In this two-part series, I’ll be looking at the Atlanta Hawks from a big-picture perspective, diving into each of the team’s key players as well as discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the squad and where the team is in their rebuilding process. This is Part 2—check for Part 1 if you missed it, posted on Sunday.
Is Taurean Prince making strides?
Coming off some impressive performances in the playoff series against the Wizards last season, hopes were high that Prince would take a giant step forward this season. During the regular season last year, Prince made just ten starts and played 16.6 minutes per game. He didn’t see consistent playing time until late in the season and the majority of his minutes came in the last two and a half months of the season. As a result, this season would have some elements of a rookie season for Prince, especially in terms of on-court experience and performance.
On the defensive end, Prince simply plays on a team that is near the bottom of the league defensively. It is tough to assess an indivdual player’s defensive impact when they play on a bad defensive team. Currently, Prince’s defensive rating (109.0) is pretty level with the team’s defensive rating. He has to be better than that. The Hawks should be a better defensive team when he is on the floor than when he is not. A great measuring stick for him might be where his defensive rating stands with regards to the teams’ defensive rating.
In the same vein, a comparison might be Robert Covington of the Philadelphia 76ers. Covington has developed a reputation for being one of the league’s better defenders. His defensive rating has not always reflected that. But last season, Covington’s defensive rating was 103.3 which was 3.1 points better than the Sixers’ team defensive rating. This year, the Sixers have improved to a defensive rating of 104.2 while Covington’s has improved to 100.9, 3.3 points better than the team’s rating. As the Sixers’ defense gets better, Covington’s defensive indicators get better as well.
Prince clearly needs to make strides on the defensive end but it would not be fair to assess the Hawks’ defensive struggles directly to him. The Hawks have been plagued with injuries, especially among the team’s bigs putting more pressure on the the wing defenders. As the Hawks defense has struggled even more without their full complement of the roster’s big men, Prince’s defensive metrics are trending in a positive direction.
December 9 - In a win over Orlando, Prince almost comes up with the pass deflected by DeAndre’ Bembry but then recovers to get the block, collect the rebound and draw a foul on Magic rookie Wesley Iwundu.
On the offensive end, Prince has been one of the Hawks most consistent performers. Transitioning into a starting role, it was expected his defensive game might be ahead of his offensive game. However, he is second on the team in scoring (12.8 per game) and his three-point shooting has been a very pleasant surprise (42.5 percent). Throughout the early part of this season, Prince has been able to maintain his scoring while taking progressively fewer shots. Simply, he is becoming a more efficient offensive player.
In addition to his scoring, his rebounds and assists are on the rise while his turnovers are decreasing. All signs point to Prince evolving his offensive game in the right direction. His strongest offensive performance of the season came this past Tuesday in Cleveland (24 points, 8-for-10 shooting, seven rebounds and six assists).
The biggest question surrounding Prince is whether he can be a threat on the offensive end with the ball in his hands. The Hawks’ offense struggles most when the primary actions in the Hawks’ offense does not produce a quality look. The current Hawks’ team has limited options in terms of players who can put the ball on the floor and create a shot for himself. The Hawks need Prince to become an option in these situations much the way Paul Millsap was able to score off the dribble going head to head versus NBA defenders.
December 12 - Prince goes head to head versus Cleveland’s Kevin Love and gets the bucket on a running hook shot.
As we move through the rest of the season, positive developments for Prince would be continuing to shoot well with perhaps increasing his scoring load just a bit by creating some shots for himself, continuing the trend of becoming more efficient on the offensive end, working on the boards to help the Hawks become a better defensive rebounding team (the Hawks are allowing the third-most offensive rebounds per game), and seeing the Hawks improve on the defensive end (hoping to see Prince’s defensive rating get better as the team defensive rating gets better).
Can DeAndre Bembry become a strong enough offensive player to earn more minutes?
There are few question marks about Bembry’s defensive game. He is a tough, long defender who can guard multiple positions. He defends the passing lanes very well. He is excellent at defending ball handlers and working across screens without losing contact with his opponent. The questions about Bembry’s game lie on the offensive end.
Bembry’s season started with an injury in the first game of the year, which prevented him from taking the court again until the team’s 16th game. After appearing in just 38 games last season and playing less than ten minutes per game, this season, like Prince’s, has a lot of elements of a rookie season. The injury only delayed his ability to find a rhythm and work himself into Mike Budenholzer’s core bench rotation.
