The 2019-20 Atlanta Hawks weren’t a flawless bunch. In fact, the Hawks landed near the bottom of the NBA standings, to the point where the team was not invited to continue play as part of the league’s 22-team restart in Orlando. Still, the future is unquestionably bright for the organization, and a significant part of that optimism stems from the youthful talent already on the roster.
To that end, Sam Vecenie of The Athletic put together a league-wide ranking of the best young players on a team-by-team basis, with a simple prompt “to approximate something along the lines of ‘long term, which young players on which teams should make their fan bases most happy to have around?’” For the sake of context, the criteria laid out by Vecenie that was any player currently in the midst of a first-round, rookie-scale contract was eligible, and those prospects were joined by any player on his first contract, provided those players were selected in the second round of the NBA Draft.
For the Hawks, that criteria allowed for the evaluation of 12 players but generally focuses on the top five — Trae Young, John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter — and Atlanta’s group ultimately ranked No. 4 overall in the NBA.
Quite obviously, the single biggest draw for Atlanta is the presence of Young, with the 21-year-old lead guard producing what Vecenie describes as “pretty mind-boggling” numbers in his second NBA season, earning a bid as an All-Star starter along the way.
He averaged 29.6 points and 9.3 assists on a pretty ridiculous 59.5 true-shooting percentage. The players who posted at least that many points per game total on that level of efficiency? It’s a veritable set of Hall of Famers that sprinkle the NBA’s all-time elite. Try these names on for size: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Larry Bird, Stephen Curry, Adrian Dantley, Kevin Durant, George Gervin, James Harden, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Bob McAdoo, Shaquille O’Neal and Kiki VanDeWeghe. That’s 14 guys, 13 of whom are Hall of Famers or future Hall of Famers, plus VanDeWeghe who did it in one of the insanely uptempo Doug Moe seasons in Denver, where the Nuggets posted a pace that was absurdly nine possessions above the league average per game.
And the number of players to post that scoring combination while also averaging nine assists? How about just Young this season and James Harden back in 2017? To complain about what he’s accomplished at this point would be missing the forest for the trees. And if you made me bet right now if Young will get into the Hall of Fame, I think I would say yes.
Young is certainly the central reason why the Hawks rate as highly as they do in these rankings, in part because the object of any rebuild is to garner a true No. 1 option along the way. Young isn’t alone in appealing to Vecenie, though, with high praise for Collins as well.
But here’s the thing. He’s become more than just a finisher at the rim. Collins has also added a significant jump shot threat. He hit 40.1 percent from 3 this past season, and the mechanics look crisp and clean. Basically, it’s impossible to guard him effectively as a scorer when he’s the screener. He’s an elite roller. He can short roll and attack off the bounce with quickness. And he can knock down shots. If you play drop coverage, he’s going to hurt you from 3. If you blitz Young or play tight, he’s so fast and so smart at slipping screens that he’s going to get to the rim too fast to recover. Really, the only thing missing in his arsenal is the passing read when teams crowd him. If he brings that, he’ll be one of the genuinely elite bigs in the NBA offensively. Even if he doesn’t, I think he’s going to make All-Star games. I’m honestly that high on Collins.
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, with Vecenie saying that “defense remains a real concern” for Collins and expressing some hesitation about the much-discussed fit next to Clint Capela in the frontcourt. Still, it is fairly clear in the extended text that Vecenie is higher on Collins than the national consensus, providing some optimism about Atlanta’s 1-2 punch. It will, of course, be interesting to see how the Hawks handle contract extension negotiations with Collins in the coming weeks but, even if the two sides don’t come to an agreement, Atlanta will have match rights on the former Wake Forest big man as a restricted free agent in 2021, which is something to keep in mind.
From there, Vecenie focused on the team’s young wings and, to put it bluntly, the entire deep dive is certainly worth a read.
On Reddish, Vecenie writes that “the last six weeks of his season gave me a lot of confidence that he’s going to be very good.” That is backed up by Reddish’s steadily improving offensive numbers over the course of the season and, defensively, the bar was high from the outset.
For Huerter, the sentiment is a bit more mixed given defensive questions next to Young but, on the bright side, Huerter is described as “a terrific prospect to have around” and “about as perfect an offensive fit as you’ll find for Young” in the backcourt. If nothing else, the 21-year-old wing has a highly marketable skill in his shooting and optimism reigns on his growth with a full (and healthy) off-season to improve his game.
Finally, Vecenie summarizes Hunter by saying he “looks like a really solid role player who will start a lot of games going forward, and one who has a real shot to contribute to winning teams.” He does, as required by basketball law, reference the controversial trade executed to acquire Hunter on draft night and, in the end, that transaction itself may not be overwhelmingly positive for the Hawks. At the same time, Vecenie writes that “Hunter could become someone who turns into a $100 million player quite easily,” and that is reminder of the value that a high-level, versatile combo forward can bring as an effective role player.
In the midst of a (very) long piece, there are notes on several more players, including Marcus Eriksson (!!!) and Bruno Fernando, but it is clear that Atlanta’s fabled “core five” gets most of the attention in a positive sense. With Capela on board, that nickname no longer makes as much sense because, well, Capela is certainly a part of the team’s core and, at present, the veteran center is Atlanta’s third-best player. For this exercise, though, Atlanta’s five central young players garner high praise from a trusted national evaluator, and only a small handful of teams grade better under this particular criteria.
The short encapsulation from Vecenie is that the Hawks “have five really attractive pieces to build around” and, with Capela and the team’s own 2020 lottery pick to add to that group, the franchise is certainly on the rise in the NBA consciousness.