The 2020-21 season is when observers might learn the most about the group commonly referred to as the young core for the Atlanta Hawks. In 2019-20, that group of youthful players was pretty much what the entire season was about. There was less veteran depth last season than there was during the team’s first season under head coach Lloyd Pierce. Of course, last season was the first in the Travis Schlenk era that the team added two rookies that were drafted in the lottery. As such, the reigns were pretty much fully given to Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish.
The five-some was Atlanta’s most used lineup last season, logging 205 minutes – still a very small sample size – and posted an impressive +5.4 net rating. The path for the team could have been to simply scale the group’s minutes to somewhere between two-to-three times as many and build from there. That is especially true when considering that the young group was largely on their own last season, considering the absence of playable veteran depth.
However, the Hawks entered the abbreviated 2020 NBA offseason with more salary cap space than any other team and with an emerging star, Trae Young, entering his third season in the league, having already started in the All-Star game. The team’s leadership clearly felt it was time to build a deep team that could compete on a consistent basis.
In addition to bringing in Clint Capela as a young veteran center that will play the entire regular season at age 26, the team went into free agency and added players that will create an entirely new dynamic for some of the young players.
Young will still be the centerpiece. Expectations and variation in workload are sure to be different but no one was added, quite obviously, to alter his cemented spot in the starting lineup.
The addition of Danilo Gallinari created some curiosity about where John Collins might fit into the new pecking order. The play of Collins, especially on the offensive end of the court, has been such that few teams would shuffle a player of his level further back in the pecking order. But it was still fair for observers to wonder what the plan might be considering the salary Gallinari will earn this season.
By all accounts, the plan is for Collins to start and it seems Gallinari may very well begin the season playing as a reserve.
As such, the most significant acquisition may have been Bogdan Bogdanovic, a 28-year-old guard that will surely start next to Young in the backcourt. That almost surely means that a third-year player in Huerter, who has started 107 of the 131 games he has played in since entering the league two years ago, will begin the season in a reserve role.
And that presumably leaves one starting spot for which Hunter and Reddish will compete. More on that in a bit.
It seems important, in my view, that the team didn’t add a player that would obviously or could conceivably displace both Hunter and Reddish from the roles they had on the team last year. The same can’t be said for Collins and Huerter – neither of whom were lottery picks (which might matter on some level).
It does seem that the roster was enhanced with no-doubt veteran rotation pieces at every position except at small forward. Rajon Rondo will be the de facto backup point guard. Kris Dunn will offer defense on the wing, generally speaking, but typically adds more value defending on ball than off of it, which likely makes him more of a two than a three.
Tony Snell and Solomon Hill can undoubtedly play and help the team. With that said, neither are likely to displace Hunter or Reddish in what will still be a critical developmental season for them even as the team pursues bigger goals this season.
It should be noted, however, that Bogdanovic is fully equipped to play at the small forward position which should allow him to play with Reddish, Huerter and Dunn for example. He will also be a good option when Pierce may want to play Young and Rondo together.
But apart from having the option of starting only one of Hunter or Reddish, neither of the second year players have been squeezed in quite the way that Huerter might be.
Huerter has always been envisioned as the shot maker and secondary creator that would fit supremely well next to Young. Now it seems that the team hit the fast forward button and delivered, in Bogdanovic, largely the player that Huerter was eventually supposed to become.
Further to the point, it hasn’t been a well-kept secret that the team wants Huerter to become physically stronger. Well, Bogdanovic profiles as a shot maker and secondary creator whose primary defensive strengths are strength and versatility.
So now Huerter, it seems, will have to up his defensive impact as to stay ahead of Dunn in the rotation. In prior seasons, Huerter was persistently needed for his shooting. But now, by way of the addition of Gallinari (and the growth of Collins as a shooter) Pierce could opt to prioritize players, like Dunn, who have reliable value defending at the point of attack.
Dunn played 24.9 minutes per game last year. If some view him as an upgrade to DeAndre’ Bembry’s spot in the rotation, it’s not hard to see how Huerter might have to really work to earn the allotment of minutes to which he has grown accustomed.
From that standpoint, it doesn’t take much to connect the dots and see that Huerter will need to be a more impactful defensive performer and to continue to grow towards being a more versatile offensive player.
If Hunter and Reddish are in fact competing for the last spot in the starting lineup, it will be interesting to see how that is resolved. Hunter had a relatively fast start to his rookie season but hit a number of bumps along the way. And in some ways, he offers more unique value when logging minutes at the power forward position. Will there any of those for him this season?
Reddish had an incredibly rough start but got better each month, if not each week, and his season progressed. However, it remains to be seen whether or not he will settle in as a reliable enough shooter to start and close games regularly.
Reddish seems like he might be the best fit with Young and Bogdanovic, as neither are well suited to defend the opposing team’s biggest threat as a ball handler – Reddish is pretty significantly ahead of Hunter in this area. But Hunter will offer more in matchups that will require Atlanta to put more defensive bodies in the paint.
Also, if Hunter starts ahead of Reddish in part because he was a top-five overall pick, it wouldn’t be the first time that has mattered in a scenario like this.
When all is said and done, it will be interesting to see how the roles of Huerter, Hunter and Reddish are affected by the new additions, but there is a message of competition flowing through the organization. The next few days and weeks will tell the story.