Ripe off of their first Eastern Conference Finals appearance in half a decade, the Hawks ripped apart the Dallas Mavericks in their home and season opener. Despite a subpar shooting night from franchise star Trae Young, the Hawks’ ball movement and connectivity on offense picked up the slack, along with fantastic defense. Atlanta held the Mavericks to 87 points and 33% shooting from the floor. While Dallas’ poor shot selection and game plan certainly played a major factor in the outcome, Atlanta’s defense cannot be undersold.
Clint Capela’s interior presence was undeniable, deterring drives, blowing up lobs, and securing the glass. Bogdan Bogdanovic remains an underrated defender. Cam Reddish and Kevin Huerter carried much of the Hawks’ bench units.
The Hawks have an absurd wealth of depth on their roster, but questions have arisen over the lack of star talent next to Trae. The play of John Collins and De’Andre Hunter stood out not only for single game impact, but for what sustained play from them may forecast.
The defensive activity of the Hawks’ overall was fantastic, but Hunter and Collins were the tip of the spear. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis combined for 10/30 from the field with more turnovers than trips to the line.
Hunter’s screen navigation chasing Doncic, his primary assignment, was impeccable. Luka struggled to get separation from Hunter all night as he continually hounded him at the point of attack.
When Doncic was able to create a semblance of space, Hunter was fantastic in recovery and rear pursuit. Notice how he reconnects on the back end and invades Doncic’s space, congesting his shooting window.
And standing Doncic straight up in isolation with a good contest.
Few players in the league possess the length, athleticism, and defensive acumen to contain Luka to the degree Hunter did last night. His presence moving forward means a great deal for the Hawks, as they truly lacked a wing stopper much of last season with his and Reddish’s injuries. Kevin Huerter often took primary defensive assignments and can now play primarily off the ball, gouging passing lanes and making timely rotations (which he made many of last night).
Hunter’s versatility adds an element to the Hawks that raises their defensive play as was seen last night. It’ll be interesting to track how consistent this is from him throughout the season.
Collins was equally as stout and active, disrupting plays in the back line and even flashing some coverage versatility as a small ball 5.
Nate McMillan had Collins drop as the solo 5 for most of the stretch he was on the court, which is still not something he’s great at. He’s much better using his mobility playing closer to the level of the screen and relying on back line rotations to tag the roller. The Hawks were -3 in Collins at the 5 lineups last night, which is not entirely indicative of performance; single game plus minus is murky. But, it stands to reason that more versatile coverages with Collins as the solo five would benefit Atlanta. Gauging how McMillan adjusts or doesn’t adjust those coverages throughout the season is a compelling storyline for this team.
While Collins’ defense was great last night, his offense bears fruit that could significantly impact the Hawks. Collins has improved on facets of his game every season of his career, but the major glaring weakness of his game was tangible in the playoffs. He struggled with decision making as the roller when the rim was walled off, or as a passer off of closeouts. Last night, he flashed numerous solid passes out of these opportunities with a consistency he rarely did last season.
This may seem like a small improvement, considering the relative simplicity of these passes. However, if this carries across the season, this opens things up for the Hawks quite a bit. Collins has immense rim gravity as a roller and lob threat, 29th in paint touches per game last season according to second spectrum tracking.
With how capable he is of collapsing a defense, all he needs is to make the simple reads and make them quickly. If last night was an indicator of the future, Hawks fans should be ecstatic.
Hunter also flashed his offensive capabilities, creating his own shot, bailing out a few possessions, and getting to the rim.
He showed that ability as a shot creator alongside Trae last year prior to injury, and while he only finished with 11 points on as many attempts, the flashes were there and the process was solid. Cam Reddish also showed similar flashes, the process was tough early, but he finished with a game high 20 points. The growth of Hunter and Reddish this season along with health should be a boon for the Hawks.
While much was made of the luck involved in Atlanta’s run to the conference finals, less was made of the injuries they dealt with all season. Injuries will play a part of any season to some extent (cough cough, Indiana), but having the pair for more than the 49 combined games they played last season seems like a real possibility.
While Atlanta stills lacks a secondary ‘star’ the growth of their youth and synergy on the roster raises the ceiling of what they can be this season and moving forward.