Isaiah Roby, plus their Bi-Annual Exception on Boban Marjanovic. The team is also carrying an $11.8 million trade exception until Feb. 7, the remainder from the Harrison Barnes trade after using a portion to acquire Delon Wright via sign and trade from the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Mavericks have a hard cap this season at $138.9 million, triggered multiple ways (the Wright acquisition, use of the Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions). With a team salary at roughly $121 million, they’re not close to that figure.

Before November, Dallas needs to pick up team options on Justin Jackson and Luka Doncic.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Luka Doncic

Prepare yourself, because Luka Doncic is going to show up a lot on this list. That shouldn’t shock anyone because Doncic isn’t just the new face of the Dallas Mavericks — he could potentially be the new face of the entire NBA. The young Slovenian sensation exceeded all of the hype that he had coming into his rookie season. With all of the accolades coming from his already advanced IQ on the offensive end, he is undoubtedly the best offensive player on this Mavericks’ squad.

Doncic probably won’t be participating in any Slam Dunk Contests any time soon. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in any three-point contest either. But if you watched this kid at any point last season, you knew just how spectacular he was. Usually, rookies that have the look of a generational talent is because of their athleticism or their efficiency. In this case, his label as a future superstar has come from both his poise and his IQ. The way Doncic handles himself on the court makes him look like his life’s purpose was meant for playing basketball.

All of that came from the bag of tricks he has on the offensive end. His 42/33/71 splits are phenomenally average, but his average of 21.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and six assists as a 19-year-old for most of the season is jaw-dropping. It should only get better from here on out. If Doncic continues to blow our minds this season, it may not be long before he enters the MVP discussion.

Top Defensive Player: Kristaps Porzingis

Fun fact: Last year, this writer wrote Dallas’ season preview and elected not to put Doncic in any of the top categories for some reason. As stupid as that was in hindsight, joining as an incoming international rookie, no one knew what to expect from him. Porzingis, in a way, is in the same boat as we haven’t seen him play since Feb. 2018. The difference, of course, is that we’ve seen what Porzingis can do when he’s at the top of his game. When he is, Porzingis changes the pace of the game so much — most of that comes from his defense.

Standing at 7-foot-3, Porzingis has established himself as an excellent rim protector and, since he entered the league, his block average has gone from 1.9 to 2.4. In his final year with the Knicks before his ACL tear, Porzingis’ defense around the rim was elite as opponents only shot 48.7 percent in the post. At the time, such a feat was better than the likes of Joel Embiid, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert.

In that time, New York had the league’s 16th-best defensive rating, allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions. After he went down for the season, that dropped all the way down to 114 points per 100 possessions, an abysmally-ranked 29th.

The Zinger was making a fair case for an All-Defense selection leading up to his injury. If that Porzingis comes back, then Dallas’ defense — which tied for 17th-best in the league, allowing 110 points per 100 possessions — could make a major jump next season.

Top Playmaker: Luka Doncic

This one should be pretty obvious. Doncic led the team in assists per game (6) and now that Dallas has effectively put him in charge of the offense, that number should climb even higher. At such a young age, the Slovanian has incredible vision. He’s an expert at the pick and roll, pick and pop, alley-oop, behind the back — name it and Doncic’s got it in the arsenal already. He could definitely improve in the turnover department (3.4 per game last season) but the youngsters got some serious handles.

Here’s where Mavericks fans should get more excited about Doncic in the passing department. Over the first month and a half of the season, he only averaged 4.3 assists a game. After Dennis Smith Jr’s injury/trade and JJ Barea’s longterm ailment, Doncic upped that average to 6.6. With those two out of the picture, Doncic’s usage rate went from 25 percent to 31.5.

Now, he runs the whole operation. With that, expect a lot more flare from the up-and-comer.

Top Clutch Player: Luka Doncic

This one is not as obvious as some of the other top categories that Doncic fits under, but it’s still all the same. Doncic’s clutch stats aren’t great, but one can’t help but wonder if that’s really his fault. In the 46 games in which circumstances were considered “clutch,” Dallas went 20-26 with a net rating of minus-6.5 — slotting them in at 24th and just plus-0.1 better than the Bulls, who won 11 fewer games.

In that frame, Doncic played in 38 of those games and posted a net rating of minus-4.5. Maybe that had more to do with who was surrounding him than inadequacy himself. During those contests, he had a respectable effective field goal percentage of 51.1 and an impressive assist percentage of 40.4. The only players who topped him in that department were Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Trae Young, Russell Westbrook and Mike Conley Jr. That’s not bad company by any stretch.

More importantly, the phenom definitely is not afraid of the moment. Case and point: Remember that insane buzzer-beater he had against Portland back in December? In all honesty, that may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The Unheralded Player: Tim Hardaway Jr.

Finally, one that doesn’t have the name “Luka Doncic” in it. Anyway, Hardaway Jr. gets overlooked because of the ridiculous contract that Dallas agreed to swallow as a sweetener for prying Porzingis away from New York. Nobody is arguing against how overpaid Hardaway is — but it’s just unfortunate that his contract has overshadowed how productive he can be.

After Doncic and Porzingis, Hardaway is slated to be both Dallas’ third scorer and, arguably, their third-best player. He’s not the ideal third banana, but his scoring abilities could come in handy for Dallas. Since his ship came in, Hardaway’s scoring numbers have gone up from 14.5 to 18.1. He’s being paid to score — so it’s not like he’s taken the money and run. He tries. Unfortunately, his field goal percentage in that span went from 45.4 to 39.3, which is not ideal for someone being paid $20 million.

He could see a more efficient season now that he’s third in the pecking order. Hardaway probably won’t have the same scoring average and, in so doing, won’t justify the money he’s getting paid — still, he could play a crucial role in Dallas’ hopeful successes.

Best New Addition: Kristaps Porzingis

Look, technically, Porzingis was added in February, but since Dallas understandably preserved him to be 100 percent by the start of this season, he should still fit under this umbrella rather easily.

