NBA

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Soaring Down South

By: Buck Blanz

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Atlanta Hawks have devoted the last three seasons to growing and building their organization since parting ways with then head coach Mike Budenholzer in 2017.

However, this season looks different as the 2021 NBA regular season is underway.

Preparation for the 2021 season began early last February by making moves to bring former Houston Rockets Center Clint Capela to the city of Atlanta.

General Manager Travis Schlenk continued to work to add more talent through a lottery pick to catapult Atlanta to an NBA championship contender in the upcoming season.

This move landed names such as Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, reigning NBA champion Rajon Rondo, Kris Dunn and sixth pick Onyeka Okongwu from University of Southern California, putting Atlanta in a position to be one of the eight-best teams in the Eastern conference.

Adding to the mix, the talented young superstar Trae Young, who is looking to achieve some milestones.

Young is a key component to the Hawks success this year and with his ability to showcase his talent, he is certain to receive a contract extension when his rookie contract ends in 2022.

Atlanta’s talent pool combined with the NBA’s new play-in format to get into the playoffs, Atlanta just has to be a top 10 Eastern Conference team to earn a position in a three-game series to determine the two final seeds.

Moving into the season, the Hawks strength is offense. Last season, the Hawks were fifth in the league in their offensive rating at 111.2 points per game, proving that they can score on anyone.

The Hawks entire offense, centered around Trae Young, accompanied by John Collins and Kevin Huerter, is modeled after Golden State’s offense using Young as Stephan Curry in Atlanta’s system.

With the addition of Bogdanovic and Gallinari, who are two solid role players that can put the ball in the hoop, the Hawks open up more scoring options for the team.

The Hawks offense will also be strengthened by allowing Trae Young to take on a leadership role on the floor, playing off the ball as well as allowing him to play freely within the system.

It is important to circle back around to the addition of two-time NBA Champion Rajon Rondo.

By acquiring Rondo, the Hawks balance the team with some much needed veteran leadership after the retirement of the long-time great Vince Carter.

Rondo is a great role-player. Throughout the Lakers Bubble appearance last season, Rondo averaged 8.9 points per game along with 6.6 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game.

The Hawks needed a key role-player that has been in the league long enough to know how to approach each day with a one-day-at-a-time mentality.

Even though there were many significant improvements made to the offense this offseason, Atlanta is sure to see struggles ahead in their already weak defense.

The additions of Bogdanovic and Galinari will provide entertainment to fans and they will put up a lot of points, but they do not provide much reprieve in the Hawks defense.

Increasing Altitude

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Because nothing can be anything resembling normalcy can exist anymore, the NBA is releasing the schedule for the upcoming 2020-2021 season in two parts – the first chunk covers the starts of the season (right around the corner, on December 22nd) to March 4th, at which they’ll have the All-Star Break.

The remaining schedule will be released at a later time. Ideally, they’ll still get in a full season of 72 games before the playoffs start on May 18th.

However, the big change will be who they play. Each team will play the teams in their own conference three times and will double the usual amount of games against teams from the opposing conferences (from 15 to 30).

There are some extra complexities mixed up in there, but instead of dwelling on those, let’s look at how the announced schedule plays out for the Atlanta Hawks.

The beginning of the schedule, including just four games in December and 16 in January, could be a difficult proving ground for Atlanta.

They’ve got the Memphis Grizzlies, who are just getting started, and the Brooklyn Nets, with whom Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving like to hang out, as half of those December games.

After that, they’ve got two more against the Nets, a road game in Milwaukee, and a trip out west that could be a major challenge.

Those could be backbreaking, but the Hawks certainly have the chance to win at least some of those and then there’s games at the Cavs, the Hornets, the Knicks, the Pistons, and the Timberwolves that Atlanta should have good showings against.

February is going to likely be even more of a challenge. That’s when the Lakers show up, as well as the Mavericks, the Celtics, and the Heat.

That’s all bad pretty news. While the Hawks could upset some of those better teams, that difficult stretch makes it all the more important that Atlanta takes care of business against the teams that they are, in turn, better than.

There’s barely any March schedule to talk about, so that rough February is going to wind down into an All-Star Break that will be well-earned.

How the rest of the year shakes out is yet to be determined, but if the Hawks can play up to the level they expect of themselves, they’ll be in good position.

