PRESEASON AWARDS

October 29, 2007 Think the preseason means nothing? Think again.

For those who put little stock on preseason standings, one only needs to take a look back at last year. Five of the six teams that led their respective divisions at the end of last season went on to reach the postseason, with the Timberwolves being the only exception.

Sure the eventual-champion Spurs went a less-than-stellar 2-3, but the Raptors, who went on to shock many experts by winning the Atlantic Division, served early notice that they were a team to contend with by going 6-1 in exhibition games. Looking for this season's version? Just check out another Eastern Conference team that goes by a bird nickname.

The Atlanta Hawks yes, the same Hawks that went 30-52 last season went a league-best 7-1 in the preseason to finish atop the Southeast Division, which boasted three playoff teams in 2006-07.

Will the Hawks hold off veteran teams like the Heat, Magic and Wizards to win the division this season? Maybe not, but one definitely has to take notice of how the young Atlanta squad beat all three of those foes on its way to the 7-1 mark.

Forward Marvin Williams, who saw his scoring average jump from 8.5 points per game in his rookie season to 13.1 in '06-07, took another step toward living up to being the second pick in 2005 with a team-best 17.1 points per game this preseason. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith put up solid numbers as usual and Josh Childress, limited to 55 games last season due to a stress fracture in his right foot, looked strong by averaging over 32 minutes and 16 points a game.

Both Smith and Childress are under 25 years old, but they will be counted on heavily by coach Mike Woodson.

"Technically I am the longest tenured Hawk and Josh is second," Childress told Hawks.com. "We aren't babies. [Woodson] knows that. His focus is shifting towards treating us like veterans a little more in the sense of asking our opinion on things and trying to learn from us as we learn from him. I think this is going to be a big year for all of us and with us being older and having more experience, I'm looking forward to it."

But it was the play of two rookies, which should have Hawks fans most excited about the team's future. Rugged forward Al Horford, picked third in June's draft behind super prospects Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, started a pair of games and averaged 11.3 points a game as well as a team-high 8.6 rebounds.

Point guard Acie Law, taken 11th overall in June, was limited to four games by a wrist injury but looked capable when he did play by averaging 8.8 points and 4.3 assists a game.

With their eye-opening preseason performance, the Hawks are easily the most surprising team of the preseason. Check out the rest of my preseason award winners.

Preseason Awards

Most Impressive Rookie

This a very tightly contested category, but two of the top contenders went down late with injuries. Top pick Greg Oden didn't even get a shot due to season-ending knee surgery. Second pick Kevin Durant was off to a strong start by averaging 18.8 points over six games before being sidelined with a sprained ankle. Rodney Stuckey had emerged as the top guard off Detroit's bench and was second on the team in scoring before fracturing his left hand. The 15th pick in June's draft is expected to miss at least six weeks. One player who managed to put up stellar numbers while staying healthy was Clippers forward Al Thornton. The 14th overall pick, who averaged over 16 points and nearly five rebounds, should see plenty of playing time early with Elton Brand on the bench due to a left Achilles tendon injury.

Breakout Performer

LaMarcus Aldridge was the second pick in the 2006 Draft and turned in a solid rookie campaign by posting nine points and five rebounds a game. If his six preseason games are any indication, those numbers should skyrocket in his sophomore season. The 6-foot-11 center averaged a team-best 19.5 points, including a 31-point, 13-rebound effort against the Sonics. With Portland's frontcourt thinned by Oden's season-ending injury and Zach Randolph in New York after an offseason trade, Aldridge should get every opportunity to prove he was worthy of last year's selection.

Top Coaching Job

Jim O'Brien took over pretty much the same Pacers team that struggled down the stretch last season to miss the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons. Granted it's only the preseason, but so far O'Brien is off to a good start with Indiana. The Pacers led the Central Division with a 6-2 mark and O'Brien, who directed the Sixers to a 10-win improvement and a playoff berth in 2005, obviously likes what he saw of Jermaine O'Neal and Co. "I think we had a great October," O'Brien told Pacers.com. "I think we've set the table, if we can stay healthy, to have a year where we can expect to be in the playoffs."

Best Offseason Acquisition

Not too much research needed on this one. The Celtics made huge news on draft day by acquiring Ray Allen from the Sonics, but that just set the stage for an even bigger deal. By trading five players and two draft picks to Minnesota for former MVP Kevin Garnett, the Celtics transformed themselves into immediate contenders in the East by teaming the new star-studded duo with Paul Pierce. Boston's new "Big Three" looked comfortable on the court together, from tipping off their preseason schedule at NBA Europe Live to Garnett's triple-double in the preseason finale. It's a good time to be a sports fan in Boston.

Most Valuable Player

The Magic made a big splash during the offseason by bringing in free agent Rashard Lewis, but they will go as far as their big man Dwight Howard takes them. Howard, entering his fourth season, had a breakthrough campaign in 2006-07 and looks poised for even bigger things in '07-08. He averaged 17.7 points, nine rebounds and three blocks a game despite playing just over 26 minutes a game. Howard's impressive numbers helped the Magic to an impressive 6-1 mark in the preseason under new coach Stan Van Gundy.

Out of Nowhere Award

Darius Washington went undrafted after leaving the University of Memphis early in 2006, but appears to have found a home. Washington was drafted by the D-League's Austin Toros last year, and while many players have used the D-League as a route to the NBA, the 6-2 guard decided to take his game overseas. He returned this season and has likely landed a reserve spot with the defending champs after averaging just under 10 points in seven preseason games with San Antonio. With Jacque Vaughn and Beno Udrih nursing injuries, Washington could be counted on heavily early as the top point guard off the bench.

Have your own thoughts on the preseason that was? Disagree with my picks? Send an e-mail and let me know.