After two years mostly wandering the NBA wilderness with Philadelphia and Indiana, Alex Poythress parlayed a strong Summer League outing with the Pacers in 2018 into a Two-Way contract with the Atlanta Hawks, filling out the final spot of their roster in advance of the 2018-19 season. Alongside undrafted point guard Jaylen Adams, Poythress would get a chance to play consistently in both the NBA and G League, where he had been very good two years prior in a consistent role with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. If everything went well, his stint in the G League would be short, as the Hawks could call him up to the main roster and sign him to a full contract.
That opportunity never quite materialized for Poythress, who saw his role vacillate heavily for the Hawks before an ankle injury prematurely ended his first season in Atlanta. An early injury to John Collins left an opening in the Hawks’ big man rotation, which Poythress seized at the outset, playing more than 20 minutes in each of the team’s first three games. That would turn out to be the high watermark of the season, though, as he logged just 239 total minutes across the remaining 18 games.
Poythress was arguably the team’s best option at power forward with Collins on the sidelines for much of the early part of the season, even if the minutes didn’t come as often as he’d liked them to have. Investment was a key part of his opportunity with the Hawks this season – the club were far more invested in the development of first-round pick Omari Spellman than they were Poythress, for whom nearly nothing is guaranteed.
Nominally a power forward throughout his brief time in professional basketball, Poythress saw a lot of time at center throughout the season, playing nearly a quarter of his minutes at the position in total. It was quite a change for him, as he’d essentially never played the position at the NBA level before this year, and he struggled somewhat with that role, especially defensively.
Built like a combo forward capable of playing the 3 or the 4, moving up to the 5 brought with it two major shifts defensively: banging with bigger players in the paint and being a primary defender in pick-and-roll. As a 3 or 4, his job would be to rotate over from the weak side to contest at the rim, a skill in which he’s shown some promise, but it’s very different to protect the rim as a primary pick-and-roll defender than it is as the secondary line of defense in a rotation from the corner. Poythress also picked up his fair share of fouls in handling larger opponents and protecting the glass was an issue for the team when he was the biggest Hawk on the floor.
His defensive work as a power forward was much better, where he was clearly more comfortable with his role and the defensive reads. As he moves into his fourth NBA season next year, the defensive side of the ball is almost entirely mental — he’s a wonderful athlete capable of credibly defending three positions off the bench and has enough lateral and vertical athleticism to be a strong positive on that end, but he’ll need to improve his recognition and defensive instincts to unlock his full potential.
On the other side of the floor, Poythress profiles as a low-usage role player who needs to be able to hit his spot-up jumper in order to really compete for minutes moving forward. In an era dominated by the three-point shot, his can be a little hit or miss, and he’s not necessarily going to wow anybody with his creativity with the ball in his hands. He’s firmly a play finisher, not a playmaker, which puts a cap on his offensive value but can still provide him with a consistent role on an NBA team next season, whether in Atlanta or elsewhere.
The 25-year-old knocked down 39 percent of his threes for the Hawks this year, which looks great until you realize he put up just 23 attempts in his 305 minutes. At that volume, it’s very difficult to project what he could shoot in a larger role. Even in the G League, his volume of threes isn’t tremendous; he’s 57-for-169 in three years and nearly 2,300 minutes.
Poythress should be back with the team when they reconvene in Atlanta to begin offseason workouts in May, even with his contractual status up in the air for 2019-20. When asked during his exit interview with the media about what he was going to work on over the summer, Poythress said, “That’s how you get better — you work on your body, work on your game, more skill development. I’ll go home and take a couple of weeks off and reflect, see family, my niece and all that type of stuff. I’ll be back here in the summer and getting to work with the coaching staff and getting ready for the season.” He also indicated that his ankle is recovering nicely and that he’ll be ready for workouts when they start in a few weeks, which could go a long way toward cementing his place on next year’s roster.
Though reporting on Two-Way contracts is usually somewhat limited, it’s a good bet that Poythress will be a free agent on July 1. The Hawks will hold his rights in restricted free agency should they tender a qualifying offer, which is a no-brainer decision considering that offer is simply another Two-Way contract. Having completed three years in the NBA, he’s still eligible for one more year under a Two-Way contract, should it come to that for him next year.
Poythress won’t exactly be at the top of Travis Schlenk’s priority list this summer, but should be prove healthy and productive in offseason workouts and in Las Vegas, the club should be able to find a spot for him on the full roster next season as a Swiss Army knife defender off the bench with the potential for some 3-and-D upside with a larger role and more data on his three-point shot in game situations.