January really stands out as a month that could swing either way and one in which the Hawks really need to get off to a good start.

There are winnable games to start, and if they can come away with victories, then I think that momentum could help carry them through the tougher games that will pop up as the month progresses.

February is going to be a difficult month regardless of how January goes, so if the Hawks want to make a run towards the playoffs (and they do), the first month of the season is going make or break them.

The Hawks have the potential to be one of – if not the – most improved teams in the NBA this season. This season – or the first half of it anyway – is actually going to help earn that rep, so long as they can win more games than they lose. They don’t need to dominate, just win the games they should and a handful of the ones they could.

If they can pull that off and continue it into whatever the second half looks like they’ll have a great chance of returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2016-2017 season.

Loading The Nest

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

You can tell a lot about where an NBA franchise thinks they are with how they approach their free agency.

Do they sign long-term max deals to players that they want to have around for a while?

Is their approach to sign guys they believe will be able to help push them over the edge and get them into the NBA finals?

Do they even participate in it at all?

The Hawks may not be on the cusp of the NBA finals, but they’re free agent signings announced to the rest of the league, and I imagine to their head coach as well, that anything less than a playoff appearance will be unacceptable.

With the young talent on Atlanta’s roster I think most people believed the organization would target veteran players they could sign for two years at a reasonable salary to help those younger players mature a little quicker; basically, what they did with Rajon Rondo. I don’t think anyone expected them to be nearly as aggressive as they were.

Even if you weren’t a bit surprised when Atlanta signed Danilo Gallinari to a 3-year contact for just north of $61 million, I imagine the most ardent Hawks supporter didn’t see them signing Bogdan Bogdanovic at 4 years/$72 million.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying either of those signings were bad, just not the moves most people were expecting Atlanta to make.

None of the four free agents Atlanta has added (yes, I’m including Kris Dunn) were brought in to merely be placeholders, bridging the gap until guys like De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, and Kevin Huerter are ready to take the reins.

They were brought in to not only make the Hawks competitive, but as a signal to those young players that their learning curve just dwindled; it’s time to take that next step and they better be ready for it.

In the matter of a week the Atlanta Hawks went from a team not good enough to play in the bubble, which is like not being good enough to get a participation trophy, to being a team that could cause problems for others in the playoffs.

Which leads me to Lloyd Pierce, who is about to enter his third year as the Hawks head coach with immensely more pressure on him than he had a few weeks ago.

I imagine the next 8-9 months for Pierce will be like watching Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” music video on a continuous loop.

The good news for the soon to be on the hot heat coach (if he doesn’t already begin the season there) is that he has a lot of different lineup options he’ll be able to fall back on, giving him an opportunity to be creative with his substitutions.

If we’re being realistic, the best case scenario for Atlanta is a second place finish in the Southeast behind Miami and a favorable first round matchup as a five or six seed.

There is the slight possibility their season could turn out even better, but I imagine that would have to do with other teams struggling more than Atlanta having success.

Regardless, this should be the best season the team has had in the past four or five years.

It’s playoffs or bust for the Atlanta Hawks, or at least that’s what their free agent signings indicate.

Welcome To The League

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

With everything going on in the world to go along with a lack of star power in this year’s draft, it would be completely understandable if you forgot the NBA Draft hadn’t taken place yet.

Honestly, the only reason I remembered is I haven’t purchased NBA 2K21 yet because the rosters couldn’t be up to date since there had been no draft (or free agency and trades).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not a fan of giving out grades when to comes to drafts.

I know they’re interesting to read, which is why most media outlets post them, but unless it’s just a no brainer pick, or one that makes absolutely no sense, it’s three or four years before you can really make any judgements.

So, instead of telling you how well or poorly the Atlanta Hawks and Orlando Magic did, here are a few remarks on the type of player each team is getting.

Atlanta Hawks

Oneyka Okongwu, C, USC. The former 1st team All-PAC 12 player was largely considered to be the best low post player in the draft.

Like most young big men with similar size and athleticism his strength is on defense, however his offensive skillset is farther along than most of his peers.

I imagine the plan is for Okongwu to back up Clint Capela while he adjusts to the NBA, but if his development is quicker than expected Capela could become expendable, something that may be appealing to Atlanta at the trade deadline.

