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Hawks leave Summer League with optimism as draft selections excel in Vegas

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The Hawks leave Vegas after a successful week for their draft selections

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks may have ended their Summer League adventure with a defeat against the New York Knicks — a game where Jalen Johnson and Skylar Mays did not feature, and Sharife Cooper operating below his normal standards — and while their record shows 2-3 the Hawks leave Las Vegas with great optimism, particularly surrounding their draft selection: Johnson and Cooper, as well as returnee Mays.

Starting with Johnson, he averaged 19 points per game on 57.4% shooting from the field, 41% from three on three attempts per game, 81% from the line on 2.8 attempts to go along with 9.5 rebounds, two assists, 1.3 blocks and 3.8 turnovers in 28 minutes per game.

Johnson’s performances were extremely encouraging immediately off of the bat, scoring 20 points in his debut against the Celtics.

Johnson continued his efficient and productive scoring performances throughout the week but what was most impressive I thought was the variety in which he was scoring.

Whether this was on drives:

In transition:

Johnson also displayed his ability to hit jumpshots:

As well as the ability to hit the three-pointer:

Johnson also got to showcase his athleticism on multiple occasions:

In addition to all that flashed on the offensive end, Johnson produced some defensive highlights as well:

“Jalen’s got the ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor,” said Hawks Summer League head coach Matt Hill after the Hawks’ Summer League opener against the Celtics. “Versatility-wise, defensively he’s shown the ability to post up versus the switch, got some points in transition.”

“He’s a unique player,” added Hill of Johnson after the Pacers game. “He’s good in the open court, he can make reads from the post and elbow/iso situations, he can get behind the defense as a screener and he has the ability to stretch. I think his variety and versatility gives you a lot of options offensively. What we haven’t seen a lot is him handling in pick-and-roll — which I hope to see as the week goes on — but he has the ability to do that too. His patience is something we’re going to continue to preach with him and making the right reads and playing under control.”

Sadly, we (collectively) didn’t get to see Johnson a ton in the aforementioned pick-and-roll as a ball-handler but everything else Hill described, Johnson displayed it at a high-level in Vegas.

Johnson certainly made an impression not only with the coaches but his teammates too.

“He’s a great player,” said Cooper of Johnson after the Boston game. “I can’t wait to continue to playing with him, somebody who is extremely athletic, can score on his own. He does it all. I’m extremely happy to play with a guy that’s that good.”

“He’s just so good,” added Mays of Johnson after the Miami game. “A special, special talent. He’s only 19 I think, so to be where he’s at, to have the maturity in his game along with that athleticism, he’s going to be so good.”

Johnson also developed a budding chemistry with fellow draft pick Cooper as the two excelled in their time together on the court, linking up on multiple plays to almost devastating effect”

“That play exactly, I think it’s little stuff like that, just giving him an easy layup where I could’ve took one for myself, I feel that builds my teammate’s confidence,” said Cooper of the play at the time. “As a point guard I feel like that’s my job, to make everybody feel good about themselves.”

Cooper and Johnson found a way to connect for highlight plays again and again:

“‘Rife trusts me, that’s a natural connection we have,” said Johnson of Cooper after the Hawks’ victory over the Pacers. “Just him trusting me to push the brakes sometimes, when he feels like we need to get into a set he’ll call for the ball. But usually he’ll let me push the ball and start the break.”

“I’d say it’s just a natural connection,” added Johnson of his connection with Cooper. “Of us knowing each other’s games pretty well, seeing each other play, playing against each other. Considering we both playmake, that’s what makes it much easier for that trust factor. He’s one of the best playmakers I’ve ever played with, just having that trust for him to let me run the break too is very good.”

I likened Cooper’s and Johnson’s chemistry on court similar to that of Trae Young and John Collins when they first played together at Summer League and I stand by that because that’s what it reminded me of at that time.

I’m not saying Cooper is going to be as good as Young nor Johnson of Collins but their connection struck me as very similar given where they were and the time they did it.

Speaking of Cooper, he also really impressed during his stint in Vegas, averaging 14.8 points per game on 46% shooting, 33% shooting from three on 3.8 attempts and 7.3 assists (third-highest average in Summer League) to go with five turnovers per contest in 27 minutes per game.

While Johnson’s scoring output came in more variety than Cooper, what Cooper did extremely was drive the ball and break down the defense, or just flat-out score himself.

What really impressed me as the week continued was that Cooper was comfortable to finish with either hand (as he did in the play above).

Just like Johnson, Cooper made sure his name was known early as he enjoyed a fine debut against the Celtics.

