Hawks player recap: John Collins

datboijohn
ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Second-year forward John Collins enjoyed a wonderful sophomore leap in his 2018-19 campaign, posting career highs in virtually every category and establishing himself as one of the cornerstones of a blossoming NBA franchise.

After barely taking any threes his rookie season, Collins shot the ball much more often in his second year and made them at a respectable 35% clip. He also displayed a much more versatile post game and even showed flashes of being a very good passer for a big.

Collins spent much of his season flying towards the rim on the receiving end of Trae Young alley-oops, and the duo has already garnered well-warranted comparisons to past guard-big combinations like Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire.

Collins still needs to improve (a lot) on the defensive end of the floor. He has the tools and athleticism to be a very good defender, but he simply lacks the instincts and the awareness it takes to put these tools to good use. When he does try to be aggressive and block more shots, he also commits more fouls, which led him to foul out of several games towards the end of the season. Learning to defend well without fouling will be a big stepping stone in his career.

All in all, however, John Collins’ second year in Atlanta should be viewed very favorably. If he continues improving his jump shot and learning to be a smarter defender, there’s no reason why he can’t be an all-star caliber player in the years to come.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

Hawks season review: Coach Lloyd Pierce

Atlanta Hawks v Brooklyn Nets
Sarah Stier/NBAE/Getty Images

Long-time assistant Lloyd Pierce had big shoes to fill when he was hired as the new Atlanta Hawks’ head coach, taking the place of a former coach of the year and current frontrunner for the same award in Mike Budenholzer.

Pierce’s arrival came at a crossroads in Atlanta Hawks basketball. The team had just endured its worst season in over a decade in 2017-18 and subsequently handed the keys to rookie point guard Trae Young. However, Pierce proved himself to be up to the challenge throughout his first year at the helm and should be viewed as one of the best up-and-coming coaches leaguewide.

No, the Hawks did not win very many games this year. However, Pierce, along with general manager Travis Schlenk and owner Tony Ressler, was able to help cultivate an identity for this young group, something not seen very often among rebuilding teams. Pierce constantly preached tempo and wanted to implement the run-and-gun style that has made teams like the Warriors and Rockets so successful, and the Hawks hit both marks, ranking among the league leaders in both pace and three-pointers made and attempted.

For a coach who has largely been thought of as more of a defensive mind, Pierce led the young Hawks to average the 12th most points per game in the league, a very respectable mark for a such a young and, well, tanking ball club.

Defense was understandably a struggle during Pierce’s first year in Atlanta, but he said himself recently in an interview that he has yet to implement the long-term defensive strategy he plans to run in Atlanta. If the Hawks are able to move forward with his defensive schemes next year, improvement in that department should be imminent.

But beyond just X’s and O’s, perhaps the most important thing coach Pierce did in his first year in Atlanta is allow a positive and enjoyable vibe to radiate off of this young ball club. It was clear throughout the season that this was a tight-knit team that truly enjoyed playing with one another and was having fun on the court even if they weren’t winning many games. This is a quality that not every coach is able to create in the locker room and is reflective of Pierce’s dedication to playing a fun, high-intensity style of basketball as well as giving off a positive vibe to his players and staff.

If he is able to successfully implement his defensive schemes into what is already a blossoming offensive ball club while maintaining the same level of joy and charisma with which the young Hawks played this season, it shouldn’t be long before Pierce is mentioned among the NBA’s elite head coaches.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

What if the Hawks get pick #2?

morant
Getty Images

There’s no debate anymore as to who will go number one overall in the 2019 draft: Duke forward Zion Williamson is sure to receive the honor no matter what franchise is blessed with the pick.

However, the second draft slot is where things get interesting, and is a pick that the Hawks have a real chance of acquiring at the draft lottery in May. In most NBA circles, the consensus number two overall player seems to be Murray State point guard Ja Morant, who’s freakish athleticism and innate playmaking have garnered comparisons to NBA stars like Russell Westbrook and John Wall.

However, Atlanta already has their point guard of the future in rookie Trae Young, who has been lighting up the league since the calendar turned to 2019. It doesn’t make sense to undergo a second straight year of deliberate tanking just to end up with another player of the same position.

