The Resurgence of the Hawks Bench

Photo by Adam Hagy/NBAE via Getty Images

KL Chouinard (@KLChouinard)

When you put a point guard as good as Trae Young on an NBA team, an inevitable problem arises. What do you do in the 12 or so minutes when he rests?  

Nothing about the Hawks makes them unique in this regard; give any team a guard who ranks among the league leaders in both points and assists, and the same issue is bound to unfold. Unless you have a spare all-NBA-caliber guard lying around, it takes some crafty problem solving.

The Hawks currently hold the second-most efficient offense in the NBA (113.1 points per 100 possessions) led by Trae's 27.9 points and 9.5 assists per game. Unsurprisingly, the offense scores more efficiently with Trae on the court (116.2 points per 100 possessions) than when he rests (101.7).

Despite that gap in numbers, the Hawks have taken the right approach to making it work when Trae rests – replacing him with a number of options – and it is starting to pay dividends of late. The bench has boosted the team in the past few games thanks to the two-way contributions of Onyeka Okongwu, Delon Wright and Danilo Gallinari.

Okongwu's game stands out because of his defensive play as he fills in as a starter for the injured Clint Capela. Plays like his steal and his block in the second half of Monday's win over Milwaukee tantalize coaches and fans alike. When Nate McMillan gave him the assignment of guarding Karl-Anthony Towns in the third quarter Wednesday, the defense tightened up and the Hawks outscored the Timberwolves by a 45-20 margin.

Trae loves what he is seeing from Okongwu.

"He's a lot like me in a lot of ways. We're small, but we're smart. He's small for his position as a big and undersized, but he's very smart. He knows angles. He knows that guys when they dunk, they bring it back. He knows to go grab the ball." 

For all of his defensive prowess, Okongwu has still made sizable contributions on offense. He has made 76.2 percent of his shots from the field this season. Nate McMillan liked the passes that Okongwu made as a release valve against Milwaukee when the Bucks trapped the Hawks guards to get the ball out of their hands. He can do some of everything that one could want from a big on offense: he can shoot, he can pass, he makes good cuts, and he knows how to work with Trae and other guards as a pick-and-roll screener. 

When Capela returns, Okongwu will spend more time working with Delon Wright as his point guard. Wright shoulders the playmaking role more now than he did at the beginning of the season, when McMillan preferred to run things through Lou Williams and Kevin Huerter as Wright picked up the nuances of the scheme. 

Learning new systems is a skill that Wright picked up during his NBA travels as he plied his craft for Toronto, Memphis, Dallas, Detroit and Sacramento over the previous three seasons.

"It shouldn't be like that, but that's the way I've been for the past few years, trying to figure out an offense on the fly. Even in Toronto, when I first got there I didn't really know the offense, but by my third or fourth year, I was more comfortable and I was playing better. It takes a while to get used to a system and the guys you're playing with."

Wright is shooting a career-best 43.4 percent from three – the best mark on the team among Hawks regulars. And now that he has the offense under his belt, his assist-to-turnover ratio is off the chart. In January, Wright has 27 assists against just 5 turnovers – while forcing 11 steals on the other end of the court.  

While Okongwu and Wright have steadied the bench with their two-way play, Gallinari might hold the biggest role in keeping the offense afloat. He has shot over 40 percent from three, and he leads the NBA in free-throw percentage (92.7 percent) while generating attempts at a rapid clip. He also remains the top option for the bench unit in late shot-clock situations.

If you want proof that Gallinari is heating up, consider the following: before this week, he scored 15 or more points five times in 31 games. This week, he did it in all four games. If you want further proof of his recent friskiness, he has four dunks this season and three of them came this week.  

As the Hawks try to claw their way up the Eastern Conference standings, they will need consistency throughout the playing rotation. It looks like Onyeka, Delon and Gallo are ready to be the spark plugs for the second unit. 

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