There’s a very good chance the Hawks drafted their long-term answer down low.

Skylar Mays, G, LSU. With the NBA’s emphasis on drafting young players based on potential, hopefuls like Mays- four-year players with NBA level skills- oftentimes find themselves waiting until the second round before they hear their names called, if at all.

Mays, who started all four years at LSU and was named 1st team All-SEC this past season, is certainly good enough to play at the NBA level, the only question is whether he’ll get a chance to prove himself with Atlanta.

Not many players drafted in the 50th spot hang around, Mays has the potential to be an exception to the rule.

Orlando Magic

Cole Anthony, G, UNC. As a devout parishioner from the church of ABC (Anybody But Carolina) I was able to watch Anthony a few times during his lone, injury riddled season in Chapel Hill.

I try not to make player comparisons, but the best way I can describe Anthony’s game is “Kyrie Irving Lite”.

Anthony has great handles, can get to the rim with relative ease, and has a knack for making the “no, what are you thinking…. yes, great shot” shot, a la Irving.

But, also like Kyrie, the former Tarheel tends to forget he has teammates he can pass the ball to and avoids playing any semblance of defense.

Now, In Anthony’s defense, he wasn’t surrounded by a plethora of talent at Carolina this past season, so I understand to a point why he was the volume shooter he was.

However, I have a feeling things wouldn’t have been all that different, even if the talent level had been greater.

The Magic may have just found their most beloved, and frustrating, player on their roster.

We’ll see how these guys turn out over the next few years. For both the Hawks and Magic, they’re hoping the 2020 Draft will be a bright spot in an otherwise dreary year.

Rabbit Out Of A Hat

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The first thing the NBA had to do to return in the midst of a pandemic was figure out how to deal with the pandemic.

The NBA created a bubble, routine testing protocols for what would happen if a player got sick and a competitive format to seed teams for the playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks were not invited to Disney.

The Orlando Magic expect to be back in the playoffs this season. The team has openly admitted they do not want to risk the franchise’s long-term future for short term gain.

With three key young players recovering from injury, what can Magic fans expect when the team tips off the new season?

Every one of the Magic’s eight upcoming seeding games will be important, but none of them figure to be as crucial as Friday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets.

Orlando won both of its games over Brooklyn earlier in the season, but Brooklyn (30-34) owns a half game lead over Orlando (30-35) in the standings.

The Nets will be without Spencer Dinwiddie, Wilson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince as well as Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Orlando is going to be managing the desire and importance of winning with protecting Mohamed Bama, Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. It is important to see progress in these players, but the Magic roster without these players should be able to secure a playoff spot.

Coach Steve Clifford should rely on veterans such as Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, D.J. Augustin, Evan Fournier and Michael Carter Williams. Clifford has readily stated that he has no idea how the upcoming games will play out.

The X-factors for the Magic are Fultz and Isaac. Isaac hasn’t played since he severely sprained his left knee in January, but he is set to play under a minute restriction. Isaac might give the Magic an enormous boost on the defensive end of the floor.

Fultz has enhanced his reputation in his first full season with the Magic. He’s averaged 12 points a game and 5 assists for the Magic prior to the pandemic. Fultz creates serious concerns for opponents with his inside-out playstyle and ability to finish at the rim.

Fultz arrived a week late to the Disney bubble and is lagging behind everyone else in terms of conditioning. He must be able to maneuver the team into their offensive set at a brisk pace.

Fultz was asked how long he would need to regain his form, “I really don’t know. I feel good right now. I actually feel better than I did after the All-Star break.”

Fultz’s first full season with the Magic has been an exercise in defying expectations. If he continues to do so, Orlando will have a chance to surpass their playoff expectations.

The young Orlando Magic are looking to hit their stride at a critical time and gain valuable playoff experience. Nobody knows how this is going to turn out, but it might be the excitement or mystery surrounding the Restart Season.

Draft Options

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

As the NBA season is on the brink of resuming for many teams, for organizations like Atlanta, which has seen their season already come to an end, it’s time to look forward to possible free agent signings and the NBA Draft.

It’s difficult to get too specific about what Atlanta’s draft may look like since that event is still roughly three months away and a lot can happen between now and then.