At 6’3″, Morant does have good size for a point guard, but that’s still hardly an appropriate frame for a shooting guard in today’s NBA. While a combination of Morant and Young would be fascinating to watch on offense, it would also form easily the worst defensive backcourt in the NBA, expanding the defensive nightmare that has been this season.

Of course, Morant going number two overall is not set in stone. Other prospects like R.J. Barrett and Jarrett Culver have also been projected as high as that spot in some mock drafts, and are players the Hawks would certainly consider with a pick that high, as the wing is the one area where Atlanta doesn’t already have a true franchise building block.

However, in all likelihood, if Atlanta does end up with the number two pick, they would look to trade it to a team like Chicago or Phoenix, who are both in desperate need of a franchise point guard and would surely part with additional assets if it meant they could acquire Morant. If Atlanta moved down to the three-to-five slot, they would still be able to select a standout wing like Barrett, Culver, or Cam Reddish, while also acquiring future picks or young players from their trade partner.

We are all praying to the lottery gods that on May 14, the ping pong balls grant Atlanta the chance to acquire Zion. However, we must be prepared for the likelihood that this scenario won’t occur, and if Atlanta instead ends up at number two, they’ll have a lot to think about before draft night in June.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

 

Let’s calm down about the Rookie of the Year Race

trae luka
Richard W. Rodriguez / AP

Since the all-star break, Trae Young is averaging over 25 points and around 8 assists per game, which, if extended for a whole season, would almost certainly warrant an all-star selection. This recent surge of unbelievable play from the Hawks rookie has led many Atlanta fans to voice their belief that it is Young, not media darling Luka Doncic, who should win Rookie of the Year at the NBA Awards in June.

Let’s get the hard part out of the way: No, Trae Young does not deserve to win Rookie of the Year. Doncic has been better in virtually every metric outside of assists, and has played much more consistent basketball throughout the season. While Doncic is certainly not a defensive stopper, he is not the complete liability that Young is on that end of the floor. The Mavericks and Hawks have similar records, so that factor cannot be taken into account.

However, all of the social media warriors who are getting caught up in this Rookie of the Year race are failing to see the bigger picture. Rookie of the Year is an award that many times doesn’t necessarily translate to future superstardom in the NBA. Michael Carter-Williams, Malcolm Brogdon, and Tyreke Evans (who won the award over Steph Curry) are all past Rookie of the Year recipients, and none of them have reached anywhere near the status that one would assume goes along with such an award.

This is not to suggest that Doncic will meet a similar fate as these players. It’s almost certain that he won’t. In fact, many pundits maintain that Doncic should have been named an NBA all-star this year. He is going to be a star in the NBA for years to come. However, one must consider that Doncic has been playing professionally since his early teenage years, while this is Young’s first time ever playing against grown men.

Young’s game has the potential to be much more important to team success than Doncic’s down the road, with his shooting range extending beyond 30 feet forcing defenses to account for him at all times, which opens up opportunities for his teammates. Kevin Durant is probably a more skilled player than Stephen Curry, but Curry has more of an impact on his team’s success. This same analogy can be applied to the Young-Doncic situation.

Young is also a better fit than Doncic for the three-pointer heavy, run-and-gun offense that Travis Schlenk and Lloyd Pierce have engineered in Atlanta. Not to mention the fact that, if Dallas’s pick falls outside of the top 5 this May, Atlanta will have two lottery selections in the draft, effectively taking a year off of the franchise’s rebuild. These are all things that must be considered when judging whether or not Atlanta lost the trade.

So, Hawks fans, please don’t be disheartened or infuriated when Luka Doncic inevitably takes home the Rookie of the Year award. MVP’s and championships later on down the road will more than make up for it.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

NBA Rebuild Power Rankings

010719 hawks photo CC9
Photo: ccompton@ajc.com/Curtis Compton

Where does Atlanta rank among the best rebuilding situations in the NBA?

Since the Philadelphia 76ers began intentionally sitting healthy players and dumping as much veteran talent as possible in an effort to obtain a higher draft pick, “tanking” has become a popular venture for NBA franchises who are tired of being stuck in the middle and know they have to go down before they can go up.

Currently, there are quite a few teams who find themselves in the midst of a rebuild, one of them being our very own Atlanta Hawks. Let’s see where they rank among the NBA’s most favorable rebuilding situations.

