2020-2021 Record: 41-31
Hope and confidence are high for the Atlanta Hawks heading into the 2021-22 NBA season after their surprise run to the Eastern Conference Finals in last year’s playoffs. After this offseason, the Hawks have maybe the best mix of veteran reliability and youthful upside in the entire NBA. Delon Wright and Lou Williams can comfortably back up Trae Young as well as play alongside him in the right matchups. Sharife Cooper will be there to soak up all the veteran know-how whenever he’s not testing the limits of his creativity for the College Park Skyhawks, the Hawks G League affiliate. Ditto for Jalen Johnson. It’s unreasonable to expect the Hawks to make it back to the Conference Finals, but it’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility. Barring a long-term injury to Trae Young, this team should be even better than they were in the regular season last year. For those who “couldn’t watch Trae Young” because of his mastery of the dark arts of foul drawing—you’re in luck! The rules changes should see Young and every other crafty on-ball creator playing more “honest” basketball this season. Combine that with the wealth of talent on the roster and the Hawks should be a popular league pass team. They came in at #7 in Zach Lowe’s annual League Pass Rankings.
Trae Young should have been an All-Star last season. He’s one of the better on-ball creators in the NBA and that is the most valuable skill in the league. We saw Young rise to the occasion during last year’s playoffs and he should continue to improve as he gets deeper into his NBA career. Young can score the ball and dole out assists with the best of them, but he still has some ground to make up when it comes to efficiency. Last season, he averaged 25.3 points, 9.4 assists, 3.9 rebounds, 0.8 steals, and 0.2 blocks, while shooting 43.8% from the field, 34.3% from three, and 88.6% from the free-throw line. Young should be able to reproduce similar numbers this season, but his impressive stat line hides a not-so-subtle change in his shot profile.
Young shot fewer threes last season than in any prior season in his career. In 2019-20 Young shot 568 threes (9.5 a game); while last season he shot just 396 threes (6.3 a game). The simplest way for Young to improve his efficiency is to take and make more threes this season. Young likely tried to replace the threes he was eschewing with more shots around the basket and trips to the free-throw line and, indeed he managed to increase his free-throw rate last season (49.1% in 20-21, 44.8% in 19-20). However, according to the numbers at Basketball Reference, the ghosted threes turned into floaters rather than layups. 64.3% of Young’s shots came from two-point range last season, but 22.6% of them came from 3 to 10 feet. By comparison, that number was just 16.7% in 19-20 and 14.3% in 18-19.
What does all this mean, exactly? It means Trae Young is already so good that he’s boxed himself into a corner with regards to improvement. First, he needs to get back to taking nine or 10 threes a game and he needs to make them at a higher rate than he ever has. Young has never shot better than 33.5% on pull-up threes. In contrast, Damian Lillard has only one season below 35% on pull-up threes, which came in 2014-15 (tracking data for Lillard’s rookie year in 2012-13 is unavailable). Even Luka Doncic, who Young compares more naturally to as a three-point shooter, made 35.6% of his pull-up threes last season (450 attempts). Young’s three-point shooting and rim attacking work hand-in-hand. By taking and making more threes, Young will be able to leverage the threat of his pull-up jumper to get all the way to the basket more often.
It’s difficult to predict how much Delon Wright and Lou Williams will play this season. Being the primary backup for Trae Young is not a great position for fantasy production because Young rarely misses games and he’s the primary ball-handler and playmaker for the Hawks. As a result, both Wright and Williams are likely best left on the waiver wire to start the season in standard leagues. If Wright gets enough minutes he could be a solid bench option in deeper leagues due to his defensive playmaking. Similarly, if Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, or Kevin Huerter were to miss time due to injury, Williams would be called upon to play more minutes and take on a larger role within the offense.
Sharife Cooper is a talented guard out of the University of Auburn. Cooper was uncommonly productive in college for a second-round pick, averaging 20.2 points, 8.1 assists, 4.3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 0.3 blocks, while shooting 39.1% from the field, 22.8% from three, and 82.5% from the free-throw line. The shooting percentages at least partly explain his draft position and the development of his shot will have an outsized impact on whether or not he sticks in the NBA. Like Jalen Johnson, whom we’ll discuss in a moment, Cooper showed plenty of promise at Summer League. Given the depth at guard, Cooper will likely get even fewer opportunities than Johnson this season, but he could be doing his best Trae Young impersonation on the Hawks’ second-unit before you know it.
