The NBA draft is a dangerous time to make assumptions about the future, especially when it comes to the Hawks. This is a franchise that went from the high of drafting David Thompson and Marvin Webster in 1975 – first and third overall – to the splat of losing both to the ABA. This is a franchise that 30 years later was coming off a 69-loss season and, with the second overall pick, took Marvin Williams over Chris Paul.
And Shelden Williams fifth overall. And DerMarr Johnson sixth. And Al Wood fourth. And Jon Koncak fifth (over Chris Mullin, Karl Malone, Joe Dumars). I could go on. But there’s no reason to disrupt the cleansing process.
But while this isn’t a time for grand proclamations about the Hawks’ future or new general manager Travis Schlenk, there have been signs in recent days that they are getting things together. There was calm and confidence in the draft room Thursday night and a seriousness about the future.
Nobody can predict how coach Mike Budenholzer will respond to having a new boss – he has yet to speak publicly since stepping down as president of basketball operations – but Schlenk appears to have unified a front office that too often was fractured with Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox at the helm.
“Any time there’s change, there’s always a level of uncertainty,” said Hawks assistant general manager Jeff Peterson, who was among those in the draft room Thursday night. “But give Travis credit: The first thing he did when he got the job was he brought us all together and said, ‘I’m not getting rid of anybody.’ That literally was the first thing he told us. So immediately we all took a deep breath, and we were like, ‘OK, let’s proceed.’”
The Hawks’ front office was known to be wound a little tightly under Budenholzer and Wilcox, and even in the short but impressive era under former general manager Danny Ferry. That has changed under Schlenk, who has created a looser atmosphere, which was the norm at Golden State.
“My style’s a lot different from what they’re used to in the past,” Schlenk said. “I think I’m a lot more laid back. People are getting used to the fact I make jokes. I don’t think they had a lot of that in the past.”
He didn’t mean for that to be funny, but everybody in ear shot laughed.
Schlenk’s job is to build a winning organization. He can’t do that if there’s a division in his front office or a problem in the locker room. He understands that he and Budenholzer have to be on the same page or it’s not going to work.
He also understands that there is an expected dramatic roster churn underway and, while he is opposed to using the word “rebuild,” it was clear the high number of young players that will be coming means chemistry and veteran leadership is even more crucial than before for the sake of development.
That’s why Dwight Howard had to go. The fact Howard could still play a little — or at least rebound — was secondary to the fact that he was detached in the locker room and has never shown an inclination to be a leader. Paul Millsap would be great for that role, but the Hawks are not going to give max money for four seasons (let alone five) to a 32-year-old, just so he can be a steadying influence.
Millsap has been the Hawks’ best player. But that doesn’t mean he’s a building block for the future. If he re-signs as a free agent, it will be because he took less – a lot less – than he could have received on the open market. That just doesn’t seem likely.
The draft went as well as Schlenk could have expected for a team picking 19th. The consensus first 11 players that he had highlighted after talking to other teams around the league went in the first 11 picks. So the man can do his homework. From there, he had five players targeted, hoping one would fall to the Hawks. He and his staff narrowed the list to three. The best among them: John Collins, a power forward from Wake Forest.
About that consensus 11: Collins wasn’t among them, but the Hawks had him 11th on their list. He was long and athletic (6-foot-10, 235 pounds). He could rebound and had soft hands around the basket (19.2 points, 9.8 rebounds as a sophomore at Wake Forest). He was smart, could run the floor and projected an ability to blend into a pick-and-roll offense. And he fell to 19.
Schlenk was prepared for more action on his first draft, but, “It was really kind of boring. We had a lot more phone calls between 5 and 7 (p.m.) than we did 7 and 9. … I like a little more chaos.”
Collins, who grew up in a military family and has lived in Guam, Turkey and the U.S. Virgin Islands, said, “Growing up in different places gave me a different perspective on different cultures, knowing how different people act. I think it helped me socially just to learn how to interact with people. I think that translates on the court in terms of being communicative with guys on the court.”
A little deeper than your average 19-year-old.
Collins ironically played at Wake Forest for coach Danny Manning, who was a part of one of the most polarizing trades in Hawks’ history. Dominique Wilkins went to the Los Angeles Clippers (with a first-round pick) in February 1994, and Manning came here. Then after the season, he signed with Phoenix as a free agent because he wanted to play for a contender. The Hawks, who were coming off a 57-win season, were not amused.
Maybe this draft can bury another ugly chapter in franchise history.
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