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Alex Poythress adds another small forward to Atlanta Hawks rotation

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Another good swing for the Hawks with a Two-Way spot.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Milwaukee Bucks Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

With the majority of their cap space all used up and the Room Exception gone for backup center Alex Len, the Atlanta Hawks were down to minimum contracts and their final Two-Way spot to fill out the roster. That second Two-Way spot (Jaylen Adams occupies the first one) was filled by former Philadelphia 76er and Indiana Pacer Alex Poythress, a burgeoning athletic wing with legitimate small forward size, an area that was sorely lacking on the 2017-18 roster. With the signing of Poythress and the acquisition of Justin Anderson, the Hawks will now go into the season with three players all capable of defending the biggest wings in the league and will be able to play small more credibly, something with which they struggled last year, both due to Prince being the only true small forward on the roster and former head coach Mike Budenholzer’s steadfast refusal to compromise his team’s already-porous defense by taking another big man off the floor.

Poythress will only be eligible to be with the Hawks for 45 days next season due to the limitations of his Two-Way contract, but there should be an opening for him to move up to the main roster if he shows that he belongs. So far in his NBA career, he has just 31 games to his name in two years; six came at the end of the 2016-17 season with Philadelphia and 25 came in mostly garbage-time duty last year with the Pacers.

His G League career has a slightly larger sample, but he didn’t see much action with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants last season, as the majority of his season was spent on the bench with Indiana. After four years at the University of Kentucky, Poythress hasn’t had a real shot to show what he can do at the NBA level, but with the Hawks looking to develop young talent and find diamonds in the rough, he may get his chance to impress.

Atlanta made use of their pair of Two-Way spots in a slightly different way last year – rather than taking swings on young players with higher upside, they initially used a spot to reward G League point guard Josh Magette for his high level of play in previous seasons with the Los Angeles D-Fenders (now the South Bay Lakers) and later brought in Tyler Cavanaugh, who played a role with the Hawks when the team hit a rash of big man injuries last season but didn’t have much of a ceiling to explore. With Adams and Poythress, the Hawks are using those valuable extra roster spots on two players who may actually have an NBA future; Adams is just 22 and went undrafted in last month’s NBA draft, and Poythress will be 25 by the start of the season but has shown across multiple Summer League stints that he deserves a legitimate chance at the next level.

Poythress is still a raw talent at 25 with quite a bit of practice time under his belt but precious little NBA experience. A top high school prospect, injuries and a need to develop his game kept him in school longer than many thought, but the additional time in college didn’t develop his feel for the game and basketball IQ in a way that it does for many players.

Out of college, he was renowned for his physical profile (6’7 with a 6’11 wingspan) but scouts thought his defensive IQ would hold him back; he wasn’t always engaged on that end of the floor and lacked the awareness to be a consistent defender. Through two years of bouncing back and forth between the G League and the NBA and multiple stints in Summer League, Poythress has gone some ways toward changing that reputation.

Still boasting the strong tools that attracted scouts and coaches in the first place, he’s begun to put it together more consistently, though the effort questions remain. He gets caught flat-footed too often and doesn’t have the extreme athleticism to make up for those kinds of mistakes. In theory, he should be able to guard all five positions – he’s laterally quick enough to slide with most guards and is surely strong enough to bang down low with most big men – but getting that high level of play out of him day in and day out has been an issue thus far.

Offensively, he’s turned himself into more of a dribble-drive threat than he ever was at the collegiate level. Mostly known as a cutter and spotty shooter at Kentucky, Poythress is now able to put the ball on the floor with either hand to drive closeouts and get to the basket.

A very good finisher at the rim, he’s able to use his strength, athleticism, and touch to put the ball in from a variety of angles, whether it requires slipping past an oncoming shot-blocker or powering through a smaller defender.

That same athleticism makes him a threat in transition, an area in which the Hawks will spend a lot of time during the 2018-19 season. New head coach Lloyd Pierce has mentioned that he wants the team to play faster going forward and Poythress fits the bill:

He runs the floor hard and can finish through contact, though he’s still awkward enough with the ball in his hands to dissuade him from being a full-time grab-and-go artist. Still, with other ball handlers running with him, he’ll see plenty of opportunities for lobs from Adams, Trae Young, and Jeremy Lin on the break.

From beyond the arc, things are still very much in development. He’s got a relatively ugly stroke – he short-arms a lot of long-range jumpers, the ball doesn’t come up above his head, and he seems to shoot with both hands more often than coaches would like. Still, the ball has gone in for him in the past, so with a few small tweaks to his motion, there might still be an above-average three-point shooter in there somewhere.

Poythress is very much a play-finisher; he’s not going to be taking defenders off the dribble or operating with the ball in his hands in pick-and-roll. If he can knock down shots, drive closeouts, and get out on the break, he’ll be a useful role player on a decent offense, though his consistency from three-point range will have to be better before teams respect that part of his game enough to open up driving lanes to the basket.

He’ll always be an active cutter – defenses won’t be able to completely ignore him in the opposite corner or he’ll sneak into the paint for a quick dunk or offensive rebound. He’ll have some limited usage as a roll man in ball screen actions, though his decision making and ability to handle in traffic will need some work before that’s a bigger part of his role, especially at the NBA level.

A serviceable player with strong upside to explore, Poythress is a great bet for the Hawks to make with a Two-Way contract. If I were to speculate, I imagine that he’ll be converted to a full NBA contract as soon as his 45 days are up – if he shows anything resembling competent NBA basketball during his Two-Way stint, the team will make room for him on the main squad; a team can never have too many strong wings.

He’ll have his opportunity to impress with the Hawks after a pair of up-and-down years in Philadelphia and Indiana and it’ll be up to him to take those chances and kickstart his NBA career with earnest.