Both Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter are solid two-guards and we saw both of them have stellar moments in last year’s playoffs. Bogdanovic spent part of last season coming off the bench and only played in 44 games due to injury last season; whereas Huerter played in 69 games. However, the hierarchy at the shooting guard position is more clearly defined this season. Bogdanovic will start and Huerter will come off the bench if both players are healthy. Bogdanovic was scorching hot after the All-Star break last season, averaging 18.7 points, 3.7 assists, 3.7 rebounds, 1.4 steals, and 0.3 blocks, while shooting 48.9% from the field, 46.2% from three, and 90.9% from the free-throw line. But the biggest stat from this stretch might be the playing time—Bogdanovic averaged 33 minutes a game during this period. Expect his mpg to look more like his post-All-Star period than his full-season numbers last year (29.7 mpg). You can also expect some shooting regression. For the full season, Bogdanovic shot 43.8% from three, but that was the first time in his career he’d every shot 40% or better from three—though he came closer in 17-18 (39.2%).
I don’t expect Huerter to play as many minutes as he did last season if Hunter and Bogdanovic are healthy, but you never know. It’s a long season and injuries are bound to happen. Huerter can hoop, just ask the Philadelphia 76ers, whom he helped eliminate with a 27-point performance in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. If Huerter’s game continues to expand, he could take on more playmaking responsibilities alongside players like Bogdonavic and Wright on the second unit. There’s a lot to like in Huerter’s game, he can do a little bit of everything, but he likely won’t get enough opportunities to be anything but a points and threes streamer this season. Here are his averages from last season—11.9 points, 3.5 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 0.3 blocks, while shooting 43.2% from the field, 36.3% from three, and 78.1% from the free-throw line.
De’Andre Hunter looked to be breaking out last year before his season was cut short by a knee injury. In just 23 games last season, Hunter averaged 15 points, 1.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, 0.8 steals, and 0.5 blocks, while shooting 48.4% from the field, 32.6% from three, and 85.9% from the free-throw line. It’s reasonable to expect Hunter’s field goal percentage and free-throw percentage to drop some, given that his efficient shooting came in such a small sample size. Hunter is somewhat of a confounding player. He came into the NBA with a strong defensive reputation but hasn’t been much of a defensive playmaker. He’s never averaged a steal a game and his teammate Cam Reddish, despite his many flaws, is a much more dynamic defensive playmaker. That said, I’m relatively high on Hunter’s future. He’s projected to start and should get plenty of opportunities to grow into his offensive game alongside a talented roster. His disciplined positional defense is exactly the kind of thing an ostensibly old-school coach like Nate McMillian might value and none of the other wing defenders on the roster have his mix of height and strength. He’s worthy of a late-round pick in deep leagues.
Will everything come together for Cam Reddish this season? Will it ever come together? It’s impossible to say with any certainty, but Reddish keeps drawing me back to the island with his out-of-nowhere spin moves and acrobatic layups. At this point in his career, you shouldn’t expect Reddish to be efficient from the field, but you can expect him to make plays on defense. Here are the numbers from last season (in just 26 games)—11.2 points, 1.3 assists, 4 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 0.3 blocks, while shooting 36.5% from the field, 26.2% from three, and 81.7% from the free-throw line. The shooting percentages are ghastly, but you can see the juice Reddish has in his steal numbers. It’s probably not a good sign for De’adnre Hunter that he averages the same amount of rebounds, assists, and fewer steals than a player as inconsistent as Reddish. Hunter has and will continue to have a higher floor, he’s bigger and a more reliable team defender and spot-up three-point shooter, but if Reddish can ever figure out how to put the ball in the basket with some regularity he’ll be an exciting player. I’m not confident the shooting efficiency will ever arrive, however. Nonetheless, he’s worth adding to your watchlist and keeping an eye on, especially in deeper leagues and multi-year formats.
