While you could argue the New Orleans Pelicans won draft night by default selecting what seems to be a sure-fire superstar and franchise player in the making in Zion Williamson, there's no denying that the Atlanta Hawks were right there with them step-by-step.
The two teams played a part in each other's success through the draft by making a trade that will almost certainly better both teams in the near future - but I'll get to that.
Prior to the 2019 NBA Draft, the Hawks set themselves up to be among the most active teams in the league with access to three first round picks. They made all the right moves leading up to the draft to ensure that they could continue to build upon the young, promising core that flashed potential throughout all of the 2018-19 season.
Despite finishing with the fifth-worst record in the NBA, Atlanta had some bright spots that conveyed hope for the future - starting with its one-two punch of Rookie of the Year candidate Trae Young and budding star forward John Collins, as well as sharpshooter Kevin Huerter whom they selected 19th overall in last year's draft.
The Hawks entered the Draft Lottery with one chance at the Zion Sweepstakes - they had a 10.5% chance (fifth-best) to land the grand prize. Atlanta could not have been less lucky, falling to the No. 8 pick, leaving them with nothing but uncertainty in terms of which future prospects would fall to them.
But Hawks' General Manager Travis Schlenk didn't sit back and wait. Instead of resigning to a pair of middle-to-late lottery picks, he was aggressive in making moves to improve his team through this year's draft.
Two weeks before draft day Atlanta made a deal with the Brooklyn Nets, a team desperate to free up as much cap space as possible to target free agents this offseason. The Hawks absorbed Allen Crabbe's contract to get the No. 17 pick in this year's draft and a protected 2020 first round pick, trading the Nets Taurean Prince and a 2021 second rounder in return.
This gave the Hawks more flexibility to move around in this year's draft - all for taking on a contract that will be off their books after next season when they should be ready to become a contender in the East while adding another first round pick in the process.
Then on the night of the draft, Atlanta made the blockbuster deal that helps define their future - the Hawks traded picks Nos. 8, 17 and 35, as well as a 2020 first rounder (via Cleveland Cavaliers) to the Pelicans to move up in the draft for the No. 4 pick, while adding pick No. 57, a future second rounder and forward Solomon Hill.
They were active again on draft night, making a few more swaps to move up in the second round.
With the No. 4 pick the Hawks selected DeAndre Hunter, a long, defensive-minded sophomore forward and National Champion out of the University of Virginia. With the No. 10 pick Atlanta took Cam Reddish, a freshman guard/forward out of Duke University who is considered to be among the top shooters in this draft class. With the No. 34 pick the Hawks went with Bruno Fernando, a powerful and athletic centre out of the University of Maryland who in some mock drafts, was projected to go as early as the lottery.
Three players that fit exactly what Atlanta needed to compete for a championship in the near future.
Hunter, ironically enough, only worked out for the Hawks without any knowledge that they were going to trade up to take him. And he wasn't even the first to know the Hawks moved up to No. 4 to draft him - his college teammate and second round pick in this year's draft, Kyle Guy, was the first to let Hunter know Atlanta would be his new home.
"(Kyle Guy) texted me and said 'Yeah!' and I was like 'What are you talking about?'," Hunter told the media after being drafted. "He said 'the Hawks traded up to four!' and I was really happy about that.
"I think they have a great young nucleus. They have great coaching. Trae Young is a great player. Kevin Huerter. John Collins. Those are all great young players. I feel like I can come in, provide a defensive spark, score a little bit on the offensive end and do the things needed to win."
Hunter is widely respected as the best wing defender in this draft class. His size and 7'2 wingspan will allow him to guard 1-through-4 at the next level, giving Atlanta the elite perimeter they need to lower their defensive rating of 113.0 from this past season, which was third-worst in the NBA. Hunter also thrived on the offensive end at UVA during their championship season, averaging 15.2 points per game shooting an encouraging 43.8% from long range while proving he can knock down big shots when his team needed him most.
Their 10th overall pick, Reddish, completes the trade from the 2018 NBA Draft that sent the rights to Rookie of the Year favourite Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks for Rookie of