The Atlanta Hawks betrayed an underlying organizational instability during the first round of the NBA playoffs when Dwight Howard was held out of fourth quarters in Games 2 and 5 against the Wizards before turning in a dismal performance in Atlanta’s Game 6 elimination. Howard was -14 in 23 minutes in Game 6 while attempting only four shots. Hours earlier, Howard had his car towed for no insurance while driving at around 2 AM of the morning preceding the elimination game.
That instability created a situation where the Hawks, for the second offseason in a row, would face losing the team’s best player without compensation. The summer before, Atlanta had declined to offer Al Horford the full max and saw him depart to the Boston Celtics as an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks had made plans to trade Paul Millsap to the Phoenix Suns for assets while re-signing Horford to pair him in the front court with Howard. Horford would later imply that playing alongside Howard was not attractive for him.
After Howard’s meltdown in the playoffs, Millsap may have been thinking the same thing. The Hawks declined to extend a contract offer to Millsap, who departed to the Denver Nuggets. Atlanta finally committed to a full rebuild — much as the organization loathes to use that word — that many observers felt the Hawks should have started at least a season sooner. It’s important to note that the Hawks organization has not torn the team down to the studs like the Philadelphia 76ers. The developing young talent on this roster should give fans reason to hope that it won’t be an extended stay in lottery land, and here we’ll look at the key components of that picture.
Statistically, Schroder took a step forward in the playoffs. After averaging 20.5 points, 7.2 assists and 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes in the regular season on 34 percent shooting from three-point range, Schroder averaged 25.3 points, 7.8 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per 36 against the Wizards, including 42 percent shooting from three. The jump in assists while cutting his turnovers by a full two per 36 minutes was especially impressive, coming as it did while guarded by a well-regarded defender in John Wall.
The advanced metrics were less kind to Schroder, however, as his -7.5 points per 100 possessions in the Wizards series was the worst of any Hawk to play significant minutes. The degree to which Schroder and the departed Tim Hardaway, Jr. were outplayed by Wall and Bradley Beal was the biggest deciding factor of the series. Nonetheless, it was Schroder’s first experience as the starting point guard in a playoff series. His improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio should not be taken for granted, but rather as a sign of untapped upside he may further reveal in the upcoming season.
Schroder will lead the national team for his native Germany in the upcoming EuroBasket 2017 tournament, so observers will have an opportunity to see him in action against a high level of competition well ahead of the NBA’s preseason. Schroder will also face another new experience in the upcoming seasons as defenses key on him as they never have before with Millsap out of the picture.
After Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer declined to play Taurean Prince significant minutes early in the season, he surprisingly became the starting small forward toward the end of the regular season and kept that role into the playoffs. Prince became the first player since Tony Parker to start and score in double figures in his first five career playoff starts as a rookie and the first rookie in Hawks history to score in double digits in his first four playoff starts. Through Game 3 of the Wizards series, Prince shot an astonishing 57 percent from three point range and was second only to Kawhi Lenord in true shooting percentage for the playoffs.
That’s a pretty impressive resume for a first-year player. Prince also kept Otto Porter — recipient this offseason of a max contract extension from the Wizards — in check defensively for much of the series. Prince went into the playoffs known more for his defensive reputation than for the offensive outburst he displayed. That he showed up as a two-way player against the Wizards is a hugely encouraging sign for Atlanta. However, as with Schroder, Prince will face additional defensive attention for the upcoming season. Prince will go from an afterthought on Atlanta’s bench to possibly the second scoring option.
The advanced stats love Ersan Ilyasova. He was among the net rating leaders for the Thunder, 76ers, and Hawks during the regular season and his +2.2 in the Wizards series trailed only Kent Bazemore and Jose Calderon among rotation players. However, Ilyasova was unable to help Atlanta avoid elimination as he shot 1-for-6 with a game-worst -7 in Game 5 before playing only five minutes in Game 6. The Hawks organization is infamous for failing to disclose injuries — an offseason wrist injury to Hardaway the season before was not revealed until midseason — so Ilyasova may have been limited toward the end of the series.
