The Atlanta Hawks are two games above .500 for the first time in three years. The last time they were two games above water, Kris Humphries featured prominently for the club, Trae Young was still in high school, and Travis Schlenk was still winning championships in Golden State. Three years later, the only prominent figures still around the club are the ownership group and DeAndre’ Bembry. Things have changed quite a bit in the last three years and will continue to change for the next three, but even something as small as being two games over .500 for the first time in a long while is worth celebrating for a team that seems to be through the unwatchable part of their rebuild.
Of course, nobody around the team is going to look around and celebrate being 2-0 to start the season, however rare that’s been for the Hawks in their recent history. Saturday night’s matchup with an Orlando team who swept Atlanta 4-0 last year and retained the majority of their core represented another test for the young Hawks. It wasn’t perfect, but the upstart Hawks walked away victorious, ending the Magic’s win streak against Atlanta at four and taking back the edge in the all-time series between the two Southeast Division foes, 59 wins to Orlando’s 58.
The formula is familiar and will continue to be familiar for Hawks’ fans: a whole, whole lot of Trae Young doing what Trae Young does best. As in the season opener in Detroit on Thursday, Young was the sun and stars for the Hawks in their first game of the 2019-20 campaign in State Farm Arena. The second-year star point guard finished with 39 points, 7 boards, 9 assists on 27 shooting possessions and the Hawks outscored the Magic by 14 in his 36 minutes on the floor. The rest of the team paled in comparison in the box score, with just two other Hawks getting into double figures as head coach Lloyd Pierce played 12 players significant minutes in the contest.
Over the offseason, it wasn’t totally clear how Young’s next step was going to manifest itself. Those of us whose job it is to speculate on such things thought that perhaps he could take a small leap defensively and play more off the ball offensively, which would both help with the team’s overall spacing (since he has strong gravity with defenders) and empower his teammates to take on a heavier creation load. Through two games, both of those things are true, as Young is playing the best defense of his career and the offense has more variety to it than last year’s attack, but those on-the-margins improvements have been somewhat overshadowed by his scoring.
Already one of the league’s premier passers, Young has very little to prove in that department. He’s going to run into his fair share of turnovers by virtue of having the ball in his hands as much as he does, but he creates so many easy shots for his teammates that it’s clearly a positive to have him running the Hawks’ offense. A more inconsistent part of his game last year was his scoring; there were games in which he’d go off for 30-plus points and others in which he’d struggle from the field at all three levels. It’s immensely important to note that it’s only been two games, but Young seems to have put on an added layer of consistency to his scoring in addition to a singular new move that has unlocked a new dimension to his individual scoring game.
The move in question is Young’s right-to-left crossover, which he’s already used a number of times in the first two games to open himself up for jumpers and drives. The Hawks are still using Double Drag and Single Drag sets at the top of the key to get their offense going and create an advantage for Young, but after a summer of scouting their offense, the rest of the league is catching up to how to defend them in their favorite play.
The most important way to defend drag screen actions is to prevent the ball handler from taking the screen at all. Both Detroit and Orlando instructed their guards to jump over the initial screen to create a physical barrier for Young and herd him to the sideline. Rather than fighting through that physicality or going to the sideline without a distinct plan, Young seems to have spent ample time thinking about how teams are defending him and constructing counters to these tactics. The biggest one thus far has been the right-to-left crossover, which he used to devastating effect against the Magic:
The right-to-left crossover to reject a ball screen is going to serve Young very well going forward, as opposing teams are going to plan to trap him on ball screens for most of the rest of his career. While Orlando opened the game in a more conservative pick-and-roll coverage (which immediately netted multiple great shots for the Hawks), the end of the game brought with it a more aggressive set of defensive tactics from the Magic. Young is a great passer out of traps, but there is a ceiling to his skill level in those spots – as smart and skilled as he is, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s not big enough to pass over or through trapping defenses every time.
When Young is surrounded by players like Michael Carter-Williams and Jonathan Isaac, it’s just going to be difficult for him to complete accurate passes. However, if he has this crossover in his arsenal and can break traps by never getting into them in the first place, the trapping defender is going to get caught way out of position and Young will have a path to the rim, as he had in a few of the clips above.
It’s easy to get caught up in Young’s heroics in this game, but there will be plenty of time to break down the other little things he’s improved upon throughout the season. While the other Hawks didn’t necessarily light up the scoring column of the box score, everybody contributed something to the win.
John Collins played 33 minutes and didn’t crack ten points, something that didn’t happen in his 61 games played last year. Despite not being nearly as involved in the offense, a trend that has continued from the preseason, this was one of the better games of Collins career – he was strong defensively and played within the flow of what the team needed from him. After being such a featured part of the offense last year and coming up on his rookie scale extension eligibility next summer, his patience with a smaller role may wear thin at some point, but in the early part of the season, Collins’ work on the defensive end deserves every bit as much commendation as his offensive fireworks.