Bembry does have some strong offensive skills. He can break down the defense with his dribble, can get himself to the basket in the half court and is an excellent passer. But he is the most turnover-prone player on the team and his shooting numbers are not strong (39.2 FG percentage, 31.3 3P percentage, 63.2 FT percentage). However, his three point shooting and free throw percentage have improved compared to his rookie season.
The bottom line is the Hawks are a better offensive team than defensive team and Bembry is one of the Hawks’ best defenders. As the defensive struggles continue, Budenholzer should be able to rely on Bembry to play longer stretches. In order to do that, Bembry has to play cleaner basketball on the offensive end. Shooting and turnovers can certainly be the result of a lack of rhythm coming off the injury. But 15 games should be plenty to have found that rhythm by now.
December 6 - Bembry commits one of his six turnovers in the Hawks’ overtime loss to Orlando.
The Hawks certainly do not expect him to put up big offensive numbers, but they need him to not give possessions away. He has to find a way to use his ability to create off the dribble without turning the ball over. The game of basketball is about capitalizing on possessions. Turnovers give possessions away and often result in easy transition baskets for opponents.
Moving forward through the season, Bembry’s minutes will truly be an indicator of his progress. If he can play well enough on offense to work himself up to 20+ minutes per game, then he can use his remarkable defensive tools to impact the game. Between now and the trade deadline in February, the Hawks could move a player which could result in more opportunity for Bembry to be on the floor. He needs to prove now that he is ready before that opportunity potentially arrives.
Can John Collins be more than a dunker and rebounder on the offensive end ?
This season, we have already taken two deep looks at Collins’ progress and might have taken a third look by now if it were not for his injury. Collins has been an exciting story to follow this season. He has taken clear steps forward on both ends of the floor and continues to bring energy and production.
While Collins should have a very bright future in a Hawks uniform, a question that should began to clear up as the season progresses is whether he can be more than a strong, complementary player on the offensive end.
We could argue that Collins is already more than a complementary player on offense. He leads the team in PER and his per-36 numbers are among the team’s best. What is remarkable is that he has achieved this by purely being a receiver in the Hawks offense, mostly from catching and finishing around the rim and by creating opportunities for himself on the offensive boards.
It’s impressive to see a young player who does not press in the offense, does not command the ball and does not need the ball in his hands to produce. Young players often struggle to strike the balance between playing aggressively with energy without forcing things, but Friday night’s game in Memphis was a great example. Collins had very few opportunities on the offensive end (two points on two FGA) but still contributed with seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and four blocks in 24 minutes.
December 15 - rather than forcing the action versus Memphis’ Marc Gasol, Collins makes the pass to Belinelli for the layup.
All of that said, if Collins is to become an elite player on offense, he will have to be more than a receiver of the offensive action. He’ll need to be a guy who can makes things happen with ball. He does not have to become a point forward who runs the offense, but he does need to be a consistent shooter from the perimeter and he needs to be able to score one on one against post defenders.
Ultimately, if he could also create shots for himself off the dribble, he could become an elite offensive player, but he has much ground to cover before he approaches that level.
Though he has struggled with the consistency on his jump shot, he should profile as a good, and maybe excellent, shooter for a player his size. His footwork and the speed of his release have improved this season and his shots should start falling more consistently as a result. The Hawks have not relied on him, or anyone else, as a post player this season so far. It will be interesting to see if they integrate some post play for Collins into the offense at some point.
On the defensive end, Collins has made tremendous strides. Early in the season, his timing on help and rotations was what you would expect from a 20-year-old rookie, but his instincts have improved tremendously. He has cut down his fouls. He has improved as a rim protector and he actively plays the passing lanes. Even his one-on-one defense versus bigger players in the post has improved.
The bottom line is that Collins is a terrific athlete and a very coachable young man. His progress this season alone will not dictate his success as an NBA player. But if the Hawks are to progress towards winning over the next 2-3 seasons, the progress Collins makes this season is very important.
Yes, it will be interesting to see if Isaiah Taylor makes himself a long-term option as a backup point guard. It would be great to see Tyler Cavanaugh prove he can defend and rebound enough to keep himself in the game enough to make an impact with his shooting. And there other story lines as well as we work our way through the rest of roster from Malcolm Delaney to Tyler Dorsey.
But, what the Hawks do today, tomorrow and for the balance of the season is important. It directly impacts what the Hawks will be able to accomplish next season and beyond. Whether the Hawks become this year’s version of last years’ Miami Heat or whether they win only a handful of games the rest of the way, it all matters. And I would contend its worth watching and perhaps is more compelling than another 40-something win season with only a pie-in-the-sky optimism for post-season success.