Hawks basketball was finally back in Atlanta, as the full team took the floor for the first time since mid-April when the New Orleans Pelicans came to town for the Hawks’ opening preseason contest. With 13 of the 20 players on the roster new to the club this season, Monday’s game was the first chance for many to see the 2018-19 Hawks.
With all the caveats that always apply to preseason play, the team looked as though they gelled quite well, especially on the offensive end of the floor. The final result saw the Hawks on the high side by a score of 116-102, though it must be mentioned that Atlanta’s run in the second half to take control of the game came largely against the Pelicans’ backup unit, as the visitors at McCamish Pavilion played 16 different players and gave the large majority of minutes in the final two quarters to their lower-level guys. Still, there were encouraging signs for the Hawks on both ends of the floor as the newcomers are still getting settled with their new teammates and schemes.
Naturally, the primary focus of Monday’s events centered on Trae Young, the fifth overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Young had mixed success in Summer League stints in Utah and Las Vegas, which continued against the Pelicans. His rookie year is bound to be a roller coaster given his skill set and shot selection and his first preseason game gave viewers the full spectrum – he finished just 5-for-16 from the field and 1-for-6 from beyond the three-point line but notched eight assists to just two turnovers and wasn’t as overwhelmed as expected on the defensive end.
Head coach Lloyd Pierce praised Young’s passing acumen in his post-game comments, telling reporters that Young’s “greatest skill is that he can facilitate. He can find guys and when you have a player with the ability to do that…he’s fun to play with.”
Young’s night was highlighted by an off-the-backboard alley oop to John Collins in pick-and-roll, which perhaps best encapsulates the immense confidence with which Young plays on a nightly basis:
Most players don’t have the audacity to try something like that in transition with nobody around. To do it in pick-and-roll through traffic is borderline insane, but that’s the sort of play the Hawks expect of Young, especially when he’s working with Collins.
Collins played just short of 20 minutes in the opening preseason contest but was busy during his time on the floor. He stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points to go along with three rebounds, two assists, and a steal, and generally looked just as athletic and energetic as he did throughout his rookie year.
While Young was the main talking point going into the game, the spotlight was quickly stolen by do-it-all wing DeAndre’ Bembry, who got his third season with the Hawks off on the right foot with a fantastic performance in every area of the game. Bembry finished with 20 points, five boards, four assists, and a steal, but it was the manner in which he affected the game that excited the crowd and viewers at home.
After losing a majority of last season to injury, his future with the club is still up in the air, but more performances like what we saw on Monday will solidify his place in the rotation going into the 2018-19 season. To those of us who enjoy his work, it was extremely encouraging to see him well ahead of fellow fringe guard Tyler Dorsey in the Hawks’ rotation in the first game, though it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a single preseason game.
Still, Bembry looked the part of the player the Hawks drafted more than two years ago with his ability to collapse the defense and get into the paint at will. Pierce had only good things to say about Bembry after the game: “[He’s] the only guy I know for sure can get in the paint. He doesn’t need a pick-and-roll, he doesn’t need anything. He needs the basketball…you gotta find ways to get him the basketball.”
While recovering from the latest in a long line of freak injuries, Bembry spent a lot of his time this summer rehabbing in Atlanta, giving him the first look at Pierce’s offense. Even though he wasn’t able to get out on the court, he didn’t let that deter him from learning the ins and outs of the offense.
That time served him well on Monday night, as he was asked to play the point guard position for a time and acquitted himself very well in that increased role. Ultimately, Bembry profiles as more of a secondary playmaker than a primary ball handler, but the fact that he knows the offense well enough to step into the point guard spot is absolutely a positive for the Hawks, especially as they carry just two point guards into the 2018-19 season.
Atlanta played 14 of their 15 healthy players in the contest, leaving only camp invite Cole Aldrich on the bench throughout. Aldrich will likely get his chance later on in the preseason, but Alex Poythress was given some extended run at the center position in both halves, an alignment which was unexpected but welcome.
Pierce has made a point of saying publicly that he wants the team to play fast and even mentioned after the game that even the 117.3 pace in Monday’s game wasn’t fast enough for him. Poythress certainly checks that box for Pierce, as he was able to get out in transition and generally played with the same energy the Hawks usually see from Collins. He had his issues, especially on the defensive end, but his motor and Pierce’s willingness to play him at center in the very first preseason game might be indicative of his role throughout the season, especially as multiple big men are sidelined with various injuries.
In general, the Hawks played well on both sides of the floor, notching 32 assists on 48 made baskets as the ball zipped all over the floor through multiple ball handlers – only Taurean Prince, Thomas Robinson, and Vince Carter failed to register an assist in the contest. Those 32 assists came despite the team shooting just 8-for-33 from beyond the three-point line, a mark that should regress back toward the league-wide average as they play more games.
Unlike the Pelicans, who played their second game in as many nights on Monday, the Hawks don’t see the floor again until Friday, at which point they’ll take on the Memphis Grizzlies in a game that will pit Young against fellow rookie point guard and Big 12 alumnus Jevon Carter. Once again, it will have to be a team effort for the Hawks to continue to build trust and experience together going into the regular season.