It’s been just over two weeks since the start of the 2023-24 NBA regular season, and members of the Atlanta Hawks’ fanbase have a lot to think about with the team’s record sitting at 4-3 heading into tonight’s matchup against the Orlando Magic (which will be played in Mexico City as part of the NBA International Games).
While pre-season prognoses of increased ball movement, pace, and perimeter shooting have held true for Quin Snyder’s team in the early portion of the season, it’s important to remember that we haven’t even hit the 10-game mark yet, so there is more than enough time for these trends to slide in the other direction before the season is over. That being said, the strides that the Hawks have made in the categories mentioned above is not insignificant - as you can see from the table below.
While Atlanta’s improvement in these respective areas has probably jumped off the screen the most through the team’s first seven games, let’s play some Fantasy Football style, “Buy, Sell, or Hold” with some more early season Hawks’ trends, and touch on some of the other elements of the team’s encouraging start to the 2023-24 season.
Buy: Trae Young Playing a Complementary Style of Basketball
Trae Young has been painted as one of the league’s premier villains for quite some time now*, and like others before him, the “villain” persona is one that he initially attempted to embrace, before having a Felonious Gru-esque realization that perhaps being labeled as the bad guy all the time isn’t much fun, and has since tried to distance himself from the persona altogether.
*pants-ing the Knicks in the Garden on multiple occasions during the 2021 Playoffs will not earn you too many fans in the country’s fourth-most populated state.
While Young showing signs of maturity off the court is a welcome sight for Hawks’ fans, what’s even more exciting is seeing this growth carry over to the basketball court as well. While no one can deny his ability to create for his teammates at a high level*, it’s a fair question to ask whether Young’s gaudy assist numbers over the past few seasons came at the expense of the optimal play-style that the Hawks’ needed to adopt in order to contend for a title as he has routinely ranked amongst the league leaders in usage-rate for the majority of his career.
*Young led the NBA in total assists in each of the past two seasons, and has never finished outside of the top-five in assist percentage (amongst players who have played in at least 45 regular season games).
Young burst onto the scene in the 2021 playoffs as a pick-and-roll maestro capable of powering a roster full of knock-down shooters and lob-threats towards contention. However, last year’s Hawks roster accentuated the pitfalls of his reluctance to operate in an off-ball role which, combined with his and his teammate’s inconsistent three-point shooting, made his ball dominant play-style easier to scheme against, resulting in a drop-off in the team’s offensive efficiency with him on the court.
Through the first seven games of the 2023-24 season, even though Young has struggled to find his shooting touch (currently shooting just 33.6% from the field and 27.3% from three), what has really stood out for me has been his willingness to get off the ball earlier in the shot clock and play off of his teammates a bit more.
While the table above shows that opponents are still getting a heavy dose of Young in the pick-and-roll*, the clips below display a few examples of how the Hawks have introduced a bit more variety in how they are using him on the offensive end this season. With Young’s usage rate the lowest it’s been since his rookie season, his assist to usage ratio is at a career-high mark, and it’s no coincidence that the team’s overall passing numbers are up.
*Young ranks #3 so far in pick-and-roll ball handler possessions per game (11.7 possessions/game)
Here he gives up the ball to Hunter with 19 seconds on the shot clock, zooms off of a Capela screen on the other side of the court before getting the ball back with 15 seconds to go. With Rozier on his hip, he takes a dribble to draw PJ Washington towards him then kicks it to Saddiq Bey, who quickly takes advantage of the seam in the defense, and finishes strong at the hoop.
In this play, he gives up the ball, then races into a dribble hand-off with Clint Capela, getting the ball back for a second before kicking it to De’Andre Hunter in the corner, who capitalizes on the open runway to the hoop.
Here Young receives an off-ball screen from Capela, taking him to the opposite side of the court from the ball. Murray skips a pass over to him before Capela even makes contact on the screen. Young catches the ball in stride, takes a dribble, then drops in a floater over the outstretched arms of Mike Muscala.
Young’s shooting percentages (and in turn, the Hawks’ offensive efficiency with him on the court) are bound to improve, but even so, the fact that Atlanta still ranks sixth in the NBA in offensive efficiency with him shooting so poorly during the early portion of the season is an encouraging sign for the team, and should only serve to increase Young’s confidence in his teammates.
