Four observations from the Hawks' preseason opener

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The Hawks dropped their preseason opener Monday night, 133-109 to the New Orleans Pelicans. The outcome itself isn’t as important as how it came to be and what the game might (or might not) reveal about the team moving forward. As expected the two teams pushed the tempo – Atlanta and New Orleans may well rank first and second in the NBA in pace this season – and launched threes with impunity during the competitive portion of the game. That speed and indiscretion, however, also led to 29 Atlanta turnovers, including eight from Trae Young, and seemingly constant transition chances for the Pelicans. It was as sloppy as should be expected of two teams fresh off of long offseasons incorporating new core personnel.

There’s only so much that can be gleaned from this sort of affair, so here are four notes that may or may not prove significant two weeks from now. 

The Rookies

Both DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish impressed in their (sort of) NBA debuts. Hunter, who started and played 25 minutes, was the primary defender of Brandon Ingram most of the night and held his own against the lanky, sprawling forward. His work was subtle, but that was exactly the point. He navigated screens as well as one could expect from a rookie in his first NBA action, stayed down on pump fakes, was mostly in the right places when he needed to be. Hunter projects as the principal wing defender for a team thin on alternatives. That will serve as an important developmental opportunity and a test of the rookie's NBA readiness. No one should expect him to ascend to elite status so soon, but Monday night, he looked like he belonged.

Offensively, Hunter was exactly the player Atlanta needs him to be. He finished with 10 points on just six shot attempts, including 2-of-4 shooting from deep, and provided adequate floor spacing around Young’s orchestration in the pick-and-roll. He drained his first professional bucket on Atlanta’s first possession, created a touch of offense off the dribble, and even found Charlie Brown for an open triple on the weak side out of a pick-and-roll. 

“I just played,” Hunter said. “When you overthink it, that’s when you get nervous. You start trying to do too much. But I just try to do what I do every day, just go out there and do what I do in practice.”

Hunter may be closer to a finished product offensively than Reddish, but will be an important complementary piece nonetheless. Even passable three-point shooting as a rookie could help vault Atlanta’s offense into the top half of the league, and anything more would be a welcome surprise.

Reddish may evolve into a more dynamic offensive player than Hunter, but it will take time. Even on a limit of 15 minutes, he was every bit as productive as Hunter – 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting – though with more warts accompanying that output under a slightly heavier workload. In lieu of a true point guard behind Young, Lloyd Pierce seems to be handling secondary ball-handling by committee. If Monday night was any indication, Reddish will be part of that group – at least to start the season. While he was shaky running the pick-and-roll, Pierce clearly and repeatedly trusted him to initiate offense and make reads against a fast, dynamic defense. 

“I feel like coach has pushed me to be great, really,” Reddish said. “Try new things, take risks, be who I’m supposed to be. So I’m going to go out there and give it my all.”

He didn’t complete every pass – he missed Young on a simple backdoor cut and Collins on an errant lob – but Reddish recognized and attempted them. And eventually, he followed up his first two miscues with a slick pocket pass to Alex Len for a dunk. “I thought he settled in,” Pierce said. “I thought he played a beautiful game. He was in-rhythm with his jumpshots, was efficient moving. It was good to see that.”

The rookie’s usage could drop once Evan Turner joins the rotation, giving Atlanta another ball-handler. All the better for Reddish, who sunk three of his four three-point attempts and could prove equally effective as an off-ball weapon.

bembry

Bembry as backup point guard

Turner’s absence stretched Atlanta thinner than it should have. Without a proven secondary creator behind Young, much of the team’s playmaking duty fell to Bembry, whose constant activity was a theme all game. Bembry continually found ways to offset his shooting limitations, whether as a cutter, passer, or, most notably, as a ball-handler. He slithered into 5-of-9 shooting from two-point range, finished with 16 points and three assists in all. Even when the game spiraled out of control, Bembry kept attacking and putting New Orleans’ back-line defenders on their heels. 

That scoring punch is a welcome addition to an already dynamic offense, but it’s Bembry’s play- and decision-making that could provide the heaviest tilt. After starting at shooting guard, Bembry got a quick hook from Pierce before checking back in for Young late in the first quarter to run Atlanta’s bench squad (that early sub also gave Pierce a look at Young, Reddish, Hunter, and Collins on the floor together). “I love playing with the ball in my hands,” Bembry said. “I’m here to just do whatever coach needs me to do.”

That flexibility gives Pierce options and Bembry a way into most any lineup the head man can figure. Bembry can provide defensive cover for Young, as he did Monday night on Jrue Holiday, or fit into bigger, defense-first lineups. His two steals and two blocks of the Pelicans both led the team.

“He’s been great for us all through training camp,” Pierce said. “’Dre is always going to compete and always get downhill. He had a couple of errant passes, but that’s just timing for all of our guys. We’re not on the same page yet.” 

Bembry wasn’t perfect Monday. He occasionally held the ball too long or not long enough. He canned one of his two long balls, but his career 28 percent mark still sucked his defender into Young’s driving lanes or Collins’ roll space. Bembry is learning his way around that, though, and he’s doing it in myriad capacities.

Jones starts at center

Damian Jones started preseason game number one, presumably for his ability to provide another vertical threat for Young out of the pick-and-roll. Sell your Damian Jones stock while it’s high. Alex Len is a better fit because he can shoot and allows Collins to roll more often, and, more importantly, Jones simply isn’t very effective at this point in his career.

Despite his impressive physical tools, Jones simply doesn’t impact the game on either end the way a player with his physical profile should. For every emphatic block off the backboard, there is a late rotation, missed box-out, or needless foul. His range of offensive efficacy begins and ends in the paint. The Hawks were smart to gamble on Jones, particularly because Omari Spellman suffers from some of the same lapses, but the team simply has better options. Recognizing that may be best for all involved.

The defense…

The Hawks’ defense was decidedly poor Monday night – likely a harbinger for the coming season. Atlanta lacks imposing personnel both on the back line and at the point of attack; Hunter and Bembry can only do so much. After a cold start, New Orleans scored over 1.15 points per possession as Holiday got to his spots at will and his teammates knifed through openings around him. Williamson roamed free to the basket repeatedly for dunks, and save for a sprightly sequence to close the first quarter, most any possession of more than four passes seemed to discombobulate Atlanta to an astonishing degree.

Young teams will take these lumps, especially in their first games of the preseason. This is a team still jelling, learning to play with one another. Bembry, who was a rare bright spot says the team’s problems stemmed largely from a lack of communication. “The main thing for us is just using our mouth,” Bembry said. “If everyone’s talking and everyone’s moving, I think that will change the momentum for us defensively.” Unfortunately for Atlanta, Bembry didn’t hear much of that tonight. One defensive breakdown exacerbates another if teammates aren’t on the same page, constantly letting each other know where the help is, what coverage to execute, and other basic logistics of defense. Those breakdowns happened time and again Monday, often with no insurance to rectify them.

“[The communication] was terrible tonight,” Bembry said. “That’s something we can get better at, obviously. It’s a preseason game. That’s just one of the areas we can get better.” 

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