John Collins showed out in the playoffs and then got his money this offseason. He’s turned himself into an integral part of the Hawks roster. He can stretch the floor and defend better than many predicted when he first entered the league. He can play center and function as a vertical spacer in small-ball lineups or bomb away from deep as a stretch-four when he shares the floor with Clint Capela. Oh, and he’s pretty damn efficient. Last season he averaged, 17.6 points, 1.2 assists, 7.4 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and 1 block, while shooting 55.6% from the field, 39.9% from three, and 83.3% from the free-throw line. I doubt he ever shoots well enough from the free-throw line to threaten the hallowed 50/40/90 threshold, but that marker underscores his efficient big archetype. Capela’s presence puts a cap on his rebounding and shot-blocking numbers, therefore fantasy improvement for Collins will likely have to come on the offensive end. Increasing his three-point attempts is one avenue for such improvement.
Collins has shot the ball well the past two seasons—40.1% in 19-20 and 39.9% last year—but it’s been on relatively low-volume. Miles Bridges, who is essentially the small forward version of Collins, made 40% of his 290 three-point attempts last season (4.4 a game). Collins shot only 208 threes last season (3.3 a game). It’s hard to imagine McMillan dedicates anymore of the offense to John Collins’ two-point attempts and even if he did, Collins shot 61.5% on twos last season, there’s only so much room for improvement. Without drastically increasing his steal numbers or returning to his pre-Capela block percentage, increased three-point volume is the cleanest way for Collins to improve both his real and fantasy impact.
Danilo Gallinari is mostly a threes specialist at this point of his career. He can still get hot and put up points in bunches, but those nights come around less often these days. Last year, he averaged 13.3 points, 1.5 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 0.6 steals, and 0.2 blocks, while shooting 43.4% from the field, 40.6% from three, and 92.5% from the free-throw line. Gallinari is still a marksman, but he lacks the volume to buoy your team’s threes made or free-throw percentage. He averaged just 24 minutes a game last year, his lowest total since 2014-15, his first year back after an ACL injury. He’ll almost certainly have a stellar two weeks at some point this season, but like most of the backups on this roster, he’s little more than a streaming option.
I don’t expect Jalen Johnson to play enough minutes or produce efficiently enough in those minutes to be anything but an injury-dependent streaming option in 14-team or larger leagues this season, but Johnson could turn out to be the steal of the 2021 NBA Draft if everything goes right for him. Johnson is a hyper-athletic forward out of Duke University and before his early departure from Duke, was thought of as a potential lottery pick or higher. The Hawks drafted him with the 20th pick and have the luxury of being able to bring him along slowly. He’s more of a long-term play in keeper and dynasty league formats so make sure you add him to your watchlist and track his development throughout the season. Enjoy some Jalen Johnson Summer League sizzle as you “bet on the come,” as Brian Windhorst is fond of saying.
Clint Capela is a solid defense-first starting center. Although he’s been dealing with Achilles’ soreness this preseason, he appears ready for opening night. Capela has one of the best passers in the NBA throwing him lobs, which helps him get easy baskets, but his real value is on the defensive end. Capela was a fringe Defensive Player of the Year candidate last year and is the single most important piece of the Hawks defense. Last season, he averaged 15.2 points, 0.8 assists, 14.3 rebounds, 0.7 steals, and 2 blocks a game, while shooting 59.4% from the field and 57.3% from the free-throw line. Onyeka Okongwu is out with a shoulder injury to start the season, which means Capela should play plenty of minutes and produce at a high level. That said, we could see Capela swat fewer shots this season. His two blocks a game were a career-high last season and his 129 blocks were the second-most of his career.
Onyeka Okongwu has been plagued by injury to start his NBA career, but he’s shown some real promise when healthy. Okongwu held up pretty well in the Hawks playoff series against the Bucks in limited minutes. Being an impact defender in the playoffs as a rookie is a great sign for Okongwu’s future. Okongwu’s prospects for this season have to be tempered by his injury and the resulting missed games, but he could become a streaming option for defensive stats in deeper leagues once he returns from injury.
Gorgui Dieng is a reliable veteran backup center, but he won’t be fantasy relevant outside of streaming situations due to injury or load management. Fun fact about Dieng: he’s a career 35.7% three-point shooter on low volume.