In the first preseason game in which head coach Lloyd Pierce pushed his two best players to regular season minutes, the Atlanta Hawks were victorious. Trae Young and John Collins played 35 and 30 minutes, respectively, in what should be a closer approximation of their regular season load than the ~25 minutes each had logged in the previous three games. The result was also closer to what the Hawks can expect to see in the regular season, even as Pierce is still experimenting with the rest of his rotation.
Young responded to the regular season warmup with his best game of the preseason. He scored 23 points on 19 shots and 10 trips to the free throw line, continuing a trend of getting to the line consistently. Through four preseason games, Young has averaged 8.0 free throws per 36 minutes, compared to 6.0 FTA/36 in his rookie season. Of course, some of that has to do with the limited competition he’s seen in preseason, but that sort of drastic uptick in free throw attempts bodes well for his all-around offensive game going into his second year.
Perhaps most important to Young was the lack of turnovers against the Knicks. After putting up games with eight, eight, and seven turnovers through the first three contests of the preseason schedule, Young didn’t turn the ball over once in his 35 minutes and racked up nine assists and a number of other very good passes that didn’t turn into points for his team.
The largest criticism surrounding Young’s game continues to be his defense. It’s in no way a hot take to say that he was one of the five worst defenders in the league last season. The criticism seems to have gotten through to Young, though, as his defense has shown marked improvements through four games of preseason play. With all the caveats that apply to the preseason, the fact that he’s shown a willingness to put in the effort on the defensive end in games that don’t even count is a welcome sign.
Collins continued to struggle with his efficiency, as he has throughout the preseason. He finished with 12 points on 14 shooting possessions and generally didn’t have the same athletic advantage he normally enjoys. Say what you will about how the Knicks constructed their roster in the offseason (and you’ll be correct about most of it), but it’s a group that can give Collins some issues – New York has quite a few players who are his size and can match his athleticism.
Elsewhere on the floor, De’Andre Hunter continued to look like a player worth trading multiple first-round picks to draft. He’s very comfortable on the NBA floor already and does enough of nearly everything to prove his value in multiple ways. Against the Knicks, it was more about his scoring than creating for teammates, as he finished with 15 points on 10 shooting possessions but didn’t put much into the box score elsewhere. His creation responsibilities have fallen off in the last two games as Evan Turner has made his return to the court and is taking over a lot of the backup point guard action that Hunter was tasked with in the first two games. DeAndre’ Bembry has gotten a lot of run as the team’s primary playmaker when Young is off the floor as well.
Alex Len had a game to forget from the field but contributed in every other way he possibly could. Despite scoring no points on 0-for-7 shooting from the field, Len posted nine boards (four of them of the offensive variety), four assists, a steal, and two blocks. As the surefire starting center for the team going into the 2019-20 season, Pierce has let Len do some creation himself, particularly from the elbows, which has had its hits and misses through four preseason games.
Jabari Parker continues to impress with his play in preseason. He posted 12 points on ten shooting possessions against New York and pulled down nine rebounds. Five of his ten shots were three-pointers, which was good to see, as Parker has mostly been a mid-range artist throughout his career. He had a few quick-trigger threes in this game, highlighted by this make in the first quarter:
Speaking of quick-triggers threes, Collins had a few of his own as well. His release looks to be much, much faster than it was a year ago.
It’s strange to say this about a player who shot 2-for-14 from the field, but Bembry was every bit the off-the-bench sparkplug Pierce wants him to be. With nine boards (six offensive), four assists, four steals, and no turnovers, Bembry did just about everything but put the ball in the basket consistently. It’s a lot easier to forgive 12 missed shots when he created six extra possessions with his offensive rebounding, as well.
Vince Carter put on a show in the second quarter and ended up 5-for-10 from beyond the three-point line, though his defense left a lot to be desired. New York’s endless supply of power forwards gave Carter fits as players either went through or around him consistently on that end of the floor.
Bruno Fernando was the team’s primary backup center behind Len as Damian Jones didn’t appear at all. He played 18 minutes and mostly acquitted himself well, defending his position and finishing around the rim when asked. Fernando showed off his defensive ceiling with a very strong possession against Julius Randle in the fourth quarter:
As Randle set up his isolation drive, Fernando was with him every step of the way. When the ball kicked to Marcus Morris on the perimeter and Morris beat his man, Fernando was there to wall him off before he recovered back to Randle and forced a travel. That level of agility at his size is what made Fernando a very intriguing prospect in the draft process earlier in the summer.
We’ll see what Young’s and Collins’ heavy minutes do for their availability on Thursday against Chicago. In a rare preseason back-to-back, the Hawks may opt to sit their two stars, though the team does have a full week off between their final preseason tilt and the opening game of the regular season against the Detroit Pistons.