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Are the Hawks Finally on the Other Side of Their Rebuild?

It’s a playoffs-or-bust season in Atlanta. The good news is that Trae Young has found a running mate and the franchise might be ready to turn the corner.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In his first two NBA seasons, a big scoring night from Trae Young was rarely enough for the Hawks to win. On Tuesday, Young had 38 points in a 108-99 victory over the Clippers, who didn’t have Kawhi Leonard or Paul George due to COVID protocols. But Atlanta wouldn’t have won without De’Andre Hunter, who had 22 points of his own. The no. 4 pick in the 2019 draft is one of the most improved players in the league this season. His emergence is the reason Atlanta might finally be on the other side of a painful rebuild. Young now has a running buddy who doesn’t rely on him for success.

The win moved the Hawks to 9-8 and up to sixth place in the East. It’s a good start for a young team that is still learning how to win and has dealt with a lot of injuries. Their big-name free-agent acquisitions (Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo) have barely played due to various ailments. Hunter has made up the difference by averaging 17.7 points on 51.3 percent shooting, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. That’s a huge jump from his rookie season, when he didn’t look ready for the speed of the NBA game and couldn’t do much to lift Atlanta out of the basement. The Hawks would probably still be there if not for him.

Hunter has quickly developed into one of the most versatile wings in the league. He does so many different things for the Hawks that there’s no way to replace the 6-foot-8 forward when he sits. They go from a net rating of plus-5.6 in 522 minutes with Hunter to minus-4.8 in 299 minutes without him. He defends the primary scorer on the opposing team, can guard players at all five positions, contributes on the boards, spaces the floor, creates his own shot, and sets up his teammates. When Hunter is out of the lineup, Atlanta is almost always lacking in one or two of those areas.

The 23-year-old’s scoring is the biggest change from last season. Hunter no longer needs Young to spoon-feed him open looks. He has always been a good shooter, dating back to his Virginia days, but his ballhandling has taken a massive step forward. Now he can use screens to create space for himself off the dribble, pull up on his way to the basket, or finish at the rim. These are the kinds of plays that he didn’t make as a rookie:

The threat of his scoring has made him a better playmaker, too. While Hunter is not a point forward, he no longer ends possessions when he gets the ball. The Hawks’ offense was more stagnant with him last season because he would either shoot after he caught it, or just give the ball back to Young and force him to start the offense over. Hunter now keeps the ball moving when it comes his way, driving into the lane and then finding a big man if the defense collapses:

That takes a lot of pressure off Young. He had to create offense for himself and everyone else on the floor last season, when he averaged 29.6 points and 9.3 assists, with no other perimeter player averaging more than 13 points per game. Asking a 21-year-old to play like James Harden was an invitation to lose. Young’s scoring, assists, and field goal attempts are all down this season, and his 3-point attempts have dropped by a third. He’s no longer the only player on the floor that opposing defenses have to respect.

Hunter is key to making this new dynamic work. His offensive development has allowed the Hawks to start him at the 3 next to a shooter (Cam Reddish or Kevin Huerter) and two big men who can’t create much on their own (John Collins and Clint Capela). The fit between Collins and Capela, who are both at their best when rolling to the rim, was a big question coming into the season, but it has not been an issue because Collins has knocked down 3s (40.0 percent on 3.2 attempts per game) and Hunter has been an excellent secondary ball handler. Both versions of the Hawks’ starting lineup have been great this season. Young, Reddish, Hunter, Collins, and Capela have a net rating of plus-13.1 in 92 minutes, while the same lineup with Huerter replacing Reddish is plus-13.0 in 75 minutes.

Hunter has been just as valuable on defense. The list of players that he’s guarded this season is a who’s who of elite scorers, from Gordon Hayward to Kyrie Irving. Hunter isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s a sound positional defender with a massive frame (6-foot-8 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) that allows him to match up with the biggest forwards in the NBA. His versatility is crucial when playing next to an undersized guard like Young whom opponents routinely target. Hunter allows him to hide on less threatening scorers, and protects him when he does get attacked in the paint:

Few players in the league could fill Hunter’s shoes. Guys his size who can defend and space the floor are rare enough, much less ones who can also create their own offense. Players who check all those boxes are some of the best in the NBA. The Hawks raised eyebrows when they traded three picks to move up in the draft to take Hunter. Now that looks like a bargain.

It’s not just that Hunter can do so many things—it’s the speed at which he is able to do them. Hunter didn’t need a long time to develop because he came into the league at 21. He spent three years at Virginia, which has churned out many future pros under Tony Bennett, where he developed both his body and his game. Older prospects like Hunter often get criticized in the predraft process because of a perceived lack of upside. But upside doesn’t do much for a team that needs to win immediately. The Hawks couldn’t afford to wait on a long-term project. They needed Hunter to be good quickly to cover for some of their other young players.

The contrast between Hunter and Reddish, the no. 10 pick in the 2019 draft, is telling. Reddish, a 21-year-old who spent only one season at Duke, is a better athlete and more gifted scorer than his fellow second-year wing. But he’s not nearly as strong as Hunter, nor does he consistently make the same good decisions with the ball. Reddish is averaging 11.8 points per game on 35.8 percent shooting this season. It’s possible that he will end up being better than Hunter when both reach their prime. That just won’t do much for GM Travis Schlenk and head coach Lloyd Pierce if they have already been fired by that point.

The Hawks have one of the most interesting collections of young talent in the NBA, but patience is running out. That’s why Schlenk, who was hired in 2017, spent so much money in free agency this offseason. It’s playoffs or bust for Atlanta, which will have to hand out a max-level extension to Young in the offseason. Young is not quite good enough to lift the Hawks’ fortunes by himself. The good news for the team is that Hunter’s emergence means Young no longer has to.