It’s not difficult to understand the magnitude of adding Porzingis to a team that already carries one of the league’s most promising young players in Doncic. Porzingis gives the point-everything a running mate that can run a rich, deep variety of plays together. KP can post up, he can roll out for three and he can finish alley-oops — imagine all that with Doncic on the other end of the string. He’s even shown flashes of being a fluid passer, so there’s really not much he can’t do. With Doncic coming off of a phenomenal rookie season, there’s always the chance of a sophomore slump. Hence, Kristaps’ presence alone could negate a fair amount of that.

Ultimately, there may not have been a more perfect second-in-command to put next to Doncic than Porzingis. Because of both of their youth and ceiling, they could usher in an era more golden than the days of Dirk. As long as Porzingis is every bit as good as he was before he tore his ACL, this should be the start of something beautiful.

– Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Delon Wright

If Porzingis didn’t count as Dallas’ best new addition, then Delon Wright could certainly make a case for himself. Wright’s coming off of the most productive play of his career — at least after he arrived in Memphis. His three-point shot left a lot to be desired — 25.6 percent on three attempts a game — but he’s slated to be in the secondary playmaker role which could be just right for him.

When given extended minutes, Wright proved himself to be a Swiss Army knife-type and put up career-highs in points (12.2), assists (5.3), rebounds (5.4) and steals (1.6). The Grizzlies didn’t exactly have many other players to turn to — and it’s not like they won a ton of games in that time period — but Wright did his job. Now that he’s paired next to Doncic, we could see even more efficient play from him.

What’s most encouraging is that the guard’s assist-to-turnover ratio has gradually increased as his career has progressed. His rookie year, the ratio was 1.9. During his 26-game stint with Memphis, that number rose to 3.5. For what Dallas is paying him, Wright is a solid pickup.

2. The Other Youngster

If it weren’t for the fact that Doncic proved himself to be really, really good almost immediately last season, more attention would have been given to Jalen Brunson, the Mavericks’ recent second-round steal. Having just turned 23 years old, it was hard to imagine Brunson with that high of a ceiling. But for where he was selected, he gave the Mavericks some pretty outstanding value.

Over 73 games, Brunson averaged 9.3 points on 47/35/72 splits while averaging 3.2 assists and 2.3 rebounds in a tick under 22 minutes. In March, he put up the best numbers in his young career, averaging 15.1 points on 53/34/80 splits. From those statistics alone, Brunson established himself as a capable off-guard to put next to Doncic in the backcourt. The problem is: With Wright, Hardaway, Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Devin Harris and, potentially, Courtney Lee, who knows how many minutes Brunson will see?

Rick Carlisle knows to put his best men out there — so, if Brunson takes his game to another level, it’ll be difficult to keep him on the sideline.

3. Courtney Lee’s Contract

With Doncic’s sophomore year approaching and Porzingis itching to prove he’s still the same unicorn we adored in New York, Dallas will use any asset it can to improve its chances. The trade with the Knicks depleted the Mavericks a fair amount in that department, but Lee’s expiring deal could fetch something on the open market. Not star-level good, but a sizable upgrade-level good.

Lee has done what he can since signing that luxurious deal with the Knicks three years ago, but he’ll be 34 when the season starts and the Mavericks have plenty of guards to go through. Dallas could definitely use some wing depth that specializes on the defensive end and there could be a few on the market that Lee’s contract matches with — Andre Iguodala, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Roberson come to mind.

No matter what the Mavericks decide to do, they’re one of the few teams in the NBA who are aiming to reach the playoffs with expendable expiring contracts to shed.

4. Dallas’ Favorite Castoffs

It seems that Hollywood’s obsession with nostalgia has rubbed off on the Mavericks. It all started with the Jason Kidd trade 11 years ago. After being the face of the franchise back in the 90’s, the Mavericks brought back Kidd from the Nets to aid the franchise’s quest to win its first title. The main piece that was given away in that deal, Devin Harris, was then brought back five years after that.

It didn’t stop there. Three years after being the defensive anchor for the team’s first championship, Tyson Chandler was brought back yet again as a one-year rental. It was that same year that they brought back another valuable player from that team, JJ Barea. Five years after being brought back to the team, Dallas then traded Devin Harris to the Nuggets, from which, he then came back for a third go-round.

And now, Seth Curry, after being off the team for just one year, is back for his second tenure. It certainly seems like the Mavericks just can’t let go of the players who left after buying into their system.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

It’d be unfair to say that the Mavericks don’t have much to boast besides Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. Are we forgetting that Rick Carlisle still coaches this team? And that the 2011 Mavericks won the title because they had one mega-star and a ton of contributors who knew exactly what their roles were and thrived in them? Right now, the Mavericks aren’t contenders — as far as we know — but with the big-time talent, amount of depth on their roster and Carlisle’s reputation of getting the most out of his players, the Mavericks just might sneak up on everyone this season.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Outside of the aforementioned duo, the roster really isn’t all that special. That could be a problem if one of them goes down. In fact, it could be a problem even if those two stay on the floor. Now that there’s more footage of Doncic, defenses will be more prepared for him when the season starts. If teams figure out how to limit his play on the court, who steps up? Besides the presumably-healthy Porzingis, who can’t play all 48 minutes, who can take that next step? Never doubt Carlisle, but working around his two young stars will be a tough assignment even for someone like him.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Other than the budding cornerstones, who else from this roster is a keeper?

With both Doncic and Porzingis both on the team for the foreseeable future, Dallas has time to figure out who they want beside them. This season should serve as a test run to see what works and what doesn’t. In that time, the Mavericks can better surround them as they plot for bigger and better things over the next couple of years. As of now, it appears the only ones who are slated to be on the team long-term are Maxi Kleber, Dwight Powell, Wright, Curry and Brunson.

Those are all fine complementary players — but they’re not making any All-Star teams though. If Dallas is serious about this new chapter in the franchise, they’ll need to bring in more upscale talent. Still, doing so means sacrificing assets that have proven they work in Carlisle’s system. But, in order to be great, you have to sacrifice something valuable. Brooklyn did this when the franchise essentially exchanged D’Angelo Russell for Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. To a lesser extent, Utah did this when it traded Derrick Favors to make room for Bojan Bogdanovic.

