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Jalen Johnson shines again as Hawks secure victory against Pelicans

The Hawks move to 3-0 on the preseason.

NBA: Preseason-New Orleans Pelicans at Atlanta Hawks Jordan Godfree-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks continued their hot start to their 2023-24 preseason with a victory against the New Orleans Pelicans at Gateway Center Arena on Saturday afternoon, 110-105.

Onyeka Okongwu scored a team-high 18 points, with Trae Young added 15 points on the night. For the Pelicans, Jordan Hawkins led with 17 points while Zion Williamson added 16 points.

Unlike the Memphis Grizzlies, the Pelicans fielded a strong lineup for their trip to College Park while the Hawks altered their starting lineup slightly, with Bruno Fernando starting in place of Clint Capela, who sat this contest out along with Saddiq Bey and De’Andre Hunter. Okongwu was also inserted into the starting lineup at power forward with Jalen Johnson coming off the bench.

For the game itself the Hawks built up a lead in the first half, taking a double-digit lead in the early stages of the second half. That was in combination with a dry-spell for the Pelicans that saw the visitors go over seven minutes without scoring a field goal. The lead ballooned to 20 and beyond, the highest it reached for the game was 29 points in the early stages of the third quarter before Young and Dejounte Murray exited for the evening — but not before Young produced the highlight of the game with a no-look pass to Johnson for the ‘and-1’ dunk:

As the second half progressed we were always going to see the benches cleared, and the 29 point lead was whittled away to as low as six points down the stretch before it ended at its lowest at five points.

Looking up-and-down the roster, it was another efficient for Trae Young, scoring 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting (though just 1-of-5 from three) to go along with five assists in just over 18 minutes. Young’s passing was fun to watch as always and he found success going to the rim. He managed to earn himself a technical foul as he vocalized his displeasure at some of the officiating, but a solid night’s work from Young overall. His pick-and-roll partnership with Johnson is going to take time, and this afternoon was perhaps another example of that. In general, the Hawks have been playing more 5-out, and when Bruno Fernando wasn’t on the floor, this was especially the case.

It was better night from Dejounte Murray efficiency-wise as he scored 12 points on 4-of-7 shooting and 2-of-3 from three, and his three-point shot has looked solid. Four steals and four turnovers in the first half for Murray was somewhat amusing, but a good night from Murray.

Let’s talk about Onyeka Okongwu — 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting — his only misses coming from the three-point line where he shot 1-of-3. Okongwu was active at the rim, and he was the beneficiary of some very nifty passes from Johnson — including producing this smooth windmill dunk in transition to highlight his night’s work:

Okongwu starting at the four was intriguing, and if this three-point shot is making a regular appearance, then it’s interesting from a lineup point of view. I still think either Bey or Johnson will get the nod at the starting four, but the idea of Okongwu and Capela in the starting lineup together is fun in theory, especially defensively.

Hawks head coach was asked about Okongwu playing at the four and Snyder was largely vague about Okongwu starting at the four going forward but acknowledged that the fact the Hawks deployed him at that position means that it has been something on their minds.

“You saw it tonight which means it’s something we’ve talked about,” said Snyder postgame. “We’ve thought about a lot of different lineups with our group, particularly the depth that we have. There’s a versatility in the lineup. There’s some things, certain combination of guys you and certain guys you want to get on the floor for a pretty standard amount of minutes whether it’s Trae, DJ, some of those guys that does impact the larger group. So there [are] some things about our rotation that can be unique and there [are] some things that can be consistent.”

Okongwu was quick to make mention that it’s not his natural position but followed that up by saying that he could do it if called upon especially if it meant he can be more valuable to the team with the versatility it may bring.

“I felt good out there,” said Okongwu of starting at power forward. “Playing the four, it takes time to get used to because it’s not my natural position but I felt good out there and the more versatile I can be, the more valuable I can be to my team. Obviously it’s something I can get used to and really do in the future.”

“Just defensively being out there guarding guards, people who are faster than traditional fives,” added Okongwu of the difference of playing the four versus the five. “I’m open to playing that position if need be.”

I do think Okongwu is very important for the bench unit but he played a great game this afternoon, his work at the rim shows polish and defensively he did well in a tough spot against Jonas Valanciunas and Zion Williamson where possible, as did Bruno Fernando who I thought played very well defensively — similarly showing some solid offensive work on the move when called upon in some short-clock situations.

The star of preseason, however, for the Hawks I think continues to be Jalen Johnson, who continues to turn heads whether he starts or comes off the bench. Johnson scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting to go with a very impressive seven assists.

