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Travis Schlenk, Atlanta Hawks execute controversial plan in 2018 NBA Draft

After a few odd steps, Hawks present both upside and risk.

2018 NBA Draft Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

For the first time in more than a decade, the Atlanta Hawks entered the NBA Draft with a premium asset on the table. Teams that reach the postseason rarely posses top-flight draft capital and, when they do (i.e. the Boston Celtics in recent years), it comes as a result of luck and/or a heist scenario in which the stars align to produce a trade result that locks in beautifully. As a result, Atlanta’s lengthy playoff streak kept the team from having the opportunity to add premium talent through the draft and, even with some strong personnel moves along the way, there is nothing quite like a top-end draft pick when searching for potentially elite talent.

The 2018 draft was seen as a strong class, both at the top and from a depth perspective, leaving the Hawks in a favorable position even before the proceedings began. Then, Atlanta seemingly caught something of a break with the Sacramento Kings selected Duke’s Marvin Bagley III with the No. 2 pick, leaving the door open for the Hawks to nab the player many (including myself) ranked as the top overall prospect available in Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic.

By now, though, you know the story didn’t end there, as GM Travis Schlenk elected to fulfill what he described as his two primary goals for the evening while consummating a trade with the Dallas Mavericks to secure Oklahoma’s Trae Young and a 2019 first round draft choice with light protection.

“Two of our goals in the next few years here are to accumulate as many assets as we can and to get as much talent as we can,” Schlenk said following the draft. “Luka’s a heck of a player, we’d be happy with him, Trae’s a heck of a player. Obviously, we’re excited to have him, and when the opportunity came to pick up a first-round pick from the Mavericks, it just kinda made sense to accomplish both goals with one move.”

While the debate between Young and Doncic will likely rage for years in Dallas and, especially, Atlanta, the final evaluation from Schlenk and the front office appeared to center on a pure value calculation. In short, the front office saw something of a close race between Doncic and Young and, with that on the table, elected to pull the trigger on a move that accomplished the best of both worlds... at least on paper.

“To us, when you look at both players, they were both the best two playmakers in the draft,” Schlenk said of Doncic and Young. “Being able to make other people better with their passing ability, what they can both do in pick-and-rolls, they were both extremely intriguing. In all honesty, our group was really, really split between the two. It certainly wasn’t clear-cut, but getting the asset and we’re extremely excited about Trae, have been all year long, so I think it was a combination of both things, being able to accomplish both goals: get an asset and get a guy we’re extremely excited about.”

Swift reactions flooded the marketplace on the heels of the trade and, to put it plainly, the reviews essentially centered on how individual analysts evaluated the two players involved before the draft even began. For those higher on Doncic, the package was widely seen as not quite enough, while skeptics of the Slovenian wunderkind provided optimism with the deal, citing another swing in 2019 (or beyond, depending on where the Mavericks land in next year’s draft pecking order) and a narrow gap in talent.

Ultimately, only the benefit of time and additional information will provide clarity on the value of the move but, given Schlenk’s stated evaluation of both players, his actions make sense. There was reporting, albeit in mixed fashion, prior to the draft that something of a rift developed in Atlanta’s front office, with ownership centering on a specific prospect (thought to be Young) and the basketball operations staff seeing another path forward. The actual delineation of opinion may never be known but, if a pure basketball decision was made that Young and Doncic occupy a similar tier, it makes all the sense in the world to pull the trigger on the deal that transpired.

If, however, other factors were in play, the assessment is muddied. Young is an appealing prospect in many ways but high on the list is his ability to score at a high rate based on perimeter shooting, particularly off the dribble. That is a skill set that is in high demand in today’s NBA and, beyond that, it is also an appealing profile for a player that could inject life into the fan base. Young’s passing is perhaps his best trait and the combination of factors leading to a potential offensive superstar could be scintillating for decision-makers, particularly at the ownership level, looking to bring an influx of added attention to the proceedings.

Regardless, the selection of Young and Schlenk’s comments after the draft paint a picture of Atlanta’s plan for the evening and it involved a particular focus on the offensive end, especially in the area of perimeter shooting.

“As far as (Young’s) shooting, as I’ve mentioned from day one when I got here, we’re looking for skilled players,” Schlenk indicated. “When you look at the league today, you need guys out on the floor that can shoot, that can dribble, that can pass. All three of these guys can shoot, even Spellman for a big can put the ball on the floor, pump-fake, and get by his defender. Trae led the country in assists and Kevin is a good ball handler for a wing player. We’re looking for multi-dimensional players that can play the way we want to play up and down and an exciting brand of basketball.”