It may not be long before Dallas has to make a similar sacrifice.

Whether or not the Mavericks make a serious postseason run just yet, however, should not change their longterm plans. Play Doncic, Porzingis and go from there — it really is that simple.

-Matt John

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Washington Wizards 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The future for the Washington Wizards seems murky at best, however even with the injury to John Wall could the Wizards be a sleeper playoff team with Bradley Beal as its singular star? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Washington Wizards in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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The Washington Wizards enter next season with a lot of question marks about the present and the future of the team. They have one of the best backcourts in the league with John Wall and Bradley Beal. Unfortunately, Wall is out for the entire season due to a tear in his Achilles tendon and will be starting to earn one of the biggest contracts in the NBA. Beal is healthy and was an All-Star last year, but has not signed the contract extension of 3 years/ $111 million offered to him this past summer by the Wizards. Uncertain if Beal will re-sign or Wall will ever get back to playoff form, the Wizards have started developing a solid young core and brought in veterans to help with their development.

The Wizards will hope to follow their newly minted general manager Tommy Shepard’s vision for the future and get back to the playoffs after missing the postseason for the second time in five seasons with a 32-50 record. The question will be: Will the Wizards rely on their old guard, or will the young core show enough to promise to move forward without their dynamic backcourt?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Sorry, D.C. – the Wizards are in for a long season. John Wall is unlikely to return this season, and the Bradley Beal trade rumors are only going to get louder as the losses pile up. Rui Hachimura flashed his potential in summer league and through his first few games with Japan at the FIBA World Cup (not counting Thursday’s game against the Team USA), and Isaiah Thomas should have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a contributor in the NBA. But the Wizards are going to lose a lot of games in 2019-20. Their best bet may be to fully embrace the idea of a rebuild.

5th place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

It’s safe to say Scott Brooks has his work cut out for him. John Wall is sidelined with a torn left Achilles injury and Bradley Beal is about the only aspect of his squad that’s a sure thing. The rest, we’ll have to see. Thomas Bryant won’t be surprising teams anymore coming off a stellar season. There will be a lot asked of rookies Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield – it is beneficial these are upperclassmen coming in – however, the talent level is simply not there as it has been in the past. Isaiah Thomas vying for a comeback would be one heck of a story. Again though, Washington’s year all hinges on luck, quite frankly. Consider this writer pessimistic about the situation in D.C.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Wizards are in a state of flux right now. With John Wall likely out for the entire season, the Wizards aren’t good enough to make a push for the postseason. Bradley Beal’s name has been mentioned in trade rumors, but it doesn’t seem like the Wizards are all that inclined to trade him. That may change as the trade deadline draws closer. It’s in Washington’s best interest to hit the reset button and trade Beal for some young pieces and/or picks if they can. This season should be about playing all the young guys they have and seeing who is worth keeping around for the long haul. If his FIBA play is any indication, the Wizards may have hit the jackpot with Rui Hachimura. He should be given ample opportunity to play, as should players like Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, and Mortiz Wagner. There really is nothing to lose.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

Any analysis of the Washington Wizards must begin with the difficult truth that is John Wall is recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and is set to make $38,199,000 this season and $47,366,760 in the 2022-23 season. Ouch. After that, I cannot get past the thought that the Los Angeles Clippers approached the Wizards about trading for Bradley Beal and Washington basically said thanks, but no thanks. Beal is a star guard and moving him in a deal isn’t exactly a no-brainer. However, when you consider what Sam Presti managed to squeeze out of the Clippers in the Paul George trade, it makes you wonder what Washington may have passed up bypassing on any deal including Beal. Moving past this, however, Washington did make some crafty moves. The Wizards did manage to nab Davis Bertans in the Brooklyn Nets’ sign-and-trade of DeMarre Carroll with San Antonio. They also took on Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Jemerrio Jones from the Lakers essentially for free so the Lakers could clear extra cap space in order to acquire both Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard (which didn’t end up happening, of course). Washington also drafted Rui Hachimura, a talented prospect, with the ninth overall pick. Some believe Hachimura is a reach at ninth overall, but I am of the belief it was a solid pick for Washington. Overall, this was an okay offseason for the Wizards, in my opinion. However, the Wall contract is the albatross that will hang over this team for the foreseeable future.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Wizards kicked the tires on splashy options for new leadership but ended up promoting long-time Wizards executive Tommy Sheppard to the senior operations role of the team. Since that decision, the Wizards have made a number of changes in the front office that should better prepare them for the likely and maybe inevitable re-build they will have to embark on. As much as current leadership wants to build around All-Star Brad Beal, it seems unlikely that unless he turns into an MVP caliber guy by himself that the Wizards will have to try and convince Beal he can really win in Washington, which will be pretty hard given the size of guard John Wall’s contract and his uncertain future after an Achilles tear. The good news for the Wizards is they don’t have to cross that Beal bridge this season and, given whats a stake financially with Beal becoming Super Max eligible if he makes an All-NBA team this year, things are lined up for at least one more run with Beal as the focal point and the roster as constructed might be a playoff contender, especially if Beal stays healthy.

5th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Wizards have worked their team salary down to below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold. Washington is trying to field a competitive team despite having $38.2 million going to John Wall ($171.1 million over the next four years, player option on the final season), who isn’t expected to play this year after an Achilles tear. The big question is Bradley Beal, who can sign an extension through the 2023-24 season for roughly $111 million. His answer sets the course for the franchise. Even though he’s under contract through 2020-21, he could end up on the trade block if he turns down the extension offer.

Additionally, the team needs to pick up the team option on Troy Brown Jr. and Mo Wagner before November.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Bradley Beal

Bradley Beal is entering his eighth NBA season this season and delivered the best offensive season of his career by averaging 25.6 PPG, 5 RPG, and 5.5 APG. Even with the Wizards having a down year, Beal was a shining star for the team. During the offseason, Beal was highly sought after because of his scoring ability without having the ball in his hands.