*Note: This list does not rank the teams by how good they are now, but how positive their outlook is for the future.

10. Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers have predictably struggled to fill a LeBron James-sized void in the 2018-19 season, currently owning the NBA’s third-worst record at 16-49. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton has made noticeable strides throughout the season, and the team was smart in unloading some veteran contracts like Alec Burks and Rodney Hood at the trade deadline. If they end up with a top three pick in this year’s draft, they could rise higher up the list. For now, however, their lack of both young talent and free agent appeal gives them a less-than-ideal rebuilding situation.

9. Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis finally decided to break up the long-tenured duo of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol by trading the latter to the Toronto Raptors at the trade deadline. It was a necessary move for a team that has consistently been slightly above average up until the last two seasons. Now, Memphis will look to continue the development of their promising young power forward, Jaren Jackson, Jr., who has displayed everything you want in a modern big man in his rookie season.

8. Chicago Bulls

Zach Lavine is going to be a most improved player candidate this June, and Lauri Markkanen has also shown growth in his sophomore season. After a recent win against the Philadelphia 76ers, there is a lot to be excited about with this young core. However, the team still lacks a true cornerstone point guard, and likely won’t get one this June, as they are projected to target players like R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish.

7. Phoenix Suns

There is no reason for the Suns to be as bad as they currently are. They own the NBA’s second-worst record at 15-51 despite having legit young talent in players like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. The only reason the Suns aren’t lower is that their chances of landing Zion Williamson are very real, and if they do wind up with the much-hyped Duke forward, their rebuild will get a giant jolt in the right direction.

6. Orlando Magic

Orlando has quietly been one of the more surprising teams in the NBA this season, and they currently find themselves in playoff position entering the stretch run of the schedule. They’ve done it primarily behind a solid young core of players like Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, as well as an all-star season from Nikola Vucevic. The Montenegrin big man will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so Orlando might be forced to pay him the max or risk falling right back down to where they have been the last few years at the bottom of the standings. This is another team that lacks a point guard, but their incredible depth in the frontcourt keeps them above water.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

The Clippers aren’t necessarily a franchise that comes to mind when one thinks of rebuilding teams, as they’re comfortably in western conference playoff position. However, with pieces like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Montrezl, Harrell, and Landry Shamet, they have a respectable young core to build around. The main reason they are this high up, however, is that they have room for two max contracts this offseason, and have reportedly garnered the interest of players like Anthony Davis (a free agent in 2020) and Kawhi Leonard (a free agent this offseason). From a basketball perspective, many might see the Clippers as a better option than the Lakers for free agents wanting to soak in the warm weather of L.A.

4. Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks have one thing that many other rebuilding teams lack, and that’s an identity. They play with the fastest pace in the NBA and are in the top 10 in three point attempts, and have steadily risen up the ranks in terms of three point accuracy throughout the season. Rookie Trae Young and second-year forward John Collins are the faces of the rebuild in Atlanta, and both have opened eyes around the league with their chemistry on the court this season. If Atlanta were to add a third star (and possibly even fourth) in this year’s draft, they’ll certainly be a team that gets consideration from free agents in the coming years.

3. New York Knicks

Yes, they have the worst record in the NBA. Yes, they only have one legitimate young piece to build around in Dennis Smith, Jr. Yes, they might have just made one of the worst trades in NBA history when they dealt Kristaps Porzingis. But still, they’re the Knicks. Their spot this high in the rankings is largely resultant of the fact that virtually every free agent to-be has been rumored to have interest in playing in the Big Apple. Even if the Knicks whiff on Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this offseason, they’ll still likely bring in at least a Jimmy Butler or a Kemba Walker. Oh, and not to mention the fact that they have the highest odds of any team to land the number one pick in the draft.

2. Brooklyn Nets

Right across the Brooklyn Bridge from the Knicks reside the Nets, who, behind a resurgent season from D’Angelo Russell and a boatload of other young talent, are currently in playoff position for the first time since Pero Antic was a Hawk. They’ll have a decision to make about Russell, who will hit restricted free agency this offseason, but even if they aren’t able to keep him around, they still have plenty of other young pieces around which to build. Along with the lure of New York City, the Nets also can offer two max contracts this offseason, making it one of the most favorable rebuilding situations in the league.

