The first three picks of Thursday’s NBA Draft went without a hitch – Zion Williamson was picked by the New Orleans Pelicans, Ja Morant went to the Memphis Grizzlies, and R.J. Barrett became the latest high draft pick to try to save the New York Knicks. At No. 4, however, the first real drama of the draft took place, as the Atlanta Hawks traded up from No. 8 to take De’Andre Hunter. This pick was officially made by the Los Angeles Lakers but will be moved to Atlanta on July 6 through New Orleans, as the Lakers traded the pick to the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade before New Orleans rerouted it to Atlanta in this deal.
The Hawks sent out quite a bit to make their move four spots up the board: on top of the No. 8 pick, they sent No. 17 — the first-rounder unofficially acquired in the Taurean Prince-Allen Crabbe swap agreed on June 6 — No. 35, and Cleveland’s protected first-round pick in 2020, which is protected for the top ten picks and converts to second-rounders in 2021 and 2022 if it’s the Cavaliers are in the top ten next season. Atlanta got back No. 4, which they used on Hunter, No. 57, and Solomon Hill, who has one year left on his contract at $12.8 million, plus a future second-round pick, the details of which have not been released.
There are a lot of moving parts here, which makes evaluating the deal a complicated venture. Trading up in the top ten is always an expensive undertaking for teams, particularly when trading up as far as the Hawks did. Teams will sometimes move up a pick or two to ensure they get their guy, but a move from No. 8 to No. 4 is one of the larger top-ten leaps we’ve seen in a draft day trade. Atlanta paid dearly for the move, parting with the equivalent value of a mid-tier first-rounder (No. 17), a low-end first-rounder (Hill’s contract), a high-end second-rounder (No. 35), and two unknown future second-rounders (along with the slight chance the Cleveland is good enough to actually convey their 2020 first-rounder to New Orleans). That’s a lot to give up to move up four spots, but the Hawks were adamant about taking Hunter.
Hunter was clearly a primary target for the Hawks coming into the draft, as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported that he worked out for one team and one team only: Atlanta. He didn’t take part in May’s NBA Combine, as he was assured of his status within the draft class and didn’t feel the need to take part in any of the Combine activities. Most top picks don’t go to the Combine, so it wasn’t unusual to see him skip out, but it was highly unusual for a player at that level to only work out for a single team, particularly because it wasn’t clear precisely where Hunter fell in this draft class and the Hawks weren’t in a perfect position to take him coming out of the draft lottery.
New Orleans seemingly realized after they agreed to their own trade for that No. 4 pick that Atlanta was keen on Hunter and used that bit of knowledge to extract maximum value from general manager Travis Schlenk. That arrived in the form of the two first-rounders and three second-rounders Schlenk had to send out, along with No. 8, in order to grab Hunter.
Looking at the package that was sent out for Hunter, it may seem like an overstatement to say that Atlanta parted with so much in order to move up, but Hill’s contract is the part of the trade that adds another first-rounder to what they traded to New Orleans. Hill makes $12.8 million for next season and then will become a free agent, but he’s hardly worth that sort of money; in fact, he’s probably worth no more than $3 million on the open market, considering his injury history and the fact that he’s had one good year in his six-year career. The last two seasons have been cut short through injury and poor play from Hill, who was never the same after tearing his hamstring in 2017. It’s unclear what his role will be on the Hawks for the 2019-20 season, but he’s certainly a negative value when his on-court play is compared to his off-court contract. Taking him from the Pelicans and using that chunk of their 2019-20 cap space to do so it roughly the value of a low-end first-round pick.
On the positive front, Hunter’s game fits what Atlanta needs about as perfectly as any non-Zion pick in this draft. He can knock down spot-up threes, drive to the rim (or pull-up in the mid-range) against a closing defender, and even has some modicum of self-creation in the post and mid-post isolations. He doesn’t profile as more than a team’s No. 3 option offensively without massive unforeseen improvements in his game, but Hunter can play a low-usage role well enough to supplement the high-usage play of Trae Young and John Collins.
On the other end of the floor, Hunter immediately steps in as the team’s best defensive player among the five-man core that now includes Young, Collins, Kevin Huerter and No. 10 pick Cam Reddish. The 21-year-old derives the majority of his value defensively, where he’s strong, quick, and has a very good basketball IQ. He should be fully capable of defending both forward spots at the NBA level, which has a ton of value to a team trying to eventually compete for championships — nearly every championship-level team these days has a high-end forward who can run the team’s offense for large portions of the game. Hunter isn’t going to run the Hawks’ offense with Young still on the team, but if he can stop opposing forwards who are trying to initiate offense, he’ll be a welcome addition to a team that has struggled in that area in recent years.
Hunter has been a conservative player across the board, but that may have been, at least in part, due to the Virginia system in which he played his collegiate career. The Cavaliers were incredibly conservative on both ends of the floor, using the entire shot clock offensively and taking very few chances defensively, opting to stay solid within their scheme and always make the right play. In the NBA, there will be more room for Hunter to freelance a little bit, as possessions are shorter and there are more of them in a game, leading to each one being less valuable overall than they are in college. With some extra freedom, the Hawks may unlock a bit more creativity and aggressiveness in Hunter’s game on both ends of the floor.
All in all, this is the sort of move that Schlenk has consistently made in his time as the Hawks’ general manager. He’s willing to go against the grain to get what he wants out of the draft, just like he did last year when he traded Luka Doncic for Young and the pick that became Reddish. This time, it wasn’t a trade down but a trade up that brought his favorite player in the draft to Atlanta. Time will tell whether Schlenk made the right move in this instance, but the fit is perfectly seamless for Hunter into the Hawks’ system and he was clearly their favorite non-Zion prospect in this draft, which makes the move up a lot more palatable.