Young Hawks Core Leans on Veteran Leadership
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Story by KL Chouinard
With a nucleus centered around Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, all of whom were chosen in the 2017 and 2018 Drafts, the Atlanta Hawks excited fans while featuring a measurably young team last season. The same core returns to the Hawks for the 2019-20 season and, of course, each player in the trio has an extra year of age and NBA experience in hand.
Yet somehow, even as those players matured, the Hawks are an even younger team now than they were last season.
"Can you name our veterans?" Head Coach Lloyd Pierce quipped in response to a question about leadership on Media Day.
How did the Hawks get younger? The key lies in the roster turnover. Only six players from the last year's Hawks return for this season. The majority of the remaining roster spots will go to younger players, including 2019 draftees De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and Bruno Fernando.
Hunter and Fernando, who were chosen with the #4 and #34 overall picks of the draft, are each 21 years old. The baby-faced Reddish just turned 20 this summer. He was chosen with the 10th pick of the draft.
A number of the team's veteran offseason acquisitions are on the younger side too. The Hawks signed Jabari Parker as a free agent over the summer, and incredibly, even though he is entering his 6th NBA season, Parker is just 24 years old.
"(Jabari) played in a playoff series with Milwaukee," President of Basketball Operations Travis Schlenk said. "He just brings game experience. Offensively, he is a very dynamic offensive player and a very good passer for a combo forward, which is really what he is. We're just excited just to have somebody who has got some experience but is still young."
Schlenk likened Parker's situation to the one Alex Len was in last season, a young-ish free agent in search of a team that could be his ideal fit. Len, Parker and recent trade acquisition Damian Jones figure to play substantial roles in the front court this season. Len is 26 years old, and Jones, who spent his first three NBA seasons with Golden State, is just 24.
Despite all the youth, Pierce does have some older heads to whom he can turn.
"We're going to lean on Evan Turner and Vince Carter just to help out in the locker room, help on the court and help in workouts."
At the same time, with the roster being as young as it is, players like Huerter, Young and Collins are on the cusp of taking leadership roles in their early 20s.
"It's important for the younger young guys to lean on some of the older young guys," Pierce said. "Their limited experience is what I can rely on. They know what we want to run offensively. They have to use their voice to educate some of the other guys – not even just the young guys – but some of the other guys."
Is it possible that learning to teach a subject is the ultimate form of learning about it? Pierce seems to lean toward that way of thinking.
"Sometimes when you're in that teaching mode, it forces you to be right," he said. "Trae has got to be right when he calls the plays, because he knows more than the other guys. It makes him lock in a little bit more because everyone is looking to him and looking at him to be a leader. I'm hoping that experience helps him grow up a little bit faster."
Huerter echoed Pierce's sentiment about mentoring new faces, despite it being just his second NBA season.
"Something Coach Pierce talked about at the end of last season is how the guys coming back – me, Trae, John, DeAndre' (Bembry) – had to take on more of that role for the new guys. We'll have nine new guys this year. A lot of us know what we do, how the team runs, know our offense, know what we're trying to do defensively – and so we have to be the guys who are out here helping people out."
Collins is now the second-longest tenured Hawk, with a grand total of two NBA seasons in Atlanta. It's a fact that, when presented to Collins in the context of leadership, left him with a bit of an incredulous smile on his face.
"I don't not want it, but it's just something that I didn't really expect to happen this early," he said. "That is one thing that Coach and I have talked about a lot is trying to take a bigger step in that leadership role. It's weird, but I'm ready to take on the challenge."
The timetable is slowly advancing in Atlanta, and one significant part of that march forward is for the young returning players to carve a path and lead the way.