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2023 NBA Preseason: Three things to monitor in the weeks ahead

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Six Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks open training camp in just under a week, and while the roster looks largely settled — barring a big move for a Toronto star player — the Hawks still have questions that need answering. Quin Snyder’s staff is in and longtime Hawk John Collins is out, but this preseason will still be an attempt to build continuity and improve upon three straight playoff appearances.

The Hawks and Murray recently agreed on a four-year extension that could stretch until the 2028 offseason. With the two star guards locked up until 2026 at the earliest, the Hawks are in the long process of fitting pieces around them. And so, what items still need to be settled during the preseason that rapidly approaches?

Who starts at power forward?

Since John Collins’ second season in 2018-19, a different electricity has emerged from Philips Arena/State Farm Arena with every lob feed from draftee Trae Young — one that the Hawks hadn’t had since their 60-win season in 2014-15. Collins had started 287 of 290 appearances over the past five seasons for Atlanta at power forward, providing steady play even as the roster morphed from a rebuilding side to a perennial playoff outfit.

Now, with John Collins in Utah and no obvious backfill as of yet, the Hawks have a few options in his stead. The most obvious of those are Saddiq Bey, who was acquired at last year’s trade deadline, and homegrown options De’Andre Hunter and Jalen Johnson. All three come with pros and cons, although all project to prominently feature in the rotation whether starting or coming in off the bench.

Hunter is most interesting as an incumbent starter. According to Basketball-Reference’s position estimate tool, he has spent roughly 69% of his time in the NBA at small forward and the last 31% at power forward when on the court. The Hawks can immediately boost their shooting and spacing while retaining Hunter’s wing defense impact by moving him to the 4 on a more full-time basis and introducing either Bogdan Bogdanovic or AJ Griffin to the starting 3. Of course, with Hunter you lose the size and rebounding a more traditional power forward might otherwise bring, along with other questions about his true impact on the floor.

At just 21 years old, Jalen Johnson is the youngest of the options, as he moved from the deep bench in his rookie season to a regular bench player by year two. He flashed open court handles, rim running dunks and versatile isolation defense in bursts last season, so it’s possible that handing him the starting spot could grease a continued upward trend. The biggest downside to Johnson, however, is that even in Collins’ worst shooting season, Johnson still provides even less floor spacing as a career 28% shooter from deep.

Saddiq Bey could give the Hawks the best of both worlds. Even at a listed 6’7”, Bey has the strength to hold up against bigger forwards while providing effort on the boards, shooting, and connectivity on offense. Of course, he’s the weakest perimeter defender of the three by far, which could peril an already thin Hawks defense.

So, all three of the most obvious options have their own pluses and drawbacks. I would wager that ultimately two will start at the forward spots which keeps ‘Bogi’ and AJ together as a bench unit. But the Hawks will need to use the preseason to find the right balance of secondary playmaking, shooting, and guard and wing defense in their starting lineup.

Which new arrivals could make an immediate mark?

With the exception of Collins’ shipment west, the Hawks largely retained their roster from last season and instead made minor moves around the margin. In part, their transactions included drafting Kobe Bufkin, Mouhamed Gueye, and Seth Lundy, adding Patty Mills by way of trade and Wesley Matthews by way of free agency, and inking undrafted free agent Miles Norris to a two-way deal.

Just like Aaron Holiday a season ago, it’s possible both that both Mills and Bufkin are largely kept out of the rotation as Young and Murray will be staggered at point guard across all 48 minutes. Similarly, Gueye and Norris as rookie bigs may be seen as too raw of options to play at this point and will instead see the majority of playing time in College Park.

Atlanta has two high usage guards in place for the foreseeable future, so the best path to seeing the floor alongside them is as a lower usage spot up shooter and tough wing defender. Thus, Seth Lundy and Wesley Matthews are my picks to see immediate playing time for the Hawks this season. With the Hawks looking to stretch the floor in 2023-24 (more on that below), the Hawks will look toward ‘3-and-D’ wing molds to maximize spacing without losing team defense.

The two players could not be any further from each other in terms of NBA experience — a rookie versus the 14-year veteran — but both know their respectively roles as quick trigger shooters. In Matthews’ last four NBA seasons, he has fired up 74% of his field goals from behind the arc, and Lundy even topped that ratio this past Summer League by attempting 34-of-43 shots (79%) from deep.

The next step in Quinball

After taking over as head coach late in February, head coach Quin Snyder was careful to not adjust the way the Hawks had played under the previous coaching tenure. Now, with a full offseason out of the way, he and his newly built staff can begin to implement his ideals into a new Hawks basketball product this fall.

Last season, the Hawks ranked dead last in the NBA in three-point rate (3PR), finishing at 33% of all field goal attempts coming from deep. Even after a coaching change, little changed in terms of their shot diet, going from 32.9% 3PR pre-Nate McMillan’s dismissal to 33.4% post-dismissal.

But after the regular season, there began a subtle shift in shot selection. In a Play-In Tournament upset win at the eventual Eastern Conference champions the Miami Heat, the Hawks fired up 41 of their 96 shots from three for a three-point rate of 43%. Then, in the first round series against the Boston Celtics, the Hawks maintained a 39% 3PR across the six games — higher three-point rate than in any month of the regular season.

By the Atlanta Hawks’ 2023 Las Vegas Summer League campaign, Atlanta had gone all in on spacing the floor, and they chucked up threes at a much higher rate than many fans were used to seeing. Of course, the majority of the players there will not be regular contributors to the team, but even with that grain of salt the Hawks absolutely let it fly during their five-game stint. Their 3PR was a sky-high 51.4%, among the highest of any team in the tournament.

That three-point rate clearly won’t hold with the regular season team, as it would rank second NBA history behind only the 2018-19 Houston Rockets. But the goal seems to be to better space the floor with ancillary players to allow Young and Murray to more easily operate the team’s spread pick-and-roll scheme. It will come as a radical change to a more ground-bound approach by the previous regime, but as the league increasingly adopts pace-and-space ideals, the Hawks will be best served by catching a ride on this trend.