Teams like the Lakers and Rockets perused Beal to be an All-Star alongside each of those teams’ ball-dominant stars. Beal has shown that he does not need to have the ball in his hands to make a strong offensive impact, which has made him such a dynamic star alongside John Wall. Wall requires the ball in his hand to make the most of his offensive abilities. Beal has really benefitted by being a perimeter threat that can finish at the hole if pressed too tightly. With Wall out for the season, we should see Beal being more aggressive and handling the ball more. With Wall out, we saw career numbers from Beal by the end of last year.

Top Defensive Player: Thomas Bryant

Thomas Bryant will become a focal point of this year’s Wizards team on the defensive side of the ball. Despite competing with Ian Mihainmi for minutes, it is looking like he will break the starting rotation and will secure the starting job at Center. Mahinmi will come in to be a defense and rebound specialist, but Bryant has shown that he can be a threat on that end of the court as well. The Wizards looked to rely heavily on Dwight Howard last year to stabilize the defense, but he had to undergo back surgery and only played nine games last season. Instead, the Wizards relied on a tandem of Thomas Bryant and Ian Mahinmi to make up for the loss of Howard. Bryant ended up starting because of efficiency on offense and signed a 3 year/ 25 million dollar extension with the team this off season.

Bryant led the team in defensive win shares with a +2.7 rating, defensive rebounds with 10.8 per game and blocks with 2.7 per game. Bryant looks continue to build on the defensive success by cementing himself as the starting Center by not having Howard on the roster anymore.

Top Playmaker: Isaiah Thomas

For the 2018-2019 season, Thomas signed a veteran minimum contract with the Washington Wizards, where he could earn the starting point guard role. Being able to run the offense for a point guard hungry Washington Wizards team will be the ultimate opportunity for a great comeback season. Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016, but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards.

At his peak, Thomas had two All-Star seasons with the Celtics and led them to the Eastern Conference Finals by averaging 28.9 points per game. The Wizards brought Thomas and Ish Smith to compete for the starting point guard position due to Wall’s injury. If Thomas can stay healthy, he look to be able to run the Wizards offense and will have a great offensive tool with Beal. Look toward Thomas having Beal playing off of his playmaking ability and maximizing both of their talents this year.

Top Clutch Player: Bradley Beal

Beal’s stats during “Clutch Time” (during the 4th quarter or overtime, with less than five minutes remaining, and neither team ahead by more than five points) were some of best in the NBA last season. During Clutch Time, Beal had the one of the best last minute field goal percentages among players who took 25 or more attempts with a 45 percent conversion rate. Beal also ranked seventh in most points scored during clutch time with 125 points.

Isaiah Thomas was the first option in many crunch time situations when he was with the Boston Celtics. If Thomas can gain the trust of the Wizards coaching staff through the season, he may steal some crunch time shots, but still look for Beal to be the primary option.

Unheralded Player: Troy Brown Jr.

With C.J. Miles healing a stress fracture in his left foot to start the season, Troy Brown Jr. has a strong opportunity to be the starting small forward on opening night for the Wizards. Being a lottery pick in the 2018 draft, the Wizards have high hopes for Brown to turn into reliable small forward in his sophomore year. Brown was quite clearly the best player on the Wizards’ Summer League roster. In his only full game, he put up 18 points and 15 rebounds, but he only shot 40.6 percent in Vegas. Brown will not have any pressure of being the focal point of the Wizards’ offense, which will make it easy to play off players like Beal or Thomas to gain some easy scoring opportunities.

Best New Addition: Rui Hachimura

Hachimura only played in three of the Wizards’ summer league games, but posted a dominant performance in his final game of the tournament, scoring 25 points, nine rebounds, two blocks and two steals. Hachimura was definitely seen as a cerebral player who smoothly adjusting to the speed of the NBA and improving game-by-game. Hachimura also had a strong performance in the FIBA World Cup this summer, where he averaged 13.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and 2.3 APG. He has been hampered by a knee injury that kept him out of two games in the World Cup. If Hachimura can overcome his leg injuries, it should give Wizards fan hope he can contribute as a rookie.

– David Weissman

WHO WE LIKE

1. Free Lakers Pieces

The Wizards acquired center Moritz Wagner, forward Jemerrio Jones, guard Isaac Bonga and a 2022 second-round draft pick from the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade involving the New Orleans Pelicans. Wagner was selected 25th in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft by the Lakers. In 43 games with the Lakers last season, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, including 11.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in five games as a starter. Bonga was selected 39th in 2018 draft and Moon went undrafted.

Wagner appears to be the most coveted one since Bonga and Jones both played sparingly or didn’t spend much time with the Lakers. Despite their lack of experience, they both have tremendous upside – Bonga being a 6-foot-9 point guard and Jones being one of the toughest defenders in the league according to Mo. The Wizards were able to get players who will be long term projects that can continue to build a solid young core.

2. Veteran Balance

Tommy Sheppard’s focus this offseason was to balance the Wizards roster by bringing in young talent. The front office focused on securing veterans leadership for the team as well. Besides signing eight-season NBA vet Isaiah Thomas, the Wizards also signed guard Ish Smith, who is entering his ninth season. The Wizards also signed guard-forward C.J. Miles, who is coming into his 15th NBA season. There is strong potential for these veterans to mentor younger Wizards and boost the team’s confidence with the help of Beal.

Thomas only played 12 games with the Denver Nuggets last year and is looking to make a strong come back from a hip injury his sustained in 2016. Smith played three years with the Detroit Pistons where he averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season on 41.9 percent from the field. Miles only played 13 games last year but can contribute as a stretch four, averaging 36 percent from behind the arc for his career.

3. New Management

On July 22, 2019, the Wizards hired Tommy Shepard as general manager of the team. Shortly after the team hired Shepard, he started filling out the front office by naming Johnny Rogers as Vice President of Pro Personnel, Antawn Jamison as Director of Pro Personnel, Sashi Brown as Chief Planning and Operations Officer and former Georgetown head coach John Thompson III the head of  athlete development and engagement department This rebuild was organized by Monumental Sports and Entertainment (MSE) CEO Ted Leonsis after he let go of Ernie Grunfeld in April after 16 years of service.

