The NBA Preseason has come and gone, and quite frankly we didn’t learn too much new information about these Atlanta Hawks. The main characters figure to stay the main characters, as there was minimal roster turnover after a wildly successful season a year ago.
The Hawks return all seven of the players who saw the most minutes for the club in 2020-21 as well as nine of the top 10. In lieu of wholesale changes, the Hawks penned Trae Young, John Collins, and head coach Nate McMillan to long term contracts and essentially ran the whole thing back, looking to build upon their upward climb from March of last season onward.
But what can we glean from the preseason action thus far? The Hawks only had four games to showcase their talents this fall, but from those limited window views, there may have been a few data points to follow into regular season action.
More misdirection actions involving Trae Young
Through three seasons, Young has put up absolutely gaudy volume numbers for a small guard. In fact, those volume figures may be historic within the current era of NBA play for players listed at 6’3” and below. Young has been compared to players like Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Steve Nash, but all three of those players entered the league in their 20’s and neither of those players had immediate control over their respective offenses. That trio never led their team in USG% (an average of field goals, free throws and turnovers as a percentage of possessions) in any of their first three seasons in the league.
High usage guards like Russell Westbrook and Allen Iverson are known for using a lot of their teams’ offensive possessions. But neither topped a USG% of 30%, save for Iverson’s third year in the league with the Philadelphia 76ers in 1998-99. Young, however, has averaged a USG% of 31.9% through the first three years of his career, topping 33% in the most recent two, and leading the Hawks for three seasons straight.
Now that he is firmly established as the focal point of the Hawks’ offense, defenses have tried to key in on him at all moments. McMillan has shown in this preseason a few glimpses at using that attention against opponents.
Here, Young sets a screen to free Cam Reddish from the sideline out of bounds inbound position to cut to the basket. Once Trae gets the ball back, the extra attention from Collins’ man allows for an easy assist to Collins for the finish at the rim.
I saw multiple of these types of actions in the preseason looking to take pressure of Trae Young, and it will more likely than not result in easy points for the Hawks going forward.
Will the real Cam Reddish please stand up?
Anyone looking to use the preseason action to get a clearer projection of Reddish’s role and performance for this year probably left the proceedings with a muddied picture instead. Through two seasons, Reddish’s play has lagged the hype that follows the second year player out of Duke.
Reddish played the most minutes for the Hawks in this preseason, a clear attempt to establish some rhythm for the young wing. But while he showed some glimpses of solid play, he still remains an inefficient and inconsistent offensive player. Reddish took a team high 52 field goals and only connected on 46 of them while only netting a single assist in 92 minutes of preseason play.
For Reddish, it’s the plays that he doesn’t make that truly hold him back. His role for the upcoming season looks to be that of a playmaker and creator on the second unit, but he fails to set his teammates up too often. Take, for example, this play in the preseason matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies.
Here Gorgui Dieng is “tagged” by the weakside defender in the paint after Memphis doubles Bogdan Bogdanovic in the corner, leaving Lou Williams in the opposite corner wide open. One skip pass by Reddish should open up an open shot for Williams. Instead, Reddish attempts a long three.
Reddish has to see the floor better if he wants to lead the second team offense, let alone break through with the first team. Reddish has shown supreme confidence in getting to his shot, whether off a sidestep or crossover dribble or catching-and-shooting. Whether or not the shooting efficiency follows will determine his success going forward.
The next clip is a great example of this. Here, Reddish simply lifts to an “above the break” position once Kevin Huerter relocates to the opposite corner. Solomon Hill penetrates and swings the ball to a ready-to-shoot Reddish.
These easy shot opportunities are great for Reddish to get into a rhythm before attempting more difficult off-the-dribble threes. According to NBA stats, Reddish is a career 33% shooter from three on catch-and-shoot attempts versus a 22% shooter from the same range on pull up attempts.
There has been too much running before walking in Reddish’s offensive game through the first two seasons of his career. This focus on spot up attempts to begin a game can be a stepping stone into tapping into the self-creation potential he too often looks to showcase.
John Collins: part-time center?
While John Collins is a newly minted $125 million man, in some respects not much has changed for him on the hardwood court. Collins will continue to be an elite screen and roll player on offense, but his defensive improvement last year has some — this writer included — wondering: could Collins be best utilized as a center in small ball lineups?
With teams going small and prioritizing versatility and spacing in crunch time lineups recently, Collins seems to fit the mold as a 5. The Hawks’ best 5-man lineup by net rating with at least 80 minutes togther in 2019-20 featured Collins at center. And it isn’t mere chance that the Hawks best 5-man lineup by net rating with at least 80 minutes in 2020-21 sported Collins and Danilo Gallinari in the frontcourt together, with Collins usually taking on the role as defensive anchor in these lineups.
Add to the fact that second year big man Onyeka Okongwu won’t be ready to play by opening day, leaving the Hawks down a big man, and it isn’t inconceivable that Atlanta puts Collins in a similar role in spot minutes.
Take this example from the final preseason game against the Miami Heat. With Hunter at the 4, Collins ranges over from his center position to smother a shot at the rim then comes down and drains a top of the key three pointer.
It’s rare to have player with this kind of skillset on both ends of the floor, and with the Hawks being thin in the frontcourt most likely minus Okongwu’s contributions until 2022, Atlanta may have to rely on Collins at a center as a stopgap measure. But, in doing so, the Hawks could unlock a yet another hyper efficient 5-man lineup for the third year in a row in 2021-22.