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Atlanta’s core trio is operating at a high level when playing together

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A good sign by any measure.

Atlanta Hawks v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

With Taurean Prince already on the shelf and Kent Bazemore set to miss extended time with injury, the Atlanta Hawks are operating in a short-handed capacity at the moment. While the team played at an improved level to close 2018, expectations (at least when it comes to wins and losses) should be tempered a bit during the stretch without Atlanta’s two most established wings and the early returns aren’t overly positive on the scoreboard.

Still, there is plenty to be excited about with an organization that is well-positioned for the future and, in the present, that means the performance of Atlanta’s young players. There will be plenty of time to look ahead to the other “assets” accumulated by the Hawks, centering on the 2019 NBA Draft and beyond, but GM Travis Schlenk (who recently joined the Locked on Hawks podcast) quietly assembled an intriguing three-man core over the past two summers.

John Collins was Schlenk’s first draft pick and, in short, the second-year big man has exceeded any rational expectation. There are still questions about Collins’ ultimate upside, centering on the defensive end, but the former Wake Forest star has been obscenely productive (18.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game) and efficient (62.4 percent true shooting, 21.2 PER) this season.

Elsewhere, Atlanta’s front office selected the backcourt duo of Trae Young and Kevin Huerter back in June and the early returns are encouraging. Young is constantly under the microscope by nature of his status as a top-five pick (and, obviously, the draft-day trade with Dallas) but the former Oklahoma standout is already one of the best passers in the NBA and his production (15.4 points, 7.4 assists per game) has been impressive.

As for Huerter, he is one of the best shooters in the rookie class (38.7 percent from three) and, as a two-way entity, the No. 19 pick has already made great strides. Beyond that, Huerter is flashing intriguing ability with the ball in his hands and it isn’t difficult to see the full package coming together in a potentially devastating manner.

Of course, the Hawks aren’t actually “good” on the floor this season, nor were they ever supposed to be. Cleaning The Glass still views Atlanta as the NBA’s worst team and, while raw numbers see the Hawks in a better light, the team still boasts only the No. 27 net rating (-7.7) and the fifth-worst record in the league.

That sets the stage for a situation in which it is sometimes difficult to evaluate the progress of Lloyd Pierce’s team but, for the most part, simply gauging the performance of Atlanta’s young trio is a good place to start. With that said, the progress of the Hawks when deploying Collins, Young and Huerter together has been downright heartening.

Over the course of the season, the Collins-Young-Huerter unit has taken the floor for 323 minutes, which is now the most of any three-man group for the Hawks. All things considered, that remains a relatively small sample size but, in recent days, Atlanta has leaned heavily on that trio and that makes all the sense in the world.

During their 323 minutes together (per NBA.com), the Hawks are outscoring opponents by 1.2 points per 100 possessions. While that may not seem like much, that net rating is leaps and bounds better than the overall team sample (-7.7 per 100 possessions) and, without those minutes, Atlanta would be in rougher shape.

Only a small handful of three-man combinations produce net-positive results for the Hawks over a significant sample size and, for one of those groups to include Atlanta’s entire young core is a fantastic sign. In fact, the Collins-Young-Huerter trio produces the best offensive rating (108.6) of any three-man unit for the Hawks and, when drilling down further, Collins and Huerter are both part of all the best three-man units.

That isn’t to say that the trio is already perfect, as there are defensive concerns and, again, this is a relatively small sample size. Still, the Hawks are playing their best basketball when their central pieces take the floor together and, considering the overall trajectory of the 2018-2019 season with an eye toward the future, that is something that fans (and the organization) take can solace in as January arrives.

Stay tuned.