MSE went soul searching during this rebuild and used 78 different consultants for this front office reorganization. Leonsis picked the brains of the youngest general manager in the history of major league baseball, a former NFL executive of the year who led his franchise to a Super Bowl win and even the 44th president of the United States. Leonsis made it clear that he needed help in his search for a replacement or, better yet, an entirely new system for his organization to run on. More importantly, the front office rebuild will not be a success if Shepard is unable to put together an NBA Finals contender. Though it seems that the Wizards are searching for a championship and will do anything to improve their odds.

4. Thomas’ First Fully Healthy Season

Isaiah Thomas has been plagued with a hip injury since 2016 but will see his first attempt at playing a full season this year with the Washington Wizards. Once an MVP candidate, Thomas’ career now hangs on whether the labrum in his hip can heal properly. The Wizards hope that Thomas has fully addressed the hip issue and can make a full recovery after his surgery. The likelihood of him fully recovering is not in his favor, but if he can manage to be the starting point guard for the Wizards, that would justify taking the risk on Thomas.

Thomas has always a narrative of being an underdog: Being picked last in the 2011 draft, having the Kings refuse to sign him after averaging over 20 points a game, to the Celtics who traded him to the Cavs after having two All-Star seasons. Thomas was all but counted out when he tore his labrum and to come back from this injury would solidify the underdog narrative.

-David Weissman

STRENGTHS

Realistically, the most proven piece of the young core is Thomas Bryant who started 53 games for the Wizards last season and this summer got a new contract of 3 years/ $25 million. At 22, Bryant has the best resume and most upside to start at the five, especially with per-36 numbers last year of 18.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.6 BPG.

Troy Brown Jr. will also be an integral part of this young core. Brown played in only 52 games, 10 of which he started. He averaged under 15 minutes per game, scoring 4.8 PPG, 2.8 RPG and 1.5 APG. With an opportunity to play bigger minutes this season, Brown has provided optimism from his performance during the summer league and is anticipated to make a jump statistically this next season.

The Wizards also acquired Mo Wagner, Issac Bonga, Jemerrio Moon, Rui Hachimura and Admiral Schofield to bolster the youth movement on the team. Sheppard looks like he is attempting to rebuild while still maintaining Wall and Beal on the roster. Beal has been offered 3 years/ $111 million extension, but has yet to accept. If Beal walks after two seasons, the young core can hopefully supplement his absence in the future.

-David Weissman

WEAKNESSES

The one glaring issue that the Wizards face is the lack of security at the point guard position. Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on Jan. 8, 2019, to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years.

Wall is a six-time All-Star who has averaged 19 PPG, 9.2 APG and 4.3 RPG during his career, creating a glaring hole of productivity at the point guard position. The Wizards took a risk on Isaiah Thomas to try and fill the offensive productivity they are used to with Wall. As mentioned before, Thomas is coming off of a serious hip injury and may be limited himself. The Wizards signed Thomas on the veteran minimum salary, a small risk especially after having so much money tied up at the point guard position already with Wall’s massive contract.

The Wizards will probably know fairly early in the preseason about what they have in Thomas and what they can expect. If Thomas’ last season performance is any indication about his availability this season, Ish Smith will be spending a lot of time on the court. Smith averaged 8.9 points, 3.6 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game last season, solid for a backup point guard, but a far drop from the productivity of Wall.

-David Weissman

The Burning Question

What Does Sheppard Do With The Future Of The Team?

As Tommy Sheppard takes over as General Manager for the Washington Wizards, he faces a tough choice that will determine the Wizards’ future: (1) Blow the team up or (2) Continue to build around John Wall and Bradley Beal. Blowing up the team would require trading away the All-Star backcourt, allowing Sheppard to focus on developing a young core featuring Troy Brown Jr. and Rui Hachimura. Building around Wall and Beal, on the other hand, would require keeping a duo together who has not had the best relationship in the past and Wall overcoming injury. Sheppard has suggested he wants to maintain the established backcourt by offering Beal a full max extension, the best approach for the Wizards’ future despite the risk of gambling on Wall’s health.

Wall had been an All-Star for the five seasons prior to the 2018-2019 season, mainly due to his athleticism and playmaking ability. In December 2018, Wall was diagnosed with a “chronic Achilles tendon injury in the left heel” and underwent surgery on January 8, 2019 to address the injury. In February, the Wizards announced Wall would be sidelined for a full year after he ruptured his Achilles, worsening the injury from December 2018. Wall also has one of the most expensive contracts in the NBA, with an average salary of $42 million a year for the next four years. Trading this incredibly expensive contract with a devastating injury attached to it is an incredibly difficult feat without giving up assets, making sticking with Wall an almost unavoidable option for Sheppard.

Trading Wall and Beal, the Wizards would start off fresh with whatever is left of a young core comprised of Brown Jr., Hachimura and Thomas Bryant. The Wizards’ hopes would rest on the young core developing into a strong foundation that could attract All-Star caliber talent and drafting well during a multi-year rebuild.

Given the difficulty of moving Wall and the uncertainty of what the rebuild can actually achieve, sticking with the current Beal/Wall duo seems like a better recipe for success in the near future. Best case scenario, Wall is able to perform at an All-Star level again and re-develops a dynamic duo in a wide open Eastern Conference with Beal.

-David Weissman

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Atlanta Hawks 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Atlanta Hawks may be the surprise team in the Eastern Conference with a solid offseason and steady improvement from the current roster, but did they do enough to be in the postseason discussion? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Hawks in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

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Sometime in July, the internet unanimously crowned the Atlanta Hawks as basketball’s newest darlings — everybody’s favorite upstart, League Pass-worthy, fun-as-heck roster that could shock the world and make a postseason bid through high-tempo and athletically electric hoops. Although such claims may, in truth, be premature — at heart, the sport does love a good underdog story and the Hawks have all the trappings of a cult classic, sort of like NFL Odds in NJ.