The muddy waters should become a little bit clearer on August 25 when the NBA holds their draft lottery and the Hawks will find out exactly what their draft position is; their first-round pick could range anywhere from the first pick to the seventh overall.

If Atlanta is fortunate enough to wind up with either the first or second pick, I think the choices are obvious, it’s going to be James Wiseman or Anthony Edwards.

Personally, if Atlanta were to receive the number one overall pick, they should go with Wiseman. The former Memphis Tiger- and I use that in the loosest sense of the term since he only played three games there- is the better of the two players and fills a deeper need for the Hawks.

That’s not to say Atlanta wouldn’t be as happy as a college student making a late-night run to the Waffle House if they wound up with Edwards, my preference just happens to be Wiseman.

Like with most drafts, it only gets interesting after those initial picks. Depending on which mock draft you choose to look at the Hawks, currently slotted in the fourth spot until the lottery takes place because of their record, seem to have more possibilities than Brad Pitt at a bar during Ladies Night.

Of all the names associated with that pick, there are three I could see the Hawks leaning towards; Obi Toppin, Isaac Okoro, and LaMelo Ball.

Toppin, the power forward from Dayton, probably has the highest ceiling of the three and is arguably the most NBA ready, which in a draft bereft of franchise changing talent, can be difficult to pass up.

On the downside he is 22, which in our bizarro world makes him the elder statesman of the draft- and likely has the lowest ceiling of the three. That combination can be a tough sell when you’re drafting that high.

Okoro, freshman out of Auburn, is an athletic wing that thrives on the defensive end but has a very limited skillset on the offensive end.

Players like Okoro are high risk/high reward and I have a feeling if Atlanta decides to go this route it will be indicative of their feelings towards De’Andre Hunter or Cam Reddish.

If I had to choose between one of the three, Ball, who spent the last few seasons playing overseas, would be the choice.

LaMelo’s game translates well to the NBA and I would love to see how Trae Young would play with him in the backcourt. Even though the level of competition he faced overseas may not have been as high as it would’ve been at a major conference program, from all accounts he took his experience over there very seriously and should be prepared for the rigors of an NBA season.

Atlanta may not be ready for the playoffs yet, but who they choose in this year’s draft, paired with an already young and talented roster, could go a long way in getting them there.

At least they’ve got three months to think about it.

Tip It Off

By: JJ Lanier

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

Well, after months of watching old games, listening to pundits regurgitate the same storylines, and reading enough Top Ten articles that even David Letterman would roll his eyes, the return of sports is now on the periphery…in a limited capacity…at the end of the summer…for only a select number of teams.

The first domino to fall was hockey, which came up with a creative approach to the remainder of their season, consisting of qualifying rounds and round robin seeding games, to determine the 16 playoff teams.

With an expected start date sometime in late July, I imagine Gary Bettman must have been optimistic- if you’re starving for fan attention being the only game in town has its’ advantages.

It’s like being stranded on a deserted island for six months before realizing there’s someone of the opposite sex on the island with you. That person may not be your ideal mate, but after a certain amount of time, you’re not going to be picky.

Then, of course, the NBA announced their plans to finish their season with qualifying games among a select group of teams to narrow the field down to their playoff participants.

One of the aspects included in each league’s proposal I can easily get behind is they are only including teams that were in playoff contention at the time their respective leagues shut down. If we’re truly trying to be safe, there’s no reason to put players at risk by making them play meaningless games.

The main difference between the hockey and basketball plans is hockey is scheduling their games in at least two different hub cities, while the NBA will hold all their games at Disney World, requiring everyone to stay in a designated area throughout their time there.

The current NBA schedule has them resuming games in late July also, and running through October.

Besides the encouraging signs the sports world may be starting to open back up, the timeline of when everything takes place means September and October have the potential to be two of the most exciting months in recent memory.

Even if college football and the NFL delay their starts by a few weeks, there’s a very realistic possibility you could have multiple weekends consisting of NHL and NBA playoff games, to go along with football.

As much as people are tired of being stuck at home now, with all those options to choose from, I bet many of those same people would be staying indoors, deciding they needed to “self-quarantine”.

As much as I think most of us are looking forward to watching again, we may want to temper our expectations.  We’re still weeks away before the first game will be played, and as positive Covid cases continue to rapidly increase in almost half the states across the country (many college programs are now announcing outbreaks among their players), it may be delayed even more.

