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Big men striving to take advantage of expanded opportunity with Atlanta Hawks

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Let’s take a look how the Hawks’ bigs are playing so far this season.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the biggest stories of the Hawks’ 2017 off-season were the departures of starters Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. Atlanta entered the season with just two returning players at the power forward and center positions, if we exclude Taurean Prince, who play most of his time at small forward.

This season represents a tremendous opportunity for players who can fill the minutes void left by Millsap and Howard. Lets take a look at how the big men are performing for the Hawks so far this season (in order of minutes played).

Dewayne Dedmon

The Hawks signed Dedmon to a two-year contract in July as an affordable option to handle a sizable workload at the center position. Playing one year under coach Greg Popovich in San Antonio last season exposed Dedmon to the similar system the Hawks run. Though he spent the first half of the season playing almost exclusively off the bench, he broke into the lineup and started 34 of the Spurs’ final 35 games. Still, he averaged just 17.5 minutes per game in the regular season and found his role more diminished in the playoffs.

Entering his sixth NBA season, Dedmon earned the starting role with the Hawks though it was more likely the result of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s preference for veteran players and an overall process of elimination. Regardless, Dedmon has seized the opportunity to show an expanded skill set on the offensive end to add to his respectable contributions on defense.

So far this season, Dedmon’s offensive rating (99.4) and defensive rating (108.8) are almost a mirror image of his performance with the Spurs last season (OFFRTG: 105.9, DEFRTG: 97.5) — a clear indication of just how dependent a player’s performance is on the players around him. Though Dedmon has spent the majority of his minutes on the floor with the first unit, the team as a whole has struggled to find consistency on both ends floor regardless of who is on the floor.

Defensively, Dedmon has shown that he is a responsible defender and rebounder who can handle his assignments against most NBA bigs. But he has also shown that he is not the type of defender who can erase mistakes made by his teammates the way many elite defensive centers can.

On the offensive end, Dedmon has added a quality jump shot to his respectable catch and finish skills around the rim. Entering this season, Dedmon had taken just one three point attempt in his career (which he missed), but this season is five for 13 from behind the arc. Last season, 72 percent of Dedmon’s field goal attempts came within three feet of the basket while this season, that number is just 32 percent. He is proving to be very reliable with his catch and shoot skills which are extremely important for a big in the Hawks’ offense.

November 6, 2017 — Dedmon and Bellinelli execute the dribble hand off versus Boston which results in a corner three for Dedmon.

Hawks fans might be inclined to appreciate Dedmon more for what type of return he may yield on the trade market than for what he can contribute on the floor in a Hawks uniform. Certainly, the addition of his jump shot will change the value that potential trade partners may assign to him. A team with quality, veteran defenders may see Dedmon as player who could thrive again on the defensive end while adding value on the offensive end as well.

But Dedmon’s role, even for a rebuilding Hawks team, is to handle workload at center in the first unit against opposing first units allowing young players like John Collins to learn and develop while playing more manageable match-ups and minutes.

John Collins

The No. 19 selection in the 2017 draft yielded a young, exciting player who brings energy and explosiveness off the Hawks’ bench leaving many Hawks fans excited about the future of this team. Collins has played 223 minutes (just 51 fewer than Dedmon) and his time on the court is becoming the “must watch” minutes of Hawks’ action.

Collins’ primary responsibility early in this season has been to get comfortable in the screen and dribble hand off actions in the offensive while working his way through a tremendous learning curve on the defensive end. The strength of his game from day one has been his rebounding, especially on the offensive boards. On a per-36 minute basis, Collins is third in the NBA in offensive rebounding (6.1) and eighth in total rebounding (13.6) among players who have played at least 200 minutes.

Offensively, he has been very productive in spite of learning completely new actions in the offense and sometimes struggling to catch the ball in traffic or convert buckets against bigger defenders. Again, on a per-36 minute basis, Collins is second on the team in scoring (18.6) and first on the team in free throw makes (4.7) and attempts (6.3). In his second and final season of college basketball at Wake Forest, Collins was a PER machine. This is already translating to his NBA game as Collins is second on the team in PER (20.6) though he is the Hawks youngest player.

November 3, 2017 - Collins shows his athleticism, raw skills and offensive rebounding skills all in the same play versus Nene and the Rockets.

On the defensive end, Collins has struggles with foul trouble. Learning to play defense at the NBA level is tough for a player his age, even tougher as part of a team that ranks 24th in the league in defensive rating. But the effort and energy is there. As he progresses along his learning curve, his timing and instincts should get much better. Once he is more comfortable, his energy and athleticism should make him an impact player defensively.