If he can continue to strike a balance between his on-ball and off-ball contributions as the season progresses and his shooting efficiency improves, Atlanta’s offense will become a nightmare for opposing defenses to guard.
Hold: De’Andre Hunter Turning The Corner on Offense
Through Atlanta’s first five games of the season, De’Andre Hunter has looked like everything the Hawks hoped he could be after selected him fourth overall in the 2019 NBA draft, averaging 18 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.4 steals while shooting 55% from the field and 40.7% from three on over five three-point attempts per game. Then, during the first quarter of Saturday’s game against the Pelicans, Hunter dislocated his right pinky finger and has since shot just 3/15 from the field and 2/9 from three-point land.
While he shouldn’t miss any games due to the finger, it’s still unfortunate to see an injury potentially derail what has been a promising offensive start to the season for Hunter. In the season preview article I wrote about him, I touched on the fact that Hunter has shown a preference to operate from the mid-range during his first four seasons in the NBA, and had never quite established himself as an above average scorer from beyond the three-point line or at the rim.
However so far this season, we’ve seen Hunter almost halve his mid-range shooting frequency and significantly increase his three-point shooting frequency while maintaining his efficiency from these areas of the floor. Though he is getting to the rim at around the same rate as last year, he is converting these opportunities into points at a much higher rate, and I’ve been impressed to see how confident he looks when finishing through contact this year.
While it remains to be seen whether or not Hunter’s can sustain this early season shooting performance, Hawks’ fans will be hoping that his injured finger doesn’t affect his aggression or efficiency on the offensive end of the floor. The jury is still out on Hunter’s offensive impact.
Buy: Hawks Pummeling Teams on the Glass
Another under the radar area of emphasis for Atlanta this season has been the team’s ability to gain an edge in the rebounding battle. Prior to the season, the Hawks’ ability to survive on the glass was an area of concern with the team trading away John Collins (who ranked 3rd on last season’s team in rebounds per game, and 4th in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage) over the summer.
However, through the first seven games of the 2023-24 season, the team ranks #3 in offensive rebounding percentage, #8 in defensive rebounding percentage, and #4 in overall rebounding percentage. Furthermore, five of the seven opponents they’ve played so far rank in the top-half of the league in overall rebounding percentage, so it’s not like they haven’t faced any resistance on the boards this season.
While part of the reason for the team exceeding expectations in these categories is due to the basketball philosophy of their current head coach (you can’t get an offensive rebound unless someone tells you to crash the glass in the first place), and a ton of credit deserves to go to Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu as the team’s top two rebounders, it’s also worth highlighting the impact that Saddiq Bey and Jalen Johnson have made on the boards.
Prior to joining the Hawks at last season’s trade deadline, Saddiq Bey had never posted an offensive rebounding percentage higher than 3.8% according to cleaningtheglass, however he posted a 6.5% offensive rebounding percentage for the Hawks last year, and is pulling down a ridiculous 7.6% of his lineup’s misses so far this season (which ranks in the 98th percentile amongst all wings per CTG). On the defensive glass, Bey’s defensive rebounding percentage currently sits at 13.5% this season (88th percentile per CTG) - an equally impressive figure.
Jalen Johnson has cemented his reputation as one of the most athletic forwards in the NBA, and had already proven to be an effective rebounder in his minutes with the second unit last season. This season, despite Johnson getting more playing time against other team’s starting front-courts, we haven’t seen any drop off from him in his rebounding production, as he has posted a 6.4% offensive rebounding percentage (84th percentile amongst all Forwards per CTG) and a 19.5% defensive rebounding percentage (94th percentile) through the team’s first seven games.
Thanks to the determination of Atlanta’s front-court players, the Hawks have become a formidable force on the boards, ranking #1 in the NBA in put-back possessions generated per game, and #1 in transition frequency off of live-ball defensive rebounds.
Note: All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 11/08/2023
Disclaimer: All statistics/videos used in this article are from basketballreference.com, pbpstats.com, nba.com/stats, bball-index.com, and cleaningtheglass.com.