1. Dallas Mavericks

Calm down, Hawks fans. No, the Mavericks’ ranking at the top of this list does not mean that the Hawks necessarily lost the Trae Young deal. However, there is no longer any debate as to whether Luka Doncic has star potential in the NBA; many would argue that he should have been an all-star this season. Next season, they will add Latvian unicorn Kristaps Porzingis to the equation, and the tandem of these two Europeans will be one of the most fascinating things to watch league-wide. Dallas does not own its 2019 first-round pick (assuming it falls outside of the top 5) or its 2021 first-round pick, but if Porzingis plays anything like he did in New York, that won’t matter. Dallas is set to dominate for future years.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

 

Why 2019 free agency will be especially significant for the Hawks

schlenking
Hyosub Shin

No, the Hawks won’t sign Kevin Durant. However, this year’s free agency will still have major implications for the future in Atlanta.

At the end of January, the New York Knicks traded away their future in the form of 7’3″ forward Kristaps Porzingis, one of Phil Jackson’s few successful draft picks during his infamous tenure with the franchise. They dealt the Latvian unicorn in exchange for what essentially amounts to cap space.

By trading their young franchise cornerstone, the Knicks gambled on a trend that has existed for years in the NBA but may be waning. New York bet that the storied (yet surprisingly unsuccessful) culture of Big Apple basketball alone will draw in marquee free agents this offseason with the cap space they created in the Porzingis deal, despite the fact that the Knicks themselves currently own the NBA’s worst record. However, evidence suggests that now more than ever, fans, media pundits and even players themselves evaluate individual careers based on team success. Whether or not this gamble pays off will hold significant meaning for young teams like the Atlanta Hawks, who will look to be on the come-up within the next few seasons.

Over the past decade, many stars have taken their talents to marquee destinations despite knowing that those franchises probably wouldn’t give them the best chance to win. Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver not so long ago, drawn into New York by the same lure that the Knicks hope will attract stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant this offseason.

Dwyane Wade left South Beach to join the larger-market Chicago Bulls three years ago, despite offers from other franchises more poised to win. Most recently, LeBron James bolted for the blue skies and glamor of Los Angeles to join the Lakers-a team constructed around an uninspiring young core-as opposed to signing with a championship-caliber team like the Rockets or 76ers.

However, excluding James’ free agency decision, Kevin Durant’s arrival with the Golden State Warriors in 2016 marked the beginning of a meteoric shift throughout the NBA. Star players realized the massive challenge of dethroning the Warriors, who had just signed the second best player on the planet following a 73-win season, and began to value teams that gave them the best chance to compete as opposed to the biggest market size. Chris Paul essentially traded himself from a larger market in Los Angeles to a less glamorous but more competitive Rockets team. Kyrie Irving demanded a trade from his spot next to the game’s most famous player in Cleveland in pursuit of a much more favorable situation in Boston. Paul George said No to Los Angeles and opted to stay in Oklahoma City, hoping that the Thunder would give him the better chance to knock off Golden State in the playoffs.

More than ever, players are prioritizing winning over market size, which brings us back to the Knicks’ gamble with Porzingis, and how this year’s free agency will even affect teams not going after big names, such as the Hawks.

If the Knicks are able to sign a Kyrie Irving, a Kevin Durant, a Jimmy Butler, etc., or some combination of big name talent, that will prove that some stars still prioritize size and market attractiveness over competing for championships; unless Irving and Durant are added and combined with Zion Williamson this offseason, New York will still not contend.

However, if these free agents instead eye teams such as the 76ers, Nets (who are filled with young talent and have room for two max contracts), Bucks, or even the Mavericks (home now to both Porzingis and Luka Doncic), there will be further proof that today’s players prioritize winning and the direction of the team over everything. For instance, let’s say that the Raptors make a deep postseason run this spring and Kawhi Leonard opts to resign there instead of heading to the Lakers. That would mark yet another example of a star player focusing more on which team will give him the best chance to contend as opposed to who will help improve his brand. This would be significant down the line for the Hawks as they continue to accumulate young talent and clear cap space to eventually sign max free agents. Whereas middle- and small-market teams like Atlanta used to be shut out of meetings with premiere free agents, now they may take general manager Travis Schlenk’s phone calls, assuming the Hawks continue to develop their young core.