This in particular was a beautiful left-hand pass inside again to Okongwu for the assist:

Johnson showcased his ability to pass at times last season and this level of passing from the forward spot is going to be very exciting for the Hawks and what it opens up for them.

Snyder was asked about Johnson’s passing post game and said it’s something he wants to see from the whole roster. Snyder described what makes Johnson a good passer, “we want to see that from our whole group,” said Snyder when asked about Johnson’s passing. “I think Jalen is clearly someone who is instinctive and I want him to make the right play. There’s a lot of times (where) that’s catch-and-shoot, there’s other opportunities where he’s able to find people be it in transition, or even interior passes in half court. I think his size and his length allows him to really see the floor. He’s unselfish, and I think that’s true of a lot of guys on our team and that becomes infectious. It’s a fun way to play.”

It would be fun to see more 4-5 pick-and-roll action with Okongwu in particular, think we’ll see those two continue to combine often.

“Our chemistry has grown a lot,” said Okongwu when asked about his connection with Johnson on the court. “I love Jalen as a player and person. He just knows how to get other people involved, not just myself. He’s a talented player. Hopefully our relationship can be stronger moving forward.”

Johnson has been great to watch in the preseason, and he shows no signs of slowing up.

Elsewhere, Mouhamed Gueye played well when he featured in the second half, scoring 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting, Trent Forrest provided a steady hand at the point when the Hawks were on the ropes somewhat (it was not the best game for Kobe Bufkin in that regard, shooting 2-of-9 from the field). Garrison Mathews hit a couple of quick fire threes, as did Seth Lundy making up a small number of threes the Hawks hit on Saturday afternoon — just 9-of-42 from three (not helped by A.J. Griffin shooting 0-of-7 from three as his struggles continued...sadly, Griffin has not enjoyed the best of preseasons).

As a whole, I thought the first half was fascinating from a defensive point of view. The Hawks looked more organized defensively as a 5-man unit than I can remember in recent memory — they were communicating, they were moving on a string, they were just organized. You could see the work that Hawks head coach Quin Snyder has put in to get the Hawks on-page defensively because in the first half they looked really solid and I’m excited to see this again when Capela is involved.

Snyder will also have to be encouraged with how the Hawks have been giving up their bodies to take charges and creating opposition turnovers (which the Pelicans handed out in abundance, 23 in total) and it’s been good to see the Hawks buy into this because it certainly seems as though it’s been a point of emphasis.

Snyder was asked about the Hawks’ transition defense as a point of emphasis and is pleased with the progress the Hawks have made so far during the preseason.

“Compared to our first game, our last game against Memphis and then tonight, it’s been a point of emphasis,” said Snyder of the transition defense. “For them, when you start to see them talking to each other about it, that’s the ownership that you need in order to get it done. It’s not enough for them to hear it from me, they do, but as they start to internalize it that’s a big thing for is.”

Okongwu was similarly asked about it and mentioned that he was pulled from the game momentarily for not getting back in transition.

“That’s something Quin really emphasizes for our group just to get back on defense: no easy buckets in transition,” said Okongwu. “If you remember in the third he pulled me out of the game, put me right back in — that was because I didn’t get back on defense. He’s holding everybody accountable and you love having a coach like that, that makes sure to get on their guys about getting back on defense and doing other things like that.”

Overall, it was another good night’s work from the Hawks in the preseason. Most of the regular rotation played well, there was good defensive cohesion in the first half, the charges were encouraging to see, the Hawks collected 15 steals, and 28 assists on the night reflects well too.

The Pelicans were by no means in great form — their injuries during the game probably knocked the wind out of their sails somewhat — but they did run out a regular season lineup and the Hawks smoked them while they were on the floor. And whatever stock you put into preseason is fair but it’s been a solid preseason for the Hawks and that continued on Saturday.

Even Snyder inferred that wins in preseason don’t matter as much as playing the way the Hawks want to play or the particularities Snyder is looking for the Hawks to achieve on the court.

“I don’t think that that’s the primary focus of what we’re trying to do,” said Snyder when asked about winning preseason games. “I’d rather us play well and play the right way and not win than I would have us not do some things that I want to see us do and make every shot at the end of the game. Our focus is on the right things and winning truly becomes a by-product of that over time if you’re doing that. You really control what you can control. You hear about that all the time but it’s really true.”

The Hawks (3-0) are back in action on Monday night when they take on the Indiana Pacers at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

Until next time...