There is, of course, nothing ground-breaking with Schlenk’s assessment that highly skilled players are in demand but Atlanta’s trio of draft picks back up that sentiment. Young’s profile is more publicly understood and he is arguably the most famous player in the class. In the case of Maryland’s Kevin Huerter and Villanova’s Omari Spellman, though, Schlenk and the front office seemingly prioritized perimeter shooting, potentially at the expense of other factors.

Huerter, who connected on 42 percent of his threes a season ago, is one of the best shooters in the entire class and, at 6’7, he brings legitimate size and an encouraging profile to the table. He is currently dealing with a hand injury that will sideline him through the summer and keep him out of the festivities in Utah and Las Vegas, but those evaluating Huerter have come to a consensus in the area of his shooting as an unquestioned plus.

As for Spellman, the pick at No. 30 was widely considered a reach, albeit to differing degrees. Some, including myself, pegged Spellman as a mid-to-late second round pick and, even as a player always likely to be drafted, a first-round investment of guaranteed money over multiple years was more than likely unwarranted. Still, he fits the bill snugly when it comes to Schlenk’s stated desires, as Spellman made 43 percent of his threes during one season at Villanova and he brings arguably the best range of any big man available in Atlanta’s latter pick range.

With the investment and prioritization in shooting, though, comes the potential risk of issues elsewhere and the defensive end of the floor could be the opportunity cost. Young’s defensive question marks are well-chronicled and, even as Schlenk praised the point guard for his “above average quickness,” he noted that Young must get stronger on both ends of the floor and even joked that “it would be great if Trae grew six inches by the time he gets (to Atlanta) on Monday.”

There are degrees of defensive liability and, with Young particularly, the Hawks are clearly banking on a situation in which he is functional on that end of the floor. That seems like an aggressive stance to take but Schlenk made sure to note that Young is aware of his perceived shortcomings.

“We had Trae in here for his workout and that’s one of the things we talked to him about and he doesn’t hide from it,” Schlenk shared. “He said, ‘Listen, I need to do it.’ We watched a lot of film on him going back to his AAU days and he’s capable. He’s actually got good lateral speed, so he’s capable and he doesn’t hide from it.”

Simply acknowledging the issue is only one step but, beyond the addition of a player universally seen as a “project” defensively, the Hawks did little to address that end of the floor with the other two selections. Nothing is as linear as simply “making up” for Young’s defensive problems with other rookies but Huerter profiles as a below-average defender and Spellman, to put it kindly, is not a player that projects to bring a ton of value on the defensive end of the floor. Full-scale evaluations can be difficult until players are seen against NBA-level competition but, as an example, the trio of Atlanta’s picks likely represent three of the ten worst defensive profiles selected within the top 40 picks on Thursday evening.

Will that matter in a negative way? Perhaps not. Coming into the NBA, 2016 lottery pick Taurean Prince was seen as a defense-first, “safe” pick and, since then, he has morphed into a player that is certainly more proficient on the offensive end than he is at deterring the opposition. More recently, 2017 first round pick John Collins vastly exceeded any rational expectation defensively in year one and now profiles as a potential asset, at least in theory, for the future in that regard.

It would be aggressive to project anything more than average defensive play from Huerter and slightly below-average play from Spellman but, in short, Young getting to even a passable level would be seen as a win from a Hawks standpoint. Only time will tell as to what kind of impact that will have and, frankly, the odds are stacked against the notion that the full trio will make an impact in Atlanta over the course of their respected rookie contracts.

Ultimately, Schlenk and his staff executed a vision for high basketball IQ players that can stretch opposing defenses with shooting acumen and exploit weaknesses with skills on the offensive end. That is a recipe that can succeed in the modern NBA, particularly if surrounded by competent, defense-first role players and, in Atlanta, an investment has been made in head coach Lloyd Pierce as the kind of defensive architect that can mask weaknesses of individual players.

Years from now, Schlenk will likely be judged almost exclusively on the outcome of the trade involving Young and Doncic and he is likely aware of the risks involved from a perception standpoint. Still, there was no doubt leaving the Emory Healthcare Sports Complex in the wee hours of Friday morning that the Hawks did what they set out to do.

On a decision-by-decision basis, there was very little that the Hawks did in the 2018 NBA Draft that fit with choices that I would have recommended. In the end, though, Atlanta’s haul includes a potentially elite offensive prospect at the top of the heap, a perfectly reasonable mid-first round draft choice with real upside, a flyer at No. 30 overall and, importantly, another asset for Atlanta’s war chest of future draft capital.

That isn’t a result that should be crushed on its face and, with Young in the fold, it is easy to find energy in envisioning what he could become at the NBA level.

Stay tuned.