A lot will decided about the future of the NBA come July.

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network

 

 

 

Atlanta Hawks midseason awards

As the NBA season is just days away from the all-star break, many fans look at this time as an opportunity to reflect on what has already occurred throughout the year and what to look forward to throughout its remainder.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at what awards some Hawks players would earn for their performances so far this season.

6th Man of the Year

Winner: Jeremy Lin

New Orleans Pelicans v Atlanta Hawks
Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

Jeremy Lin has quietly been one of the better backup point guards in the NBA this season, averaging 11 points and nearly four assists off the Hawks’ bench. He has displayed his veteran savvy and natural craftiness whenever he’s been on the court, and has also played a large role in the maturation process for starter Trae Young.

Perhaps for these reasons, Lin is rumored to have garnered interest from multiple contending teams in the trade market looking for a point guard who can settle the offense, get his teammates involved, and score when he needs to. He’s certainly filled these voids for the Hawks so far this season.

Defensive Player of the Year

dedmon
AP

Winner: Dewayne Dedmon

While there is not a truly elite defender on a Hawks roster that ranks 26th in defensive rating league-wide, Dewayne Dedmon is the closest resemblance Atlanta has to a rim protector, and he has the highest defensive rating on the team at 108.9.

Dedmon too is a player that will be on the trading block in the coming days, and if he does hit the road for a new city, well, good luck to the rest of the Hawks to try to keep the defense from slipping to last place.

Most Improved Player

Atlanta Hawks v Sacramento Kings
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Winner: Kevin Huerter

Look, I know Kevin Huerter is a rookie, and it wouldn’t theoretically make sense to give a first-year player the most-improved award. However, the growth Huerter has shown from where he was at the beginning of the season up to now has been nothing short of remarkable.

After looking noticeably timid throughout his first month in the association, Huerter has since become one of the key contributors on this promising Hawks young core, launching and making threes with no hesitation and also using his length to get rebounds and cause deflections.

Just look at the confidence Huerter displays in some of the shots he took in a recent game against the Wizards:

If Huerter continues to come up with this kind of production consistently, comparisons to Klay Thompson may not seem as crazy as they once were.

Rookie of the Year

Pelicans Hawks Basketball
[AP PHOTO]
Winner: Trae Young

While Huerter has shown real potential in recent weeks, the obvious choice for rookie of the year is Trae Young. Since the day Atlanta traded the rights to Luka Doncic in exchange for the pick that ultimately became Young and a 2019 first round pick, the point guard has been highly scrutinized by some and lauded by others, but one thing’s for certain: everyone has an opinion.

It is true that Young had a rough start out of the gates this season. Someone must have forgotten to tell him that just because he’s not at Oklahoma anymore doesn’t mean teams won’t stop defending him like he’s Steph Curry. However, since a dreadful November where he shot less than 20% from outside the arc, Young has recovered and become more efficient with experience.

During Atlanta’s recent west coast swing, Young had a 5-game stretch where he scored at least 23 points and dished out 8 assists in every contest. The last rookie with a stretch like that was Oscar Robertson.

Young now averages 17 points and 7 and a half assists per game, and if it weren’t for a certain Slovenian tearing up the league in Dallas, he would be the clear front-runner for rookie of the year.

MVP

Los Angeles Clippers v Atlanta Hawks
Kevin C. Cox/NBAE/Getty Images

Winner: John Collins

Was there any doubt about who would receive this honor? Since his sophomore debut in November, Collins has established himself as one of the breakout stars of the 2018-19 season, and should be a candidate for Most Improved Player come June.

The power forward is averaging 19.6 points and 10 rebounds and puts his freakish athleticism on display on a nightly basis. Just by being on the court, the Wake Forest product is a walking double-double, and he’s also shown an ability to knock down three pointers at a respectable 36% clip.

John Collins is the type of player that gives fans something to be excited about in the midst of the rebuilding years. He and Trae Young have proven to be a lethal pick and roll combination, and the addition of another young star or two in this year’s draft will only further expand his horizon as defenders won’t be able to pay him as much attention.

His utter dominance for Atlanta so far this season has earned him the MVP award.

(Also, don’t forget to watch him in the Slam Dunk Contest on February 17th)!

Jackson Stone – @tdjs_network