Regardless of what you read into that, even the most skeptical critic would have a difficult time arguing an increase of positive test results would cause any league to speed up their return date.

If both leagues are able to resume their seasons in July it will have been a long four months in sports purgatory. And even though we won’t have technically been deserted on a desert island during that time, we’ll welcome the first puck drop, or opening tip, as if we had been.

Young Hawks Learning To Fly

By: Kenneth Harrison

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Atlanta Hawks are a young team. They are led by second year point guard Trae Young. Young was selected as a starter in the upcoming All-Star Game.

So far, he’s one of the few bright spots on the team. They are currently 12 – 35 and tied with Cleveland for last place in the East. They have the second worst record in the league behind Golden State.

The team got a rare win Sunday against Southeast division foe Washington, 152-133. Despite the W the league was in a very somber mood.

NBA legend Kobe Bryant died in a helicopter crash Sunday morning. There were nine people involved in the crash, along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

Young was mentored by Bryant and he knew Gianna, nicknamed Gigi. He was her favorite player.

She came to two Hawks games this season and met with Young. Their relationship began when Kobe Bryant asked Young, who trained him, and hired Alex Bazzell, to work with Gigi as well.

Young started the game wearing a # 8 jersey and taking an eight second violation.

Young had 45 points and 14 assists to lead the Hawks to victory.

“One of the last conversations we had, he was just telling me how much he’s seen my game progress and he’s just been happy for me,” Young said between pauses. “He said how proud he was of me and how he wants me to continue to be a role model for kids growing up and for Gigi and all the kids looking up to me to inspire these kids and continue to play my heart out.”

Atlanta had lost three of four going in to that game. They scored the most points in a game this season. Several other players stepped up and had big games. De’Andre Hunter finished with 25 points, Kevin Huerter had 18 and John Collins scored 16.

Bradley Beal scored 40 points for the Wizards, who dropped to 15 – 30.

“Trae, he’s a problem,” Washington coach Scott Brooks said. “He’s a handful. He’s an All-Star for all the right reasons. He’s a hard guy to guard. He was making his shots and getting guys involved.”

I was initially outspoken about wanting the Hawks to keep Luka Doncic instead of trading him to Dallas on draft night.

I was wrong about him because he has proven to be a great pick thus far. He has averaged 30 points per game, 9 assists per game and 5 rebounds.

Journeyman Jabari Parker has been a pleasant surprise. He has averaged 15 ppg and 6 rpg. The other power forward John Collins is averaging 19 ppg and 10 rpg.

The player they are counting on to be great is rookie small forward Cam Reddish. He was drafted tenth overall out of Duke. So far, he is only averaging 9 ppg. He has to develop into a star player, which is what we expect from players drafted that high.

The season could be a blessing down the road. This is a young team experiencing growing pains and learning how to play together. The best-case scenario is to continue at this pace and have one of the worst records in the league.

I hope that they can draft a player in the top five. If they can add a game changing player to pair with Young, they can become an instant playoff contender.

 

The New Magic Show

By: Robert Craft

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

The Orlando Magic continue to get glimpses of what they can be, but injuries and inconsistent play is making this season like a roller coaster.

With Nikola Vucevic being out for a minimum of 4 weeks with a high ankle sprain, I’m excited to see what player steps up in his place and how the team responds.

Vucevic is Orlando’s only All-Star player and last season he led the Magic to the playoffs. Vucevic led the team in 2018 in scoring (20.8 per game) and rebounding (12 per game). Vucevic left some big shoes to fill.

Magic forward Jonathan Isaac is now one of their featured players offensively and his main assignment is defending the opponent’s best player.

How Isaac responds to the additional responsibility could determine how the Magic fare over the next four to six weeks.

The Magic are pushing the ball more for Isaac and rely on him to accomplish more on the offensive end of the court.

In the absence of Vucevic, Isaac has become impossible to ignore. He is a dominating defender and has become a crucial offensive force. Isaac is average on the stat sheet, just under 15 points per game, 3 blocked shots per game, and 9 rebounds since the Vucevic injury.

Isaac’s play has created some room for Coach Clifford to trust him a little more on the offensive side of the court. Isaac has shown improvement in his 3-point shooting, ball handling, and footwork.

