By Jeremy Johnson
The Atlanta Hawks are not getting Zion Williamson. The Hawks aren't making the playoffs this season.
Everyone just breathe. Is everyone okay?
The Hawks have won their way out to the best odds at landing the number one pick in the 2019 NBA draft and ultimately the right to select the generational talent (or demigod) that is Williamson.
The Hawks began the season 6-23. As the losses piled up, rookie point guard Trae Young struggled shooting the ball giving the social media world ammunition for the whispers of making the wrong decision when trading Luka Dončić who in comparison got off to a torrid start to his NBA career.
At the same time, the college basketball world was set ablaze by Williamson with his highlight reel dunks and other worldly athleticism and size. The Hawks’ fan base began dreaming of a future with Williamson.
Something happened. The Hawks are 19-25 since December 18 and as other franchises race to the bottom the Hawks appear to be racing toward being a threat to everyone they play on a nightly basis.
Wins over two playoff teams in the last two games has Hawks’ fans growing anxious when it comes to the draft. Saturday only threw more gasoline on the fan base’s anxiety as they watch the Hawks’ lottery ball number decrease with every win. Fans have resorted to cheering for the Hawks to lose when possible.
Hawks’ players have noticed, but with their lively hoods and pride on the line each night they’ve ignored the calls for lottery balls and have played solid basketball down the stretch.
“We can’t worry about the draft because a lot of guys’ futures are on the line,” Hawks’ forward Kent Bazemore said. “If we don’t do well then obviously, they’re going to be looking to get better and some guys will get traded, some guys will get waived. You tend to try and look out for yourself when you’re out there and you’re trying to win and make winning plays. It’s just the comfort of it.”
The Hawks grabbed a thrilling win over the playoff bound Philadelphia 76ers on a buzzer-beating floater from the hands of rookie point guard Young. Young put up 32 points, 11 assists and six rebounds to lead the Hawks to another win over a playoff caliber team.
The Hawks currently sit with the fifth worst record in the NBA. Word is starting to get around the league that the fun to watch Hawks aren’t the fifth worst team in the NBA.
Do not fret over lost lottery balls fans. There’s something more valuable going on in Atlanta of late. The young core of Young, John Collins, Taurean Prince and Kevin Huerter, who threw down a massive dunk on 76ers’ star Jimmy Butler, are growing up.
The Hawks are learning to win games. There is value in learning to win games. Talent will put teams in position to be in games in the NBA, but winning is learned by doing. The Hawks have learned to come out of their fox hole late in games and find a way. They have turned the late game shot responsibilities over to a rookie point guard, who is excelling in the role.
“You take away our poor start and we’re right in the thick of things and maybe comfortable inside the playoff picture with the way we’ve played,” Bazemore said. “That just takes time and the level of understanding of how to win the game of basketball in the NBA is tough. The learning curve has shrunken tremendously for these guys.”
The Hawks also have a sense of pride. There isn’t any let off with only eight games remaining in the season. There are futures on the line as well as the sour taste of not being a team that contends. Hawks’ players like the idea of playing spoiler, it’s what keeps them fighting and it’s been a character-building trait in the second-half of the season.
“It’s about momentum heading into the summer,” Bazemore said. “It’s adamant that we finish strong. We don’t want to finish on a sour note and have that bad taste in our mouth all summer. We’re trying to wreck the playoff picture and have a hand in some teams not getting what they’re out for. We want to send the message that the next time you come through Atlanta, you’re going to have to bring it. These young guys have done a tremendous job of jelling together. Taurean (Prince) is getting in his groove. Kevin (Huerter) is battling every night. Trae (Young) has been outstanding. It’s been unreal to watch his growth just this year alone.”
Growth is the word used a lot to explain the Hawks’ in the second half of the season. In the late moments of Saturday’s win, the Hawks showed where they have grown. Offensively they were able to break the huddle and find a way to get their set run and get the ball in the hands of the player the play was designed for and Young was able to create the necessary space to hit the game winning shot in 3.5 seconds.
Over the final few possessions the Hawks’ defense needed to bow their necks and slow down the hard-charging 76ers. They found ways to get stops when they needed to.
That’s growth. The Hawks were losing games with similar makeups early in the season.
“We’ve been in this situation a few times before and this is the goal, this is what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to gain experience and put ourselves in position where we’re learning from mistakes or we learn from the opportunities to do it,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce said after Saturday’s win. “We’ve done this a few times before and our guys were able to make adjustments at the right time tonight… I think there’s a lot to be said about our growth as a team and how we’ve progressed and the team’s we’ve beat and how we’ve played as the season has gone on and how he’s (Young) been a major part of that.”
The future is bright in Atlanta whether or not Williamson is destined for the Hawks or not. The Hawks currently hold two of the top 10 selections in the upcoming draft.
Adding more talent could bode for an even bigger jump next season. Having the number one pick can be a little misguiding. There’s a reason why teams who continuously are in the hunt for lottery balls stay draft-dreaming. They don’t build a winning culture in the locker room. The Golden State Warriors don’t have a single number one pick on their roster. They’ve developed a winning culture in the years before they turned the corner and have multiple really good players to choose from as a result of that culture.
Klay Thompson was the 11th selection in the NBA Draft. Stephen Curry was taken with the seventh pick. Harrison Barnes was taken seventh overall. Draymond Green was the 35th overall pick.
Relax Hawks’ fans, good times are coming.