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Hawks University and efficiency in player development

The Hawks have become known as being one of the top teams in the NBA for developing young talent, thanks to a culture change led by Coach Mike Budenholzer and his staff.

Brooklyn Nets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the greatest decisions in Atlanta Hawks franchise history happened on May 28, 2013 when the team decided to make Mike Budenholzer their head coach. Since that day the Hawks have become among the most well-known teams for developing talent and playing “team basketball.”

The idea of playing basketball as a unit instead of through one specific superstar is one that was perfected by Budenholzer’s mentor Gregg Popovich, who mentored Budenholzer for 18 seasons with in San Antonio. Another massively important part of building successful basketball teams is player development which, yet again, has been mastered in San Antonio, where they turn out playoff teams season after season with new players in flux every season.

It is clear that Budenholzer wanted to bring this culture into his Atlanta locker room and the results to this point have been outstanding with the Hawks making a couple of deep playoff runs that Atlanta fans have not been used to in the past. It is also very clear that Budenholzer is a defense-first coach and believes that good defense will lead to easy offense. With this mindset in Atlanta’s franchise as they begin to retool their team, fans should be very excited for what is to come and what is already happening.

Developing Draft Picks

We will begin with Coach Budenholzer’s first draft class in 2013. The Hawks used one of their first-round picks on Dennis Schroder with the No. 17 overall selection, perhaps you’ve heard of him. In Schroder’s pre-draft scouting reports, it was noted that he had some nice tools, a quick first step, a working jump shot and good speed, but was also said to be one of the most raw prospects in the draft that season.

After coming to Atlanta in his age-20 rookie season, Schroder didn’t see much playing time, averaging just 13 minutes per game, but again showed the tools that warranted the Hawks using their first-round pick on him. Schroder saw an increased role in the 2014-15 season when Atlanta made their run to the Eastern Conference Playoffs and was outstanding for the Hawks, posting 10 points per game to go along with 4.1 assists in nearly 20 minutes per game backing up Jeff Teague.

After the effort posted in 2014-15, the young German posted another fine season as the backup to Teague, so fine a season in fact, that the Hawks decided to hand the keys to Schroder after the next campaign. In Schroder’s first full season starting, he continued to improve, posting nearly 18 points per game to go with 6.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds posting a VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) of 0.8. In 2017, Schroder is on his way to his best season yet nearly surpassing his VORP from a season ago in 17 less games played.

When Schroder came to the Hawks, no one could have rationally expected him to become a starter for an NBA team, often scrutinizing his lack of size on defense and inability to make sound decisions distributing the ball. But Budenholzer and his staff of coaches have done an amazing job of maximizing the talents Schroder does possess, like being able to get to the rim at will and finish on the glass. His turnovers per game are down nearly a full point from last season even with an increased work load and his defense is making progress contrary to popular belief as he continues to learn to play the passing lanes averaging more than one steal per game for the first time in his career.

The Hawks traded away their other first round pick in 2013 to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Lucas Nogueira, Jared Cunningham, and Mike Muscala. “Moose,” as he is affectionately known as now by Hawks fans, came to Atlanta as a rookie taken in the second round with little to no expectations. At 22 years old in his first season, he didn’t really get to see the floor much but worked with the Atlanta staff on his ability to shoot the ball and use his frame on the defensive end.

In season two of Muscala’s career, he saw action in 40 games, playing nearly 13 minutes a game and impressively shooting 40 percent from three as a legit NBA stretch five that could move his feet well and be a perimeter defender. The Hawks zeroed in on this skill set and turned Muscala into a bonafide mismatch on traditional fives, pulling big men out of the paint on offense with his impressive shooting, but still defending well by using the verticality rule with his good wingspan and height to challenge shots both inside and on the perimeter. His work load has steadily increased every season since coming to Atlanta and the Hawks do a great job of picking the situations for Muscala to be successful in while continuing to hone his game into possibly becoming a starter in the future.

Next, we will look at another player the Hawks basically selected with a NBA Draft night trade deal. When scouting Taurean Prince before the draft, many evaluators were quick to note his strong frame and physical tools that made him attractive to teams but criticized his play-making abilities and turnover rate.

