The Atlanta Hawks are a solid 2-2, one loss coming in narrow fashion to Eastern Conference favorites Philadelphia, and the other coming on the second night of a back-to-back in Miami. Trae Young looks the part of an All-Star, and took home the season’s first Player of the Week award. It’s a hot start — perhaps too hot to sustain — but it’s promising nonetheless.
As the season gets underway, our context is broadening, and we have a better understanding of just how the 2019-20 campaign might unfold. Here are 10 predictions, some bold and some not.
1. Trae Young averages 20+ points, leads NBA in assists
We’ll start with Trae, who’s confidently going scorched earth on the NBA. Omitting the fourth game, in which he was hurt early, Young is averaging 36.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 9.0 assists on .515/.520/.808 shooting splits. Not sustainable, but thoroughly impressive and a sign of things to come.
Young looks primed to take the next step. He’s still a weak point on defense, but his offensive mastery makes up for it. He’s the undisputed bell cow in Atlanta’s young rotation, controlling the tempo and getting a large share of touches whenever he’s on the floor.
The fulcrum on which Atlanta’s offense turns, few NBA players carry the same burden of responsibility. Young is the lead playmaker, the most diverse scorer, and the main focus of defensive attention. Defenses have blitzed Young relentlessly, and omitting the fourth quarter against Philadelphia, it hasn’t really mattered.
He will have no trouble bumping his scoring averages up. He will also play set-up man to a degree few players can match. With James Harden and Russell Westbrook on the same team, the leading assists category is wide open.
2. Pound the … over?
The Hawks’ preseason over/under at Caesars was 33.5 — a number my stance has changed on, ever so slightly. Before the season, I would have said ‘pound the under’ with confidence. The Hawks’ rotation still isn’t one I have tremendous confidence in, but it’s becoming more difficult to deny the inherent brilliance of Trae Young and his impact.
If Young can sustain a major second-year leap, his talent alone might guide the Hawks to 34+ wins. Not to mention John Collins, who continues to show signs of improvement on both ends. His shot diversity, as a springy 6-foot-8 rim-runner supreme, is tantalizing. De’Andre Hunter is legit.
3. Hawks will miss the playoffs
There’s a chance Young and Co. make me look foolish. If my opinion were based solely on a four-game sample size, I would cautiously peg Atlanta as a top-eight team in the East. But given the youthful rotation, the unsustainable nature of Young’s current production, and the difficult early-months schedule, it’s wise to proceed with caution.
At some point, the Hawks will fall back to earth. Even as Jabari Parker subverts expectations and thrives in a complementary role, the second unit is a source of concern. Kevin Huerter’s impending return to form is a key factor in this, but I’m unconvinced of Cam Reddish’s ability to contribute to winning basketball as a rookie.
One can also peg Young’s recent injury as a point of concern, although he’s listed day-to-day. It could break their early-season rhythm. Pound the over, sure, but the postseason is a stretch at this juncture.
4. De’Andre Hunter makes 1st Team All-Rookie
Playoffs or not, the Hawks are going to give De’Andre Hunter ample room to shine. He’s already a key member of the starting five, and his maturity on both ends has impressed the coaching staff. In Lloyd Pierce’s own words: “He’s not a rookie.”
Before the season, Evan Turner called Hunter a future All-Star. He was the talk of the town at media day, and the reason is evident. He’s already a staunch multi-positional defender at 6-foot-8. He’s also a solid secondary piece on offense. Not only is he shooting well, but he’s a strong, plodding presence in the pick-and-roll, using screens to face-up, get downhill, and score with finesse inside. He’s a more diverse scorer than anticipated.
5. Cam Reddish never breaks out (this season)
Remember when Cam Reddish was really, really bad at Duke, but injuries and pedigree led some (read: me) to maintain confidence. Well, Reddish looks really, really bad through three games. And I’m still maintaining confidence long-term.
Reddish is shooting 22.7 percent from the field, hasn’t made a 3, and is averaging 3.7 points and 4.7 rebounds as a member of the starting five. His defense is solid — a bright spot, for sure — but so far, it’s clear Reddish is not prepared to contribute to winning basketball.
Playoff aspirations aside, the Hawks are still rebuilding. It’s fine to get Reddish on the floor as often as possible, and Lloyd Pierce should remain committed to the 20-year-old’s development. He’s a cool prospect and still carries intrigue long-term. Just don’t expect much as a rookie.
6. John Collins averages over one made 3 per game
In 2018-19, John Collins hit 0.9 of his 2.6 deep attempts per game. So far in 2019-20, those averages sit at 1.8 out of 3.5, good for a respectable 50 percent clip — thanks in large part to a 5-for-8 night against Miami on Tuesday. Pierce emphasizes 3s and at-rim shots as much as any coach. Those shots are Collins’ bread and butter, and his expanding game should lead to more 3s taken (and made) as the season progresses.
7. Jabari Parker earns fringe MIP consideration
This is a stretch, but bold predictions are meant to be bold. Jabari Parker looks good — real good. For someone who has hovered between mediocre and bad for much of the past few seasons, that fact is a surprise.
Parker has adjusted better than anyone could have expected to a reserve role in Atlanta’s up-tempo, pace-and-space offense. He’s a willing rim-runner, making decisive cuts to the rim and benefitting from Trae Young’s all-seeing eyes. Add in his early-season effectiveness from deep, especially as a spot-up shooter, and all of a sudden the confusion over Parker’s two-year contract has died down.
It made sense for the Hawks, in the midst of a rebuild, to gamble on a former No. 2 pick. The contract seemed pricey at the time, but so far, Parker is living up to the payload. It’s only three games — a return to a less effective form isn’t impossible — but those three games have earned glowing reviews.
8. Trae Young earns his 1st All-Star bid
Young will average 20+ points, land somewhere in the 9-10 assists per game range, and shoot more efficiently than his rookie season despite an increased workload. If the Hawks are even remotely close to the playoff race, Young’s inclusion on the All-Star ballot — especially in the East — will be a no-brainer.
9. Brandon Goodwin earns full-scale NBA contract
The Hawks signed Brandon Goodwin to a two-way contract over the summer, bringing the Norcross native back to his hometown. Evan Turner has looked serviceable in a backup point guard role, and the Hawks have enough creation between Huerter, Reddish, and DeAndre’ Bembry to make due. Even so, a real backup point guard wouldn’t hurt.
Goodwin had some eye-popping moments in the preseason, and the diminutive guard has the three-level scoring prowess Atlanta seems to value. He also has a stout frame, which allows him to carve out space and finish inside despite a listed height of 6-foot-2 (he’s definitely not 6-foot-2).
A tough, gritty point guard who can get buckets and make the right pass is enough to tempt Atlanta into keeping Goodwin around full-time.
10. Hawks use expiring contract(s) on trade market
Allen Crabbe. Evan Turner. Chandler Parsons. All are veterans, and all are on expiring contracts of considerable volume. The Hawks will want to maintain financial flexibility in upcoming summers, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Travis Schlenk to probe the market given the obvious trade value of large expiring contracts. If a young, disgruntled star or a valuable third-wheel archetype becomes available, expect Atlanta to be in the mix.