From Building to Believing Part 2: The Centerpiece

Part 2 of a 3-Part Series On The Making Of The Hawks

Part 1 of From Building To Believing was posted yesterday. Click here to read it.

By Ian Thomsen (@ianthomsen)

Travis Schlenk approached his second NBA Draft as general manager of the Hawks knowing that 2018 was his big opportunity. Atlanta needed a lead playmaker — a star to build around — and he held the No. 3 pick overall.

Within their reach stood Trae Young, a freshman at the University of Oklahoma who had become the first player ever to lead the nation in scoring and assists.

A spirit of optimism and self-belief glowed from Young. He was a basketball star from a football state, a thin 6-foot-1-inch guard who gave a first impression of teenaged frailty — which was the setup, the headfake, the crossover that preceded his 3-pointers, drives and dishes.

Young had introduced himself to college basketball with a scorching start of deep shooting and prolific scoring at Oklahoma. Then, when everyone was paying close attention, the defensive attention intensified. Young’s numbers waned. The brazen attempts from 25 feet and more continued. He became, according to his own father, “the most polarizing figure in college basketball.” Who did he think he was, pretending to possess Steph Curry’s range? There was a self-righteous sense of comeuppance in the criticism he bore as a 19-year-old.

When he settled on Young as the Hawks’ star, it was widely assumed that Schlenk was investing in a next-generation version of Curry. But the comparisons were inexact in the basketball sense. It was true that Curry and Young both ignored the 3-point line like a couple of lead-footed drivers with no concern for the speed limit. In terms of role, however, Curry had been playing off the ball since 2015-16, when Draymond Green moved ahead of him as the Warriors’ annual leader in assists; whereas Young’s style of play had more in common with a conductor like Chris Paul, Schlenk believed. Young himself had grown up emulating Steve Nash, and it was Young’s vision and passing dexterity with either hand that set him apart from the typical high-scoring point guard coming out of college.

Where the comparisons with Curry flourished — and anyone could see this — was in their shared sense of joy. It emerged in Young’s commitment to shooting and attacking despite the trollings on social media. He rarely looked as though he was aware of his own vilification. Not only did Young possess the quickness, vision and perimeter skill set that was trending in the NBA, but he also had the stubborn love for basketball that would drive his self-belief and keep him going through hard times. He could not be deterred.

The Hawks would be able to count on him.

They would trade away point guard Dennis Schröder in order to go all-in on Young as the starter, with confidence that he could manage the difficulties sure to come.

They made their investment with confidence that Young would be able to withstand the early comparisons to Luka Dončić, the No. 3 choice of the 2018 Draft who

was traded to the Mavericks for the No. 5 pick (used by Atlanta on Young) along with a pick that was protected in 2019. Dončić had been playing professionally against grown men with Real Madrid in the European leagues since his early teens. He was bigger and stronger than Young. He was going to be a star.

So, too, was Young, who as an NBA sophomore became an All-Star on his way to generating 29.6 points and 9. 3 assists last season, despite the postponements of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The commitment to Young was like a door that swung both ways: Not only would Young’s imagination and shotmaking open up the floor for his team, but his acquisition would also create opportunities for Schlenk to build the roster coherently and efficiently. Now that the Hawks had their centerpiece, they could add compatible players around him.

They already had 6-foot-9-inch John Collins, the rookie power forward who had delivered a promising 10.5 points and 7.3 rebounds after Schlenk landed him with the No. 19 pick in 2017. One year later, and 14 picks after the acquisition of Young, Schlenk zeroed in on a 6-foot-7-inch complementary shooting guard in Kevin Huerter, a sophomore who had hit 41.7 percent of his 3-pointers at Maryland.

The next phase of the rebuild was to add length and athleticism at the defensive end in particular. In the final minutes leading up to the 2019 Draft, the Hawks packaged the Nos. 8, 17 and 35 picks — plus a protected first-rounder in 2020 — to take De’Andre Hunter, a 6-foot-7-inch wing with an NBA body and championship pedigree from Virginia. Then, using the No. 10 pick that came from Dallas in the Young-for-Doncic exchange, Atlanta added to its perimeter depth by drafting Cam Reddish, a 6-foot-8-inch freshman from Duke with defensive upside and untapped potential.

In a span of 25 months the Hawks had acquired their “Core Five” — Young, Collins, Hunter, Huerter and Reddish — to learn and grow together. A trade with Houston in February 2020 brought Clint Capela to provide the leadership on defense that Young was providing at the other end. Though Capela would be sidelined by injury, the Hawks nonetheless would go 12-15 to finish the 2019-20 season — an uptick as the core gained experience in anticipation of the free-agent reinforcements that Schlenk was preparing to bring in. 

“We’re excited about our young guys and the growth we’ve seen in them the past three years,” Schlenk said last June. “Since Day 1 when I got here we talked about maintaining our flexibility, using our cap space wisely, and obviously I feel like we’ve done that.”

After 10 straight postseason appearances, the rebuilding Hawks had absorbed three losing records. Their failure to contend for the 2020 playoffs had cost them an invitation to the bubble in Orlando. But Young had become an All-Star and Collins had generated an impressive 21.6 points and 10.1 rebounds, while Hunter (12.3 points), Huerter (12.2) and Reddish (10.5) had scored in double-figures. There was a feeling that the investments were about to pay off.

“We’re headed in the right direction as far as talent-wise,” Young said as he looked ahead to 2020-21. “I think this next year is going to be really good for us. I don’t necessarily want to say too much about what I expect for next year, but it’s going to be big things, for sure.”

Part 2: The Centerpiece is the Part 2 of a 3-Part series by award-winning author, Ian Thomsen. 

  • Part 1: The Investment (Read Here
  • Part 2: The Centerpiece (Above)
  • Part 3: The Breakthrough (Read Here
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