When Prince came to Atlanta in 2016, it was clear he had every tool necessary to aid the Hawks in their next playoff run as he posted nearly six points per game showing an ability to knock down the long ball and develop into a great defender able to switch in Coach Budenholzer’s switch heavy scheme. This season in Prince’s first full season starting fans have been able to watch him blossom into a legitimate 3 and D player with an ability to create for others and is showing an ability to become a force in the NBA with gaining consistency.

It seems Hawks assistant coach Darvin Ham and teammate Kent Bazemore (more to come on the veteran swingman) have been fantastic for helping Prince’s development to this point. Budenholzer has also shown Prince that his full trust is in the 23-year-old, giving him the starting small forward job and Prince has responded in a big way showing his ability to go for 30 points on any given night or contain the opponent’s best wing when locked in defensively. The jury may be out on Prince’s upside but, given Atlanta’s player development success under Budenholzer, there is every reason to believe Prince will become another tantalizing success story.

Even in the 2017 NBA Draft class, fans are seeing the amazing work of the Hawks development staff in rookies John Collins and Tyler Dorsey. At the ripe age of just 20 years old, Collins is already learning the ropes of becoming an NBA certified stud.

The Hawks have streamlined Collins’ development by throwing him straight into the fire in a rough season and Collins has impressed big time posting 10.3 points per game to go with 7 rebounds in just 22 minutes per game. Under the tutelage of assistant coach Ben Sullivan and veteran big men Ersan Ilyasova and Dewayne Dedmon, Collins is learning how to put his athleticism to use on both ends of the floor with his biggest knock coming out of Wake Forest being that he couldn’t defend. Collins has most definitely smashed that notion posting a VORP of 1 to go along with a 0.4 OBPM (Offensive Box Plus/Minus) and a 1.3 DBPM (Defensive Box Plus/Minus).

Tyler Dorsey has been no slouch either in his rookie campaign, turning his G League playing time into an NBA rotation spot. Dorsey was drafted by the Hawks in the second round after a two-season stint at Oregon with consecutive tournament appearances.

Dorsey again is another player perfect for Kent Bazemore to mentor and be around and has taken to his role beautifully coming off the bench to hit 38 percent of his three pointers and showing an ability to create off the dribble as a wing which is essential in the Budenholzer pass-heavy offense. Dorsey is definitely going to benefit from being around assistant coaches Chris Jent and Taylor Jenkins who will definitely work with Dorsey to use his great athleticism on defense and to perfect his jumper from beyond the arc.

Developing Non-Draft Picks and “The Hawks Cycle”

The Hawks have not only built a reputation for drafting their own talent to develop but have also become well respected in taking young players and maximizing their talents where other teams could not. This ability is a must-have for a team like the Hawks in a smaller market that isn’t able to go out and compete for big name free agents like the Los Angeles teams or New York teams. This was best shown in the Hawks historic 60-win season in Coach Budenholzer’s second season, with the team where true team basketball was put on display every night in Atlanta in beautiful fashion.

Possibly the most vital cog the Hawks have had since Joe Johnson was traded away from Atlanta was Paul Millsap who signed with Atlanta in the summer of 2013. Millsap came to the Hawks as an already established 27-year-old after his seven seasons in Utah with the label of being an average starting power forward.

In Millsap’s first season under Budenholzer and his staff, he began to start taking three pointers at a higher volume than any other point in his career and shot pretty well, knocking down 36 percent of his three pointers. This newly minted ability to shoot the three ball came as a result of the heavy ball movement the Hawks prioritize in what could be called “The Hawks Cycle.”

The Hawks Cycle is predicated on the basis of defensive execution with offense coming in the form of uncontested shots via good team passing and it clicked for Millsap. As Millsap’s shooting percentages increased with the Hawks, so did his assist rate and as a result, Millsap garnered his first All-Star appearance in 2013-14. The Hawks and Millsap did not stop there as the following season Paul was an All-Star again. In fact, for all four seasons that Paul Millsap was an Atlanta Hawk, he also was an Eastern Conference All-Star, becoming one of the top players in the entire league.

