ATLANTA — One way or another, last Thursday’s NBA draft marked a critical moment in Atlanta Hawks history.
That was either the night that the Atlanta Hawks took their first definitive steps toward becoming the 2021-22 NBA champions, or the night that the Hawks – for so long a study in competent mediocrity – sent future five-time MVP and Hall of Famer Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks for more of the same.
Atlanta used three picks in the first round to deal for Oklahoma’s Trae Young and select Maryland’s Kevin Huerter and Villanova’s Omari Spellman. You combine the three players’ key characteristics – Huerter’s shooting stroke, Spellman’s in-the-paint passion, and Young’s fill-the-bucket-from-anywhere stroke – and you might start to hear notes of a familiar song. Add to that the fact that Hawks GM Travis Schlenk was in the front office of a certain current NBA dynasty during its earliest days, and it’s going to be impossible to escape the comparisons:
The Hawks are angling to become the Warriors of the East.
Could Atlanta become the new Golden State?
Nobody actually uttered the “W” word during Monday’s introduction of the three players to the Atlanta media; nobody needed to. When asked which current pro players they modeled their games after, all three rookies steered right into the narrative. Spellman admires Draymond Green. Huerter’s a fan of Klay Thompson. Young has heard enough Steph Curry comparisons to last three lifetimes (though he professes to be more of a Steve Nash guy). No one can accuse these guys of living in a bubble.
“It’s definitely high praise [to be compared to the Warriors], but for me and Trae both, we want to create our own story, our own path,” Huerter said. “Klay and Steph, they changed the game and made the Warriors one of the toughest teams to guard in the NBA. We definitely want to have the same effect on teams trying to prepare for us.”
“Who wouldn’t want to be compared to those guys and that [Golden State] backcourt?” Young said. “They set the blueprint, and we know we can’t skip steps. We have to start somewhere and build up.”
Why can’t anyone catch the Warriors?
Of course, there are several huge impediments to clear before one can mention the new-look Hawks and Thanos-level Warriors in the same breath without the words “lost badly to” between them. To begin, the Warriors were a once-in-a-generation miracle, a collection of spare parts and low-expectation roster fillers who all turned out to be diamonds, and if it were easy to replicate their success, someone other than LeBron would’ve slowed their wholesale dismantling of the league by now.
Plus, this is the Hawks we’re talking about, a team that’s spent most of its five decades as a midlevel rung on the Eastern Conference ladder. There’s always something keeping Atlanta from true greatness. The team tried to remake itself as the Spurs of the East a few years ago – brought in Mike Budenholzer, a disciple of Gregg Popovich, and instilled a fundamentally sound yet mayonnaise-bland system that nonetheless won them the Eastern Conference regular season title four years ago.
Given that LeBron James was not on the Hawks at that time, you can guess what happened during that postseason.
After that 60-win gem, the Hawks began a long, slow fade. Horford and fellow All-Star Paul Millsap left town; Dwight Howard somehow managed to burn bridges at the same time as he was arriving in town. By last season, everything had collapsed into a 24-win trash pile.
Budenholzer left Atlanta for Milwaukee soon afterward, a split that both parties needed. Enter Lloyd Pierce, an assistant with the 76ers with plenty of experience on playoff-level benches, but enough relatability – and game – to square off with Young in a memorable pre-draft one-on-one workout. Pierce squared up against Young, and liked what he saw enough to agree that Young might just be exactly what this Hawks team – indeed, what this basketball-loving but star-starved city – needs.
The Hawks haven’t had a truly transcendent superstar on their roster since Dominique Wilkins in the mid-1990s. Atlanta’s three true stars of the 2000s and 2010s – Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford – won games but not hearts. That’s where someone like Young could come in. Love him or hate him – and Atlanta’s going to love him – if Young fills up the basket with even half the frequency he did at Oklahoma, he’ll get the Hawks on SportsCenter and the Philips Arena fans out of their ergonomically redesigned chairs.
Trae Young: the superstar Atlanta needs
For now, it appears Young and his crew will get all the spotlight they can handle. Schlenk conceded on Monday that while the Hawks have $20 million in cap space and three available roster spots, Atlanta’s in no rush to leap into the free-agent market.
“We will not be quickly out of the gate looking to sign guys,” Schlenk said, killing any hopes that the Hawks might make a miracle run at James, Chris Paul or Paul George. “We’ll kind of play a waiting game and see how the market plays out.”
So Young and his compatriots will be the public face of the team. Young’s face is already showing up on billboards around Atlanta, and he’s connected with some of the city’s royalty, like Migos’s Quavo. Young’s primed to be the face of the franchise for the next decade, even if he deflects the spotlight.
“I’m just a piece of the puzzle. I’m not the whole thing,” Young said. “I’m looking forward to working with everybody.”
Pierce noted that he’s less concerned with rookies’ on-court prowess than their ability to juggle off-court responsibilities. “It’s not just on the court [preparation],” he told Yahoo Sports. “How do you manage your time? How do you learn the language of the offense and defense? How do you prepare after practice? Are you studying film? What are you studying on that film? On the court, these guys are all talented. Their skills are going to show. But it’s about balancing their time and balancing their preparation.”
As the Monday press conference wound down, Young stood before a gaggle of cameras and answered questions about everything from Curry – yes, again – to his relationship with fellow Oklahoma product Baker Mayfield, now a quarterback with the Cleveland Browns. (The two have talked about the pressures of stardom, and Young holds no ill will toward Georgia for beating Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl.) A few feet away, current Hawk mainstay Kent Bazemore welcomed Huerter and his family to Atlanta. And in a far corner, Spellman – in a full suit – showed off an array of moves with a basketball for promotional photographs. There was energy in the room. There was something that felt very much like hope.
For the Hawks, for the moment, enjoying a little hope isn’t a terrible idea. The season will start soon enough, and LeBron isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
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