Basketball Insiders kicked off its annual season previews again this week — and, as always, they’re some of the most comprehensive, detailed looks around. If you missed the grand opening, you can check out the New York Knicks, Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls already. Later on, our team will tackle the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Pelicans and everybody else by the time October rolls around.

But, for now, the focus is on Atlanta, Trae Young, John Collins and the pressures of making that next big leap.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Hawks — along with the Pelicans — are the most interesting team in the NBA – to me at least. They had a great second-half of 2018-19 and should see fairly substantial gains given their youth. Trae Young lived up to all of the hype he generated two years ago at Oklahoma and he will continue to dazzle this season. The rest of their starting lineup is incredibly well-rounded and – on paper – fits together almost perfectly. The additions of De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando add significant young talent, while Evan Turner, Alex Len and Jabari Parker add more skilled veterans to the roster. And, of course, the return of Vince Carter guarantees a savvy veteran presence. The Hawks have almost too much depth.

They will continue to struggle as they grow into themselves and learn how to win at the highest of levels. But we should see considerable improvement on the 29 wins they posted in 2018-19. The main challenge for head coach Lloyd Pierce will be managing minutes and keeping his roster happy with playing time, along with the growing expectations.

3rd place – Southeast Division

– Drew Maresca

There’s a lot of expectations being put on the Hawks. Despite a record with only 29 wins, it was the perfect definition of what a developmental season should be. Trae Young started out with some struggles, but ultimately came into his own and worked his magic. When John Collins returned, he was a double-double machine. Aside from DeAndre’ Bembry, those are the only young ones left, as longtime Atlanta favorite Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince were both moved this summer. General manager Travis Schlenk decided to bring in a few veterans to help, in addition to drafting three legitimate rookies in De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando. Lloyd Pierce will continue to excel and mature his roster – and there won’t be a bottom tier finish – but playoffs aren’t quite a given for this writer.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Spencer Davies

The Hawks have one of the highest upside teams in the NBA right now. Trae Young is a budding star. John Collins might be one too. Point guard is probably the toughest position in the league to play and Young has all the tools to be an elite playmaker. Collins has looming potential as an elite defensive player, but he can score the ball as well — especially with Young feeding him the ball. They had a solid draft too, and both De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish should get meaningful minutes right away, but development is the key for them this season. They could fight for a low playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, but as long as they show some true growth, that’s all that matters.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Atlanta Hawks had a busy offseason, making too many moves to cover completely in this short blurb. To keep it short, the Hawks added De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, while moving on from Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams. I like Hunter as a prospect, but I don’t think I would have traded the 17th pick and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ protected 2020 pick to draft Hunter fourth overall.

However, I did like Atlanta taking Reddish with the 10th overall pick since I think his game is much better suited for the NBA than it is for the college game. I’m not a big fan of the terms of the Jabari Parker contract since the Hawks gave him a player option on the second season. If Parker has a big season and passes on his player options, the Hawks have limited ability to retain him. Having said that, the team continues to add more young talent to an exciting core of prospects and will have a ton of cap flexibility next season.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Hawks have been following the Golden State Warriors’ blueprint for two offseasons now and the results have been pretty solid. The Hawks amassed a ton of assets in taking on bad cap money in order to allow themselves to cash in on draft prospects they strongly liked. This summer, not only did they get two that fit the current roster — but the additions could augment it in a way that gets them seriously in the playoff hunt this year. If Trae Young continues to figure out the NBA game, he could be a borderline All-Star, John Collins is already a borderline All-Star, but adding De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish to the squad makes the future looks incredibly bright — bright enough to think maybe the Hawks could win 30 or more games this season. The Hawks are still on the outside looking in, but that might not be the case for long if the young guys gel quickly.

4th Place – Southeast Division

– Steve Kyler

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Hawks are the lone team in the NBA with any real cap room, at roughly $7 million (before signing Vince Carter as rumored). Look for Atlanta to shop that cap room in a trade before the season begins, possibly to take on more unwanted salary along with draft considerations as compensation. If not, Atlanta may take that space all the way to the trade deadline.

The team can sign DeAndre’ Bembry and Damian Jones to contract extensions before the start of the season. The team will undoubtedly take the team options on Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter before November. Looking forward to next summer, the Hawks could have up to $80 million in spending power to add to their emerging core.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Trae Young

According to many unfair onlookers, Trae Young was considered called a bust before he ever stepped on the court, mostly due to the hype around Luka Doncic — last year’s eventual, inevitable Rookie of the Year and the phenom that Young was dealt for on draft night. And although Young began slow, he gradually adjusted to the speed of pro-level competition, found his groove and then lit the league on fire. Following the February break, Young looked the part of a future superstar, pulling up from all over behind the arc — his money-maker during that sole stint at Oklahoma the year prior — and even made a late, legitimate push for that aforementioned award.

From Feb. 22 on, Young tallied 20 or more points in 17 of the Hawks’ final 22 contests. All in all, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finished with a promising average of 19.1 points, 8.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game.

Even better, the unwieldy, turnover-prone efforts should happen far less after his first full offseason — but never fear: Young, without question, is an offensive show-stopper with an All-Star-level ceiling.

Top Defensive Player: De’Andre Hunter

Shockingly, the Hawks’ best defensive player already may just be De’Andre Hunter, a 21-year-old, 6-foot-7 do-it-all protector. Unsurprisingly, Atlanta didn’t have a single player in 2018-19 with a standout defensive rating and most of the names high on the list either played very little or are no longer with the team. Jeremy Lin, over 19.7 minutes per game, tallied a defensive rating of 107.7 and now he’s back in China, leaving Vince Carter and DeAndre’ Bembry as the best remaining assets.

So, right, Hunter: He’s an NCAA champion, a former second-team All-American, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year in both the ACC and NABC — even better, he should be ready to contribute from day one. Although his counting statistics in both steals and blocks don’t appear noteworthy, Hunter can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, able and willing to switch on screens and stick to his opposition too. For a team that bled points every night and finished with a defensive rating of 113.1 (28th-worst), Hunter is an immediate rotation piece and hopeful game-changer.