As Millsap progressed, it seemed as though the Hawks progressed with him. Signing Paul was not only good for winning in the present but also for the Hawks future. While surely Millsap is likely thankful for the lessons Budenholzer and his staff taught him, the converse is also true as watching the development of Paul has aided the Hawks in gaining a reputation as a team known for developing quality forwards.

Another fantastic free agent signing by the Hawks was DeMarre Carroll, who came to Atlanta in his age 27 season after bouncing around the league for several unproductive years. Carroll was a unique case as he was still basically a raw prospect coming to the Hawks in 2013, never experiencing any real success or meaningful playing time.

In Carroll’s first season with Atlanta, he played well, seeing a massive uptick in three-point attempts per game and hitting them at a 36 percent clip. The Hawks focused in on his shooting ability and Carroll continued his great play in the Hawks 60-win season in 2014-15, garnering even more notice as an elite three-point shooter after hitting 40% of his threes that season.

Atlanta’s system was perfect for a player like Carroll as he saw a lot of open shots and really became the teams best one on one defender with his good size and athleticism. Carroll benefited greatly from playing in Atlanta signing a four-year, $60 million contract with Toronto the following offseason. By the VORP advanced metric, Carroll experienced his far and away best NBA seasons with the Hawks posting a 2.4 rating in 2013-14 and a 2.7 in 2014-15. Aside from those two seasons with Atlanta, Carroll has never posted above a 1.4 VORP in any other season.

The Hawks are also developing free agent talent before our very eyes this season with big man Dewayne Dedmon as the prime example. Before coming to the Hawks this season, Dedmon played with a few different teams never getting to see much action and playing mostly as a backup center around the league.

When evaluating Dewayne, it is easy to see that his size is fantastic, and his athletic ability is a plus so this season the Hawks have focused on that with an added twist. Before coming to Atlanta, the former USC standout had attempted exactly one three pointer in his entire career but has attempted 71 this season and astonishingly has hit 38% of them adding another dimension to his game. This newly unlocked potential to shoot from distance may have actually saved Dewayne Dedmon’s career. It will be interesting to see if Dedmon decides to sign with the Hawks long-term looking to further his development with the chance to become a possible All-Star some day much like the career path of Paul Millsap.

Without further ado, we move on to arguably the Hawks crown jewel of player development and quite possibly the player the Hawks have invested in the most, Kent Bazemore. Kent came into the league as an undrafted free agent in 2012 and signed with the Golden State Warriors where he rarely played. Golden State traded Bazemore to the Lakers in 2013 and he played pretty well for Los Angeles before signing with Atlanta in the offseason.

After coming to Atlanta, Bazemore assumed a bench role in the Hawks 60-win season and played decently while learning the new system in Atlanta on the fly. In 2015-16, the Hawks promoted Bazemore to the starting lineup, where he flourished showing his athleticism on both ends of the court and, with Budenholzer encouraged him to let it fly, knocked down 36 percent of his three pointers playing his way into a second contract with the Hawks. Baze continued to play well last season while dealing with a knee injury but really has sprouted into form this season posting his career high in points per game with 13, shooting 40% from beyond the arc and averaging nearly four assists per game.

With Bazemore, the coaching staff really saw a lot they liked. They worked on his jumper to perfect a clean repeatable motion that has Bazemore shooting some of the best percentages of his career. Another focus the team has made is unlocking Kent’s ability to make plays for others by playing him at point guard some to help develop his dribbling and passing skills. Bazemore is a prime example of how Budenholzer and his staff like dissect a player’s best attributes and focus on perfecting those skills first and then working on the rest of a player’s game.

The Hawks have become among the NBA’s elite player development teams which should scare the rest of the NBA. With the Hawks having three first round picks in the 2018 NBA Draft and two more first round picks in the 2019 Draft, the future looks bright for Atlanta.

The one thing missing from the Hawks that Coach Budenholzer has voiced in the past as needed is continuity. With the Hawks opening up their payroll for the future and getting younger, the sky is the limit for what the Budenholzer/Schlenk administration can accomplish.

If one thing is for sure, it is that the Hawks are in a unique position right now of having talent on the roster and flexibility for the future and are clearly building for the long haul to contention.