Ilyasova led the NBA in charges taken, which shows that he has advanced defensive timing and positioning. With the Hawks this season, Ilyasova will have a real opportunity to play above his reputation as a journeyman as he projects as the team’s starting power forward. He’s started 365 games over his career, so it’s not a burden he’s unfamiliar with. And the 18 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes he averaged for the 2015-16 season would be welcome production. But as with Prince and Schroder, the refrain remains the same. Ilyasova will have to produce in the face of much greater defensive attention than he received as Millsap’s backup.
Possibly the biggest wildcard for the Hawks will be the play of DeAndre Bembry, who, unlike Prince, never got an opportunity to crack the rotation last season. This led to a great deal of consternation among Hawks observers who saw his potential during a road win in Houston during which Bembry applied lock-down defense against MVP finalist James Harden.
Bembry gives the Hawks another multi-position switching defender on the wing to pair with Prince. The limiting factor is the three-point line, where he’s shot just 1-for-18 for his career. His shot looked worlds better during NBA Summer League, but improvement against lower levels of competition can prove illusory. If Bembry’s improved three-point range turns out not to be a mirage, he could be a breakout player for Atlanta. In addition to his defensive versatility, he provides the Hawks with another ball handler who can create shots for his teammates and take some of the pressure off Schroder.
After John Collins fell all the way to the Hawks at 19th in the first round of this summer’s NBA Draft, he was selected to the All-NBA Summer League first team in Las Vegas. Front office executives who spoke to Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler in Vegas said that Collins could be one of the truly special players to come out of the 2017 NBA Draft. It appears that the Hawks found a diamond in the rough and possibly the steal of the entire draft.
Collins proved to be an explosive dunker and rebounder in Vegas and should make an immediate impact as the most efficient offensive player in college basketball last season. The questions will come on the defensive end, where Wake Forest coach Danny Manning hid Collins by instructing him to avoid foul trouble. Collins is also not known for his outside shot, although in pre-draft workouts and during Summer League, his shot from the elbows and from deep looked competent and composed. While Hawks fans can look forward to the team’s first trip to the lottery in a decade, Collins should at least keep the home crowd entertained with his athletic rim assaults.
The Hawks may have found another diamond in the rough in Dedmon, who started 37 games at center for the Spurs during the regular season and three in the playoffs. Dedmon is an interesting story as he was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and did not play competitive basketball until he walked on to his junior college team. Thus, while Dedmon’s numbers are typical of an NBA journeyman, the fact that he’s only been playing since he became an adult indicates there could be untapped upside waiting to be revealed in an expanded role.
Like Schroder, Dedmon made an encouraging improvement in per 36-minute stats from the regular season to the playoffs in San Antonio. During the regular season, he averaged 10.5 points and 13.4 rebounds per 36 while shooting 70 percent from the free throw line and 62 percent from the field. During the playoffs, he averaged 16.7 points and 17.4 rebounds per 36. His field goal shooting held steady at 61 percent, but his free throw shooting took a dive to 53 percent on nearly 12 attempts per 36 minutes. It’s only a 12-game sample so it may not be cause for excessive alarm, but it will be something to keep an eye on.
While the Hawks will undoubtedly take a major step back this season with many of the team’s top scorers and impact defenders departed, Atlanta may not perform as poorly as some observers predict. There are enough pieces here that the Hawks could win enough games to hurt their chances of gaining one of the top three picks in the upcoming draft. Budenholzer is ultra-competitive and a former assistant with the world champion Spurs, and you can be sure that “tanking” is not in his vocabulary. It’s an intriguing collection of talent, and these young Hawks will be playing to win.
For the longer term, the Hawks will have as many as six first round draft picks in the next three drafts. New Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has stated the goal of retooling the roster while remaining competitive. Atlanta has managed to stock itself with both rising talent and future assets to make that goal more than just a talking point. Look for Atlanta’s rebuild to proceed rapidly.
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