“He’s got the ability to playmake, play with the ball in his hands, pass, he’s got the ability to get in for his guards, wings or bigs ... overall, he was good,” said coach Hill after that game.

Cooper’s highlight game came against the Indiana Pacers where he scored 21 points and dished nine assists but also delivered he buzz-beating shot to carry the Hawks to victory:

“...It was a great shot and I’d expect nothing less from ‘Rife,” said Johnson after the game.

The buzzer-beater was the icing on the cake of what was already a good game from Cooper, not just scoring-wise — where he put up five threes on the game — but also facilitating the ball.

“I liked his confidence today,” said Hill of Cooper after the game. “He was more aggressive, I think he did a good job of getting off of the ball at times and getting others involved in the game. But his confidence to shoot when he’s open should always be there. He should be that type of player. He has the ability to make open shots. It starts in Summer League and I hope it carries over but I just thought his overall aggression and playmaking today was huge. He made some big, timely shots.”

Cooper dished out 12 assists in the following game against the 76ers, further showcasing his ability to not only score but get his teammates involved, and his ability to drive the ball in addition to a fine passing touch makes it possible.

“Sharife’s got the ability to break people down and get into the paint as you’ve seen the first two games,” said Hill of Cooper. “He’s fast. Trae can play off the ball, Sharife can play off the ball. Sharife’s done a little of that in Summer League. I think his ability to playmake for others makes him a special player. When you have two guys out there, I don’t look at too much at their size. It’s such a spread game that sometimes you need your best players on the court. I think Sharife has the ability to break people down and get others involved.”

Hill went on to shovel further praise Cooper after the Philadelphia contest.

“He’s a special player when the ball is in his hands in pick-and-roll,” said Hill of Cooper “...(He’s) continuing to grow in situational basketball, knowing what we need and when.”

Cooper really impressed in Summer League. His ability to break defenses down, get to the rim and find his teammates were all far beyond what some might expect of a 48th overall selection in the draft, and there’s a lot of optimism surrounding his future in Atlanta.

A quick word on Mays, who initially struggled in the Boston game before beginning to turn his fortunes around from, basically, the start of the second quarter in the Indiana game and Mays continued to raise his bar as the week went on, culminating in a 26 point performance against the Heat.

“His mentality was shifted a little bit the last two games, and that’s good to see,” said Hill of Mays after the Philadelphia loss. “We’re pushing Skylar to do even more, we want him to hold his teammates accountable, he’s been around with our team for a year now, so he knows what we’re about and what is going to be expected once September hits.”

Mays turned up the aggression on his drives and found continued success at the rim against the Heat, finishing some incredible layups as he took tumbles to the floor.

“I like his aggression,” said Hill of Mays after the Miami victory. “Just his demeanour out there, he had a little edge to him tonight. I thought that was great. They went on a little run and we responded, he responded by being aggressive, getting downhill and finding people. I thought that was his best game.”

“It’s great,” said Mays said after his Miami performance when asked of his Las Vegas showing ahead of the upcoming season. “I put a lot of work in and it’s just good to see I can go out there and get game reps and compete. That’s what I’m all about.”

Mays’ future is unclear as of right now but he certainly helped himself by rising to the occasion as the week progressed.

The work of DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell should be noted here too: he was really fun to watch and a consistent performer throughout the week. Age may not be on his side compared to some of the other prospects but I think he’s certainly warranted a camp-invite somewhere across the league, if not, with the Hawks.

With Mays’ future unclear, the big picture emerging from Summer League all surrounds Sharife Cooper and Jalen Johnson.

I am fascinated to see how Cooper and Johnson are utilized in their rookie seasons in an already established playoff team, and some ways I’d compare it to 2016 when the Hawks selected two rookies in Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry to add to an already established playoff team — two rookies who weren’t guaranteed playing time (certainly not at the same time as when one was in the rotation for a few minutes, the other was out). There appeared to be a bit more of a bond between Bembry and Prince in that rookie season, given they were both rookie wings trying to find their way in an established playoff team — Cooper and Johnson will have to negotiate a similar path as they try to find a way to make the rotation in a deep squad.

Johnson will have an easier time of it as Cooper’s situation is a little different because he’s on a two-way contract. That said, part of me wonders — if Cooper excels in the G League as he did in Summer League — if the Hawks will convert his two-way contract to a full-time roster spot as that third point guard option, or if he could work his way into the rotation? Questions for further down the road but it’s going to be fascinating to see how Cooper fares in the G League and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if that contract was converted at some point during the season.

All-in-all, a really successful week in Las Vegas for the Atlanta Hawks, who have every reason to be excited about their draft selections, who are showing early returns of excellent value at 20th and 48th overall in Johnson and Cooper.

Until next time...