Mike Muscala

Muscala, a fan favorite in Atlanta, rejoined the Hawks on two-year deal with the second year being a player option. In his first three seasons with the Hawks, his playing time and role were both sporadic, but last year, his fourth season, he played in a career high 70 games delivering career highs of 6.2 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. Entering the current season, the opportunity for playing time was open wider than ever for Muscala.

Muscala is a stretch big who can space the floor on the offensive end and is willing to play physically on the defensive end and on the boards. So far this season, Muscala has not been able capitalize on the expanded opportunity. His shooting numbers are down from last season and of late he has struggled with an ankle injury which caused him to miss the last two games.

Muscala has never been a strong finisher around the basket which especially hurts him this season. With fewer offensive threats on the floor for the Hawks, opponents devote less attention to help in the middle of the floor. In prior seasons, Paul Millsap and others would command more attention from opposing defenses leaving Muscala more uncontested shots on the perimeter.

Muscala is a contrast to Dedmon. Muscala is easily the better pure shooter, but Dedmon is getting better shooting opportunities because opponents must respect his ability to get to the rim and finish. Dedmon has demonstrated an abilty to catch on the move and convert a jump shot while Muscala is much better as a stationary catch and shoot floor-spacer when his weight is over his feet and he is not catching on the move laterally.

October 16, 2017 - Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon attack the basket leaving a wide-open catch-and-shoot corner three for Mike Muscala versus the Bulls.

Atlanta’s offense has shown signs of improved continuity over their past two games. The emergence of Isaiah Taylor’s aggressive style of attacking the basket might make for a nice pairing with Muscala when he returns from injury. Starting point guard Dennis Schroder does score at the rim often but he is generally blowing past opponents and scoring with defenders behind him. In contrast, Taylor often attacks with defenders in front of him which brings traffic to the middle of the floor and could create more space for a player like Muscala on the perimeter.

Luke Babbitt

With Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala nursing injuries, Luke Babbitt has found himself an expanded role in the Hawks’ rotation. Babbitt’s playing time was intermittent during the Hawks’ first seven games. But he is averaging 29 minutes per game over the last four. Babbitt played a very large role in the Hawks win versus Cleveland on Sunday leading the team with over 41 minutes of play while delivering 17 points.

There is no doubting Babbitt’s shooting ability as he is a career 40.8 percent three point shooter. The Hawks signed Babbitt very late in the summer almost as an afterthought type of roster addition. But its clear that Babbitt’s length and shooting ability are a fit in Coach Budenholzer’s system.

Babbitt started 55 games for Miami last season as Heat Coach Eric Spoelstra opted to used James Johnson off the bench though he would play the bulk of minutes at the power forward position ahead of Babbitt. Still, Babbitt was a key player on a Heat team that finished the season 31-10 in the second half and just missed the playoffs by a tie-breaker.

Early in the season, Babbitt appears to be a hungry player who is playing hard on both ends of the floor. He’s never been noted for his defensive or rebounding abilities but what he lacks in natural ability can be compensated by effort and energy. If Babbitt can deploy the strong team defensive fundamentals that Spoelstra required of him last season, perhaps he can keep himself on the floor this year to bring tremendous value on the offensive end with his ability to shoot the basketball.

November 5, 2017 - Luke Babbit contributes on the defensive end, in the Hawks’ victory over the Cavs, providing rim protection blocking Kevin Love’s shot

Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova, who is a veteran and favorite of Coach Budenholzer, has played just four of the Hawks’ 11 games this season as he works his way back from a knee injury (bone bruise). In his four games of action, Ilyasova has been limited on the offensive end scoring just 5.5 pts in 24.3 minutes per game while shooting 28% from the floor.

Ilyasova’s role is clear. He plays the game exactly the way Coach Budneholzer asks his players to play — committed to ball movement on the offensive and providing unselfish defense on the other end of the floor. His primary job is to be a role model for the other players on the roster demonstrating how to play the game the right way and Coach Bud’s way.

Ilyasova’s contributions this season can measured as much by the development of the players around him as by his contributions on the court. If Ilyasova returns from injury and his playing time is squeezed by other players on the roster, this is a good development because it indicates other players are playing well at the four and five spots and that Budenholzer is pleased with what he is getting from them.

Miles Plumlee

Plumlee was acquired with Marco Belinelli in the trade that sent Dwight Howard to the Hornets. Plumlee has not played due to a quadricep injury and is expected to miss several more weeks. Barring injuries to other players, Plumlee is not likely to see many rotational minutes.

Looking Ahead

As the season progresses, production and playing time at the center and power forward positions will be a very interesting story line for the Hawks. Collins’ growth and development certainly is the most important piece of this equation but the evolution and contributions of this entire group of players are very important, regardless of where this team finishes in the standings.