The Young Hawks Made Some Noise in Vegas

Hawks Conclude a Trip that Featured Strong Performances from Johnson, Cooper and Mays

by KL Chouinard @KLChouinard

The Hawks went to Las Vegas for Summer League, and despite their 2-3 record for the trip, they came away with an optimal outcome.

The Hawks' roster included three players selected in the past two NBA Drafts: Jalen Johnson (the 20th pick in 2021), Sharife Cooper (48th in 2021) and Skylar Mays (50th in 2020). After a postseason run to the Eastern Conference Finals, the Hawks kept together the core of their roster. Travis Schlenk made some necessary moves to beef up the bench in acquiring center Gorgui Dieng and guard Delon Wright. The Hawks don't necessarily need Johnson, Cooper and Mays to contribute right away, but after seeing them perform in Las Vegas, it is clear that if and when the Hawks bump one or more of them into the playing rotation, they will bring a bunch of talent and a whole lot more to the task at hand.

The trio's passing ability shone through as the most notable trait. Through games played Monday, the Hawks ranked 2nd out of 30 teams in assists per game (21.8). 

Take Johnson, for instance. It wouldn't be difficult to look at his points per game (19.0), rebounds per game (9.5) and athletic gifts to see that he had a productive summer. The same can be said for his shooting percentages: 41.7 percent on threes and 61.9 percent on twos. On the other hand, his impact on the game went way deeper than those numbers. At 6-foot-9,  playing mostly power forward, Johnson showed a remarkable ease and facility with ballhandling. He could quickly become one of the top ballhandling bigs on the Hawks, and perhaps even the best on any Hawks roster of recent vintage.

In other words, when Johnson drives to the rim or makes a move with his back to the basket, he gets a little extra attention than most Summer League players. And it is in those moments that his commitment to make the correct play shines through. Sometimes it is a simple play, a direct pass to an open teammate, who then has to make a decision to forward the ball to another teammate as the defense scrambles to cover up. But Johnson can both tilt the defense and make the decision to get the ball to the right spot – an enticing combo from a 20-year-old.

Something similar can be said for what Johnson did for the Hawks' strong transition game in Vegas. He has a knack for knowing when to leak out to make fans gasp. But when he isn't at the front of the fast break, he does the quieter work on the back end, grabbing a defensive rebound cleanly and making an outlet pass to his point guard. Being able to do both makes him a special player. 

"Jalen is solid," head coach Nate McMillan said on one TV broadcast this week. "He can do a little bit of everything: handle the ball, bring it down in transition, rebound, start the transition. We're seeing that. I love his energy."

If Johnson's willingness to pass is a subtle trait, Cooper's is a screaming shout. Right hand, left hand, bounce, lob, bullet, outlet – Cooper has every pass in his bag. He makes terrific reads out of the pick-and-roll, and he sets up those reads with a crafty first step followed by patient drives where he slows down, leans into the defender, and surveys the floor on his way to the rim. Through games played Monday, his 7.3 assists ranked third among all players in Las Vegas and first among rookies.

"He's a special player when the ball is in his hands in the pick-and-roll," Hawks Summer League head coach Matt Hill said. "He is continuing to grow in situational basketball and in knowing what we need and when."

And then there is just stuff like this one:

Skylar Mays brought the perspective of a second-year player to the proceedings. For instance, one reasonable critique of Johnson and Cooper is that, like a number of rookies, they had a few too many turnovers. Mays kept the offense flowing without that issue. And he wore a number of hats. When Cooper ran the point, Mays served as an ideal shooting guard. When he was off the court, Mays ran the offense well. If Johnson and Cooper helped build some big leads, Mays took control when those leads started to slip away with a basket or two to end an opponent's scoring run. 

In addition to averaging 18.8 points and 3.8 assists in Vegas, Mays also continued to refine a skill that he demonstrated in his rookie season: finishing around the rim on difficult shots that he makes look easy. Once he gets into the restricted area, Mays can both give a bump and absorb one from a defender, and when he does, he always seems to have the presence of mind and the spinning English to carom the ball off the glass and into the rim. 

Schlenk has said that the Hawks' G League team, the College Park Skyhawks, figures to play a role in the development of the some of the young Hawks this season with the roster being as deep as it is. To what extent that happens remains to be seen. However, the things that Johnson, Cooper and Mays did in Las Vegas put them right on the precipice of being viable NBA contributors now and in the near future.

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