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Atlanta Hawks: What to watch for in the 2020-21 preseason

Chicago Bulls v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks finally play some competitive basketball again on Friday night, even if that is in the form of a preseason game, when the team takes the floor for the first of four exhibition games ahead of starting the regular season on Dec. 23.

There have been major alterations to the roster since the Hawks were in full-fledged action. They have just six players returning from last season’s squad, unless we are counting Clint Capela, who was acquired at the trade deadline last season but never played due to injury.

Reacting to starting lineups, lineup rotations and such could simply lead to overreactions so it might be advisable to not invest too much in what we see in those areas.

The below contains a list of things I’m looking forward to seeing.

Offensive diversity

It’s no secret that since Young’s arrival that the offense has been built off of what he can do in the pick and roll. After all, he is one of the most effective and productive point guards in the league in the action. But when the team was allowed to get in some collective work in September, there was a lot of talk about how much work they were doing to become less dependent on the pick and roll.

This makes sense even if they still plan to attack with a heavy diet of pick and roll. Opposing defenses largely prepare to defend Young in the action but perhaps seldom need to prepare for much more than that.

Last year, Atlanta was roughly in the top 25% of the league in pick and roll and dribble handoff (DHO) frequency while being in the bottom 25% in post, isolation and off-screen possessions.

This is going to be so fascinating because the newly acquired backup point guard, Rajon Rondo and the third point guard, Brandon Goodwin, both excel in the pick and roll.

Likewise, a lot of the initiation from Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish last year came by way of working through ball screens (mostly via “stack” action).

So what will all of this non-PNR stuff be? Will we see a good bit of Danilo Gallinari working in the mid-post? Will we see Young and Huerter (others) ramp up their involvement working via off ball screens? Will we see the Hawks hunt mismatches and let their bigger wings work in the post versus smaller defenders?

The action I am most interested to look for is seeing if they deploy split cut action on the weak side of the offensive floor while working through DHO action on the strong side. The Golden State Warriors, of recent success, made this offensive flow famous on their way to creating a lot of easy points at the rim and from open shots from three.

As to unlock that, Collins would need to clean up a few things in his DHO game and Gallinari would need to demonstrate an ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the paint. They are, however, easily the team’s best offensive players at the power forward and center positions.

Defensive schemes

Head coach Lloyd Pierce might not normally show a lot of the team’s defensive gameplan during a normal preseason schedule. But pre-season camp and the time to work with his new roster has been compressed this year unlike it has ever been apart from maybe seasons that started late due to a lock-out.

As such, games versus actual opponents might be one of the only opportunities the coaching staff has to work defensive principles into habits.

How will the Hawks defend the pick and roll? Will they drop the big? (I don’t expect a lot of that.)

Will they be aggressive at the point of the ball screen? Will they defend side pick and roll action with a different tactic than what they use against middle pick and rolls?

Otherwise, will their perimeter defenders be chasing their guys over screens or will there be some volume of switching? If there is switching, will it be across the board (all positions)? Or will it be contained to a few positions?

In this area, expect to see a good amount of variation from game-to-game in the abbreviated preseason play. It is hard to throw out everything they might do this season in the first game, for example.

But we should get an idea of baseline concepts that they may use the most this season.

Clint Capela’s location on offense

A lot has been written here (and elsewhere) about how interesting it might be to see Capela, a non-shooter, put to use on offense with other front court players that can shoot.

In Young’s rookie season in 2018-19, Atlanta ran a lot of “horns” action. In part, that was because, with Dewayne Dedmon on the roster, they often had plus shooters at the center and power forward positions.

Last season, the Hawks deployed more “double drag” screen action with non-shooters like Damion Jones, Jabari Parker and others.

Capela is a natural fit in the “double drag” motion, but a heavy dose of that action would consistently put their wings, like Bogdan Bogdanovic, in spot up situations. Is that really the plan for his acquisition? That seems unlikely.

The league has been moving away the last few years from a heavy use on the “dunker spot” for non-shooting bigs. With that said, putting a lob threat on the weak side baseline, especially when the ball is in Young’s hands, puts a lot of pressure on the defense.

Also, might we see Capela set up, in some cases, in the short corner when not involved in the primary action?

Young’s off-ball involvement on offense

It is broadly understood how reliant last season’s Hawks team was on Young’s ability to create shots. It may not be as well known how elite the young point guard is shooting the ball in catch-and-shoot opportunities.

Last year, only Seth Curry, who is one of the best shooters in the league, had a better eFG% than Young in the catch-and-shoot for players that had a volume of at least 100 three-point attempts in the category. And Curry got twice as many attempts despite playing 34% fewer minutes.

If Atlanta is going to maximize Young’s value, they are going to have to free him up to get more shots off of the catch.

How will they do that? Will he just spot up in the weak side corner? Or will they run him off of “pin down” screens in “away” or “floppy” action?

They could look to use other players pushing in transition (and secondary transition) to create the easy looks for Young.

Center-power forward combinations

As mentioned, there is a tendency to make too much of lineup combinations in the preseason. At times, weird lineups happen simply because regular players tend to not play in every preseason game. But how the Atlanta coaching staff pairs their bigs will be worth watching in my estimation.

Will rookie Onyeka Okongwu (ruled out for Friday’s opener due to injury recovery) log minutes playing with Capela? Will Collins and Gallinari play together for meaningful stretches? If so, what will that look like on defense?

Where will second-year big man Bruno Fernando, who is pristine in his DHO game, get most of his minutes? He made progress last year defensively, but will he be trusted to anchor the defense for critical stretches?

As play finally resumes for the Hawks, it probably doesn’t make much sense to react to game results in the forms of wins and losses. Still, there should be a lot to observe and take away from the games that might provide a bit of a preview as to how the new-look roster will be deployed.