Preseason results generally mean nothing. Veteran players, coaches and teams view these games as nothing more than a tune up — especially given the fact that the the NBA preseason has been shortened to just a handful of games. But for a young team with a first-year head coach and three rookie first-round picks on the roster, these games are an important opportunity to get some work in a new system on both ends of the floor as well as to give young players some on-the-job training before the regular season gets started,
Three games are not enough to start drawing conclusions about this year’s Hawks. But we can make some observations. Let’s have a look.
Trae Young is not intimidated
Trae Young will be playing under as bright a spotlight as any Hawks’ rookie has in years. He is a high profile player and the fact the Hawks essentially traded down from the Luka Doncic pick in favor of Young makes the glare of that spotlight even more powerful. This reality was evident even in summer league when the national media seemed to micro-analyze every play he did or did not make.
Given the circumstances, it may be understandable if Young were to enter the season feeling a little overwhelmed or intimidated. Thus far, he has shown no sign of this.
In the Hawks’ second preseason game, Young was tested as he matched up with Grizzlies’ veteran point guard Mike Conley. On the games’ first possession, with the shot clock running down, Conley took advantage of Young’s inexperience by subtly drawing contact resulting in a foul on Young and a fresh shot clock for Memphis.
Rather than cower in some level of embarrassment, Young looked for an opportunity to get even. A little more than a minute later, on the Hawks’ second possession, Young gave Conley a dose of his own medicine by initiating contact above the top of the key forcing the officials to make the same call that earned Young his first foul.
Later in the first half, Young drew another foul on Conley with an up-and-under, a move that veterans typically use to exploit less-experienced players. In total, Young parlayed his early foul into three first-half fouls on his veteran counterpart resulting in four free throws, all made.
These specific plays may be somewhat nuanced to the casual observer. But for an under-sized, extremely young point guard, the nuances are everything. At times during his rookie season, Young will struggle with turnovers, missed shots and even fouls. It is critical that he demonstrate the ability to quickly move on to the next play without any carryover in mental approach or body language. So far in this preseason, Young has done just that and that is very good sign for the Hawks and their young point guard.
John Collins is a power forward
For much of his rookie season, John Collins played center. Later in the season, Collins started spending time on the floor with traditional centers. Still, throughout his first season, there were many indications the Hawks viewed Collins as a player who could play four or five but with strong indications he would be developed as a five.
In the Hawks’ first preseason game vs. the Pelicans, Collins spent most of his time on the floor with a traditional center, Alex Len or Miles Plumlee. Even when Collins was on the floor with Alex Poythress, Collins seemed to stay in the traditional power forward spot. The question would be what role would Collins play when paired with a non-traditional center at the other big spot on the floor.
On Friday versus the Grizzlies, Omari Spellman made his first appearance after sitting out the preseason opener versus the Pelicans. Spellman entered the game midway through the first quarter. Collins and Spellman would need to match up with Grizzlies’ veteran center Marc Gasol and rookie power forward, Jaren Jackson Jr. It was Spellman who took the Gasol assignment while Collins matched up with Jackson.
Now, matchups could be changed or switched in a moment’s notice. But, it was interesting to notice that when Collins was paired with Spellman, Collins stayed in his four spot. This could be an indication that as the Hawks try to develop Collins as a cornerstone player, they want him to have the stability of primarily playing one position.
Further, as one of the Hawks’ primary offensive weapons, the Hawks could be trying to keep Collins from playing the five where physical play, wear and tear and even potential foul trouble could impact his offensive game or perhaps even his minutes on the floor.
The door is wide open for Alex Len
Alex Len was signed rather late in the summer. After five seasons with the Suns, the former 5th overall pick clearly found himself with his career off track and looking for an NBA home. Late in the summer, with most teams sporting mostly full rosters and little cap space, Len found a home with the Hawks.
As Dewayne Dedmon works his way back from injury, Len is playing with the starting unit and working to make the most of his opportunity. While many teams have to go to a smaller lineup to play fast, the Hawks have been able to play fast with Len on the floor. And, after demonstrating a very limited perimeter shooting game in Phoenix, Len is taking and making jump shots so far. All in all, Len is playing respectable basketball so far.
It would be a surprise to see Len maintain his starting role when Dedmon returns. However, as Dedmon is playing in the last year of his contract and being a potential trade candidate as the season rolls along, the Hawks could choose to be more invested in Alex Len given his affordable two year contract.
The bottom line is that Alex Len is poised to play plenty of minutes and could be an integral player as part of the rebuilding process for the Hawks.
The Hawks are playing lightning fast
Throughout his five year tenure with the Hawks, Mike Budenholzer consistently implored his team to play faster. His teams ranked as high as 8th and as low as 15th in pace. It is interesting to note that it was the 60-win season in 2014-15 when the Hawks ranked 15th with a pace of 94.6. Last season, the Hawks’ pace of 98.9 ranked 8th fastest in the NBA.
Through three preseason games, the Hawks have played at a pace of 113.2, which ranks second, only behind the Pelicans. Even after an opponents’ score, the Hawks are clearly making the effort to inbound and advance the ball as quickly as possible.
Gone are the days of Dennis Schröder walking the ball up the floor possession after possession. The Lloyd Pierce-led Hawks are clearly looking to play fast, put pressure on the defense and look for opportunities to get transition baskets, even when bringing the ball in after a score.
The Hawks are playing aggressively
In another contrast with the Budenholzer era, the Hawks are playing unfettered basketball on the offensive end of the court. While Bud wanted the Hawks to play fast, he stressed flawless decision making and execution on offense. His lack of patience with young players and the mistakes they make while learning the game resulted in a strong preference for veteran players.
Young players under Budenholzer clearly played with yellow light and red light shooting restrictions in some situations. In a stark difference, Lloyd Pierce has the team playing in attack mode with the goal of getting the ball to the paint, breaking down the defense, getting a layup or dunk or finding the open shooters on the perimeter.
It must be noted here that Budenholzer runs a proven offensive system that is well respected around the league and is expected to reap rewards with his new team, the Milwaukee Bucks. However, it is a system that relies on floor spacing with lots of ball movement and screen action around the perimeter.
So far, the Lloyd Pierce offense is an attack offense. Right or wrong, it is a change. A young team playing in an attack offense is likely to be error prone. As a result, the young Hawks may rank near the bottom of the league in turnovers. But in the long run, as the Hawks build a an uptempo team with shooters spaced around the floor, the aggressive offensive system may just be a perfect fit.