Collins was credited with four blocks in the box score, but it really should have been at least five, including two on a crucial late-game possession:
This is gorgeous from Collins; it’s probably the best defensive play of his career, which is a testament to how far he’s come in the last calendar year on that end of the floor despite well-documented struggles. In this situation, he’s playing as the center (more on that in a second) and defending Nikola Vucevic as the big man in pick-and-roll coverage. De’Andre Hunter is defending Evan Fournier, who is working the pick-and-roll with Vucevic. Collins comes up to one step below the level of the screen to put pressure on Fournier as he comes off the screen, but Fournier never pops up on the other side of Vucevic, as he instead crosses over and goes to left to the rim. Hunter is with Fournier for the first slide; it’s not until Fournier picks up the ball and gathers at the free throw line that it becomes clear that Hunter is beat and will give up an open layup if nobody helps him.
As soon as Hunter is beat, Collins springs into action, rotating over from the right elbow to meet Fournier on the left side of the rim for the block. In the ensuing scramble, Collins gets back into the play and blocks Vucevic’s second putback attempt, essentially saving two surefire layups on the same play.
The raw athleticism it takes for Collins to pull off a double move like this isn’t necessarily new news – nobody who has paid attention to his career to this point should be surprised when he leaps out of the gym or quick-twitches his way to a second jump so soon after the first. Those are traits he’s displayed throughout his time in the NBA and are what make him so devastating offensively. Those same traits would show up from time to time on the defensive end, but not nearly consistently enough to make him an impactful player defensively. The thing that always seemed to hold him back was between the ears — he never had any trouble getting to where he needed to go, but having him recognize where he needed to go in time to actually get there… that was the problem.
It’s still not perfect — he missed a couple of rotations in this game and gave up on a defensive rebound too early that led to an easy putback for his man — but the very fact that Collins made this rotation and recognized early that Hunter was in trouble and he needed to be the one to help him is encouraging for his long-term development as a defender. This is the sort of play Collins made with more regularity at the end of last season, but through the first season and a half of his career, there was no trace of the defensive IQ that he’d need to be a long-term starter next to Trae Young on the next great Hawks team.
Collins’ development on the mental side of defense also bodes well for his long-term move to the center position. He played very sparingly at the center position through the first two years of his career and likely will never be a full-time center at his size, but upping his ability to recognize problems and put fires out on that end of the floor is going to make him a strong option when the Hawks want to go with smaller lineups, as they did to close out the Magic on Saturday night.
Pierce closed with Collins at the 5 in this game, opting to go away from Alex Len as the closing center. In Len’s absence, Collins moved up to the 5 and the Hawks went to Vince Carter, who has been a steadying force when things got difficult for his younger teammates throughout his tenure in Atlanta. Carter closed a number of games last year as well and gives the Hawks extra floor spacing, an intelligent ball progressor on the perimeter, and a strong defender on opposing forwards, though his defense has waned somewhat this year as compared to his previous work.
The rotations throughout the game are very different to how Pierce deployed his team a year ago. Both Young and Collins are playing shorter stints than they did last year – rather than playing both throughout much of the first and third quarters, Pierce is pulling his two stars earlier in the quarter and bringing them back earlier, then getting them another quick rest in the middle of the second and fourth quarters. We’ll see if this trend continues as the team moves into the meat of its difficult November schedule, but it’s worth monitoring. Players don’t often like coming in and out for shorter stints; they mostly prefer to stay in the game for longer stretches without having to reacclimate themselves to the speed of the game after sitting on the bench, which is why most top-end players play two stints per half, the opening minutes of the first and third quarters and the closing minutes of the second and fourth.
A few other quick notes from Atlanta’s win over Orlando:
— Jabari Parker continues to impress with his play. He’s more athletic and explosive than I remember him being in previous seasons with Milwaukee, Chicago, and Washington. He still has some bad habits the team will need to work out, but he’s been a positive member of the bench unit this year.
— The Hawks put up a good defensive performance, but it has to be said that Orlando shot the ball awfully from the field as well. Per pbpstats.com’s shot quality metric, the Magic actually got better shots than the Hawks through the majority of the game, but had an awful time converting them. Orlando was able to make it a close game late based nearly entirely on their offensive rebounding and turnover production.
— Speaking of turnover production, Jonathan Isaac is just a terrifying defender. He snuffed out so many opportunities for the Hawks and at times could singlehandedly take away an entire half of the court. Some of Collins’ lacking individual production in this game has to be attributed to Isaac, as there was no chance Pierce was going to call for Collins to take Isaac one-on-one.
— Part of why Orlando graded out well in a shot quality metric that doesn’t control for the player shooting the ball is that the Hawks had absolutely no interest in guarding Markelle Fultz outside of about 15 feet. He made them pay a few times, but this is a classic issue with non-shooters – even if he had hit every single one of his outside jumpers, there are still scores of possessions in which he didn’t shoot and his defender was able to muck up the rest of what the Magic were trying to do offensively.
— De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish are two of the more NBA-ready prospects in the league on the defensive end. Both guys are consistently producing quality minutes on that end of the floor and Hunter is able to do some interesting things offensively as well, as I detailed last week. Reddish hasn’t found his offensive footing as of yet and looks a step slow athletically with the ball in his hands, but he’s a smart, long defender who is picking up the nuances of NBA defense quickly.
— Damian Jones has a lot of limitations and isn’t an organizational imperative in the same way Bruno Fernando is, but Jones’ NBA experience pops up against smart teams like Orlando. Jones sniffed out trouble a few times before the Magic were able to take advantage of it, while Fernando got caught napping on a couple of possessions in a row before exiting the game for good with an ankle injury.