Updated: Oct 9, 2021
The Hawks were abysmal last season, but 6'1" Trae Young took on the tallest orders. Young lit up the league in his sophomore season to the tune of 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game and earned his first All-Star selection. He showed his dangerous – and seemingly endless – bag of tricks each and every night, taking ankles and nutmegging defenders without cease. Despite his virtuosic offensive performances, he and his team were near the bottom of almost every major defensive category. The Hawks finished the season last in the league in points per game allowed and with a 20-47 record, good for 14th in the Eastern Conference.
Young's team was supposed to be different this year. After a busy offseason in Atlanta that featured five free agent signings, the Hawks suddenly boasted one of the deepest benches in the league. Kris Dunn, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Rajon Rondo, Danilo Gallinari, and Solomon Hill were all added to keep the team afloat while their starters received a rest. That's the function of a bench unit, after all, but the Hawks didn't have that last year. Their biggest non-starting threats were Jeff Teague and Dewayne Dedmon. That's rough.
After a commanding win against the KD and Kyrie-led Nets on New Year's Day, the Hawks sat at 4-1. They didn't necessarily have a stifling defensive unit, per se, but Trae Young's teammates were taking some of the scoring load off the Texas native's shoulders. Instead of forcing tough finishes at the rim, Young began to get to the free throw line at an extraordinary rate. His aggression added another element to his game; he stopped searching for the 3-point bomb at any given moment. But after that Nets game, the Hawks' offense seemed to spontaneously combust. Since then, Atlanta has posted a 3-6 record. What's going on with the Hawks doesn't just have to do with one temporary problem. There's multiple flaws that prove the busiest teams in the offseason aren't always the victors.
The most glaring issue with the Hawks is Trae Young's lamentable shooting in the month of January. Since the clock struck midnight in 2021, the star point guard has averaged 18.4 points per game on 33.1% shooting from the field and a dismal 24% from 3-point range. It's shocking for some that Young is only a 33.9% shooter from deep for his career, but he hoists a lot of 3-pointers. Last season, his aggressiveness from behind the line (9.5 3PA/G) paid off, as he averaged a closer-to-average 36.1%. Compare that to now, and Young looks like a different player.
He's also lost his ability to draw fouls. Through four games in December, Young shot almost 16 free throws every night; a month later, he's averaging just above seven. He has been showing signs of life as of late from the line (23-for-25 over the last two games), and his overall shooting efficiency should eventually come with it. It's not like Young has completely forgotten how to play basketball, either. He's still averaging almost nine assists per game, has nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Atlanta's big men (i.e. Clint Capela), and always possesses a keen sense for who's open behind the line.
Another major factor that's been hurting the Hawks is out of their control: three out of their five free agent additions are currently missing time with injuries. Bogdan Bogdanovic suffered an avulsion fracture to his right knee on Jan. 9 and is expected to miss several more weeks. Kris Dunn had arthroscopic ankle surgery on Dec. 29 and won't be back for the foreseeable future. Danilo Gallinari is still out after spraining his ankle on Dec. 30. Without these three, Atlanta's bench is struggling to find meaningful production. Though their opening lineup spearheaded by Young, John Collins, and Capela is a well-rounded offensive attack, no team looking to make a meaningful playoff run is solely carried by their starting five. Last night, the Hawks bench scored a combined two points. 59 minutes spread among five players, and two points to show for it.
Though it may be something to watch as the season progresses, Young and Collins seem to have a tense relationship because of the former's ball-dominant style. According to a report from The Athletic earlier this month, Collins sought to "limit all those early shot-clock attempts that leave his teammates on the outside looking in." This is a concerning development for Collins, who is just 23 years old but will become a restricted free agent this offseason. He should be seen as the unquestioned second option in Atlanta, but how well does he mesh with the first?
If anything can begin to heal the wounds in a locker room, it's a hard-fought win. The Hawks clamored to a 123-115 win in overtime against the Pistons last night, and Collins was a featured performance. He scored 31 points and 11 rebounds, while Young cooked for 38 points and 10 assists. Clint Capela had one of the best games of his career, scoring 27 points, 26 rebounds, and five blocks.
Atlanta's resilience was on display last night, and it definitely softens the blow of having almost their whole bench in the training room. Injuries are temporary and Trae Young is beginning to pick it up once more. But some problems transcend one star's shooting slump; it's yet to be seen if Young and Collins can rekindle both their connection and reputation as one of the league's best pairings.