If anything, Atlanta can only go upwards from last season — that alone will give Hunter the room to shine once again.

Top Playmaker: Trae Young

Of course, calling Young one of the league’s most-impressive, young playmakers would somehow be a disservice to his penchant for bucket-scoring euphoria. Despite questions surrounding his size and efficiency — and still needing to make major strides in the latter — Young was must-watch television when he got hot. And there may be no better example than one jaw-dropping performance in which Young dropped 49 points and 16 assists on 17-for-33 from the floor and 46.2 percent from deep. A few weeks later, Young tossed 16 assists to just a single turnover; which was also his fifth and final effort with 13 or more dimes during a rookie season that only seemed to rise.

Watching Young can be an infectious activity — with speed to burn and a lightning-fast trigger finger, the ceiling is already tantalizingly grand. Between keeping opposing defenders on skates and finding the open teammate, Young is set to befuddle head coaches for years and years to come. Among all rookies, Young finished second in points and first in assists per game — furthermore, the only players in the entire league that tallied more of the latter last season were stalwart an All-Star-worthy trio of Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry and Russell Westbrook.

Top Clutch Player: John Collins

For now, both John Collins and Young will share the throne in this all-important category until somebody can manage to separate themselves this season. Young, although never afraid of the big moment, had bouts of inefficiency and the Hawks trailed so often that his collegiate-level madness couldn’t peak at a consistent rate until the end of the year. But, as mentioned, that springtime star left many with a taste of just how special Young could be someday. Again, when he got hot, there were few players more unguardable than Young.

On 24 different occasions, Young hit three or more three-pointers in a contest. He scored more than 30 points nine times and was the owner of magical moments like this and this. Expand those highlights to those that made him a nation-wide hero as a Sooner and, of course, his clutch gene is undeniable. With gained wisdom, strength and an evolving supporting cast, it’s fair to expect Young to reach (and beat) even more of those high-pressure situations in 2019-20.

But Collins, too, deserves mention as one of the Hawks’ key-building blocks. Thanks to a late surge in popularity, Collins generated some deserved All-Star bid buzz and, thankfully, he should only continue to soar from here. At 21 years old, Collins is an athletic, stretchy forward with all the offensive tools of a future unicorn. The 6-foot-10 high-flyer scored 19.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, even expanding his three-point range to a reasonably exciting 0.9 makes at a 34.8 percent rate as well. Young’s flashier, deep-range appeal is hard to look past, but Collins’ ability to get a much-needed bucket or contest-clinching exclamation point is not something to sleep on either. Collins may be an All-Star for the next decade or so — and if he provides more moments like this, it’ll be nearly impossible to disagree.

The Unheralded Player: Kevin Huerter

It’s hard to believe that Kevin Huerter might be considered unheralded, but with Young and Collins, deservingly, in the main stage spotlights, here we are. To wit, Huerter owns the much-needed consistency trait that Young must strive to find in year two, plus a fantastic 38.5 percent mark from three-point range. Out of college, the 6-foot-7 first-rounder was pegged as the best three-point shooting threat in the entire class — so far, Huerter has begun to live up to that hype and more already.

Among rookies, Huerter’s 1.8 three-pointers per game were fourth-best, only trailing Landry Shamet, Doncic and Young. On the percentage side of proceedings, it was just Collin Sexton, Alonzo Trier and Shamet to beat him there too. Furthermore, Huerter played in 75 games and notched 12 or more points in 26 of them, topping out with a magnificent, red-hot January performance of 29 points on 5-for-8 from three-point range. Even as a 21-year-old, Huerter has proven early that he’s a shoulder worth leaning on. Comparing him to Klay Thompson is perhaps a bit too easy — since, duh, Thompson is a three-time champion, one of the greatest three-point shooters of all-time and a member of the All-Defensive Second Team currently — but Huerter has shown promise as a perimeter defender as well. As Kyler pointed out above, the Hawks have adopted the Warriors’ team-building blueprints and Huerter looks like a strong fit in that sense.

For a team that desperately needs playmakers on the defensive end, Huerter’s 6-foot-8 wingspan will make him a steady, reliable cog — if not much, much more — for years to come. If Young and Collins are the compelling forces of potential stardom, Huerter may just be the secret sauce that’ll keep it all together.

Best New Addition: De’Andre Hunter

Quickly, the focus returns to the aforementioned De’Andre Hunter, who has a special opportunity to be a ready-to-go, NBA-made contributor from day one. Over his four seasons at Virginia — capped off with a net-cutting championship last spring — Hunter became collegiate basketball’s best man-to-man defender. If that talent transfers over to the infinitely faster NBA — and it should, the 6-foot-5, 200-pound force is already 21 — then Hunter is a dose of medicine the Hawks badly need.

Last season, Atlanta owned a nearly passable offensive unit — although the league-wide rank says differently — but with Young, Huerter, Collins and others involved, that should come as no surprise. Unfortunately, the defense was beyond cataclysmic. With that downright bad rating of 113.1, the 28th-ranked squad just leaked points in every possible way at nearly every possible opportunity. Hunter can’t solve all those questions immediately, but he’ll surely help push Atlanta up toward the middle of the pack, a reasonable goal that will go far in their efforts to make the playoffs in a weaker conference. Scroll back up if you’ve already forgotten his laundry-list of collegiate honors and Hunter can flat-out defend, a trait that forced the Hawks’ hands early on in the draft.

With the other-Cavaliers, Hunter averaged 15.2 points, 5.1 rebounds on 43.8 percent from three-point range, while his size and strength should allow him to guard three positions at the professional level. During the National Championship, Hunter exploded for 27 points on 8-for-16 and thrived on the sport’s biggest stage and brightest moment. Given their imminent offensive firepower, Hunter will be concentrated mainly on shutting down the opposition’s best player — but if his collegiate resume is any indication, it won’t be long before he’s an impact player in the NBA either.