Markelle Fultz, the first pick in the 2017 NBA draft by the Philadelphia 76ers, became the starting point guard for the Orlando Magic just six games into this season.

Fultz has only played 33 NBA games coming into the 2019-2020 season due to injuries. In case you don’t remember, Fultz was traded to the Magic in February 2019, in exchange for Jonathon Simmons and two second round draft picks.

Since Fultz’s addition to the starting lineup, the Magic’s offensive efficiency has ranked 18th in the league, scoring an average 108 points per game, which is a significant improvement from the first 6 games.

Fultz has been aggressive at getting to the paint, finishing at the rim, and finding guys open for easy baskets.

And on the defensive side of the ball, Fultz has been a disrupter. His 6’4” frame with a 6’9” wingspan has caused defections and steals.

Fultz needs to keep improving on his mid-range jumper and three-point shot. He’s shown flashes of why he was the number one pick in the draft. Due to injuries, this year has essentially been Fultz’s rookie season.

Fultz was diagnosed with the nerve condition Thoracic outlet syndrome. Many NBA experts did not think Fultz would ever play again. He has had plenty of doubters since he made it into the league, and he isn’t going to let them get to him.

Markelle Fultz, at the age of 21, and Jonathan Isaac, at the age of 22, are two young pieces stepping up for the Orlando Magic.

Both players have shown great instincts of both ends of the court. With time and effort both will start to get closer star-player-status in the NBA.

Becoming A Man

By: TJ Hartnett

TheSouthernSportsEdition.com news services

I’m friends on Facebook with this guy I went to college with and after every single Atlanta Hawks game, he posts the exact same status update: “Trae Young is the best PG in the league!” After every single game.

Whether or not that statement is true might be debatable, but Young is certainly an incredible player. Young became the second player in NBA history to have at least two 49+ point games before turning 22 years old.

And just to make sure you’re following: that means that Trae Young is only 21.

Those 49 points tied a career high for the young Hawk (Young Hawk, even); he also matched a career best with eight three-point shots, his third time reaching that mark.

Despite the team’s overall struggles (the Hawks are 4-15, tied for dead last at the bottom of the Eastern Conference pile with the New York Knicks), Young has emerged as a bona-fide superstar.  He is the kind of home-grown talent that the Hawks have been yearning for and missing out on for years.

Atlanta may be losing, but it’s nothing to do with their star point guard. In fact, both of Young’s 49-point master classes have come in games that Atlanta has lost.

He’s top ten in the league in points and top five in assists, having massively improved upon a rookie campaign that was in equal turns fascinating and frustrating.

All last season, Young had critical eyes on him. He wasn’t Luca Doncic might’ve been the consensus; and he’s a smaller player, so how’s going to play on defense? Will his scoring translate to the NBA?

All that chirping had to have put a chip on Young’s shoulder, and he’s playing like that chip lit a fire under him, if I may mix my metaphors.

He finished up his first year in the league on a high note but has gone far beyond simply picking up where he left off. All of his offensive stats are higher than last season’s. Atlanta is starting to grow accustomed to 25-30 points per game with double-digit (or close to it) assists.

Does he need to improve his defense? Sure. But with his offense game so stellar, it’s something he can afford to work on.

He also has work to do on midrange shots. While his size disadvantage doesn’t really matter when he is drilling threes, the closer he gets to the basket the tougher it is for him to produce.

But even there he’s showing improvement, from 10 feet from the hoop to the 3-point line, Young has been shooting over 5 percent better this season than last. For a player that has the ball as much as he does, even that small improvement goes a long way.

His maturity and leadership are a big part of his game as well. He’s made these improvements and broken out, not just with a struggling team, but with a vastly different one than he started with last season.

With so much turnover on the roster, it would have made sense for Young to need time to get acclimated to his new teammates. Instead, he’s been hot right from the first tip-off.

The team is going through growing pains but that isn’t a surprise.

Even if the Hawks could have predicted the huge steps Young would take this early in his career (and they certainly couldn’t have foreseen this), the team wasn’t going to be a contender; at least, not yet.

But they know they’ve got a centerpiece around which they can build a winning team. They’ve got at least a sense of the player Trae Young can be. Which is to say: the sky is the limit.

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