 – Ben Nadeau

Who We Like

1. Allen Crabbe + Evan Turner

Clearly, the Hawks are a roster fully run by their up-and-coming youngsters — but the veterans are no slouches either. Allen Crabbe — acquired in a pre-draft move for Taurean Prince — was hurt for much of last season, but he’s the owner of multiple three-point seasons with a percentage over 37 or better — three to be exact. If he’s healthy, Crabbe will have plenty of room to let fly in Atlanta’s fast-trigger, high-scoring offense. Additionally, Evan Turner, a former teammate of Crabbe’s in Portland, has been maligned in recent years for his bloated contract, but he’ll be fine fit — 6.8 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 2018-19 — as the Hawks’ second-unit leader and floor general.

3. Chandler Parsons

Chandler Parsons is around and kicking too following his midsummer move from Memphis. Parsons, now 30, hasn’t played more than 35 games since 2015-16, but the massive deal that’ll pay him $25 million this season is set to expire next summer — so the once-uber-promising shooter will have something to prove. Giving Parsons the classic if-healthy caveat is a dangerous game — if not completely naive at this point — but we’re willing to take a final spin on the Parsons Express.

4. Vince Carter

Vince Carter, perhaps surprisingly, is returning to Atlanta for another ride this season, ready to play consistent minutes and mentor the cornerstones rather than receive spot minutes for a contender. Many playoff-ready rosters were interested in Carters’ services in July, but the will-be 22-year veteran remains in his stewardship role — a position that many, many young Hawks appreciated all year long. He’s no longer Half-Man, Half-Amazing but Carter is an important part of Atlanta’s culture and fabric, so he belongs here as much as anybody else.

5. Bruno Fernando

Cam Reddish will likely struggle as a raw, slender 20-year-old — but another rookie, former Terrapin Bruno Fernando, offers an intriguing look at the Hawks’ long-term plans at center. Albeit inconsistent, Fernando frequently put up lottery-worthy efforts over two years at Maryland — instead, the Hawks snagged him at No. 34 overall. At 6-foot-10, Fernando is another rim-protecting diamond in the rough that averaged 13.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks over 34 contests last season. After losing Dwayne Dedmon to the Kings this summer, Fernando is a beyond interesting watch off the bench.

– Ben Nadeau

STRENGTHS

As mentioned, the Hawks haven’t struggled to score in a hot minute — that’s never been in doubt. Although the offensive rating, likely affected by the porous defense, was unspectacular, it was head coach Lloyd Pierce’s first year on the job, flanked by impressive, but raw, talents. The Hawks’ 113.3 points per game were the 13th-highest mark in the league and their warp-speed pace of 104.56 was the fastest of any in 2018-19. Led by Young and Huerter’s combined total of 11.7 three-pointers per game, the Hawks finished in the top five in both attempts (37, third-highest) and total conversations (16.1 made, fourth-best).

In points off turnovers, the Atlanta did well too, notching a serviceable 17 points per game, 11th-highest last season — they, too, finished in the same spot for steals league-wide at 8.2 during every contest. Adding Hunter to the mix should only improve the roster in that regard and, for a team headed by four sub-22-year-olds, it’s an impressive feat no matter how you slice it.

Given the assumed progression by cornerstones like Young, Collins and Huerter — and no major offensive departures this offseason — the Hawks should continue to do just fine there again.

– Ben Nadeau

WEAKNESSES

Before diving into the defensive-related worries, the turnovers were a result-plaguing issue for the Hawks too. At 17 turnovers per game, the Atlanta Hawks led the league in giveaways in 2018-19, handily beating out second-placed Los Angeles too.

Given Young’s high-usage for a rookie point guard, it’s not fair to tag him with all of the sloppy blame — but it was a concern for him out of Oklahoma as well. Naturally, those tasked with both scoring and playmaking for others will often have higher-than-usual totals — see: Russell Westbrook. However, Young tossed away four or more turnovers 42 times as a first-year professional. Worse, he reached the six-turnover plateau — with a season-high of nine — in 18 of those contests.

Only James Harden, Devin Booker and Westbrook averaged more turnovers than Young last season — two of whom are recent MVPs and certain Hall of Famers — and he struggled frequently with it in Division-I two years ago. There are great odds that his tallies, as he matures and bulks up, will subside, but it’s a clear weak spot in an otherwise promising offense.

Defensively, they’ve got plenty of room to improve, especially with Hunter now in tow. The Hawks allowed the third-most three-pointers per game at 12.4 during 2018-19 and opponents put up 49.3 points in the paint as well, meaning that they were getting scored on from just about everywhere. Atlanta’s defensive rating — as a reminder: 113.8, 28th-worst — couldn’t stop a chair from scoring on most nights and were only beat out in futility by the Suns and Cavaliers.

If they truly aspire to be a postseason-bound squad, that’ll have to improve on defense in a hurry.

– Ben Nadeau

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Atlanta Hawks make the playoffs in 2019-20?

Well, probably not.

Still, even being in the hypothetical conversation is worth some points on merit alone. Thanks to some savvy front office transactions, promising up-and-comers and a modern, practical NBA offense, the Hawks are closer to that goal than ever. Even if they don’t end up in a final Eastern Conference playoff spot, reaching the ninth or tenth slot on the ladder would be a welcomed improvement. Bye-bye to the cellar, most certainly, if that’s an adequate consolation prize too.

They’ll remain exciting. Young will continue to get terrifyingly-hot and unrelentingly cold. Collins will keep reaching for rim-rattling stardom and Huerter will be the glue that makes the whole train rolling on — regardless, as of now, it’s a major ask for extra springtime games. Give Reddish, Fernando and Hunter a year to fully find their footing, let Young chop those turnover numbers in half and give Collins the freedom to do whatever he wants — then the race for the postseason will truly be on.

Ultimately, the defense will doom far too many of the Hawks’ strong offensive performances to make this question any more than wishful thinking in September. But there’s nothing that we all love more than a good story and Atlanta owns the makings of one. Come the All-Star break, or maybe even earlier, it’ll be easy to tell if the Hawks are on the cusp of breaking through or if some patience needs to be afforded.

Either way, transforming a cellar-dweller doesn’t happen overnight — however, it’s never been more obvious that the Hawks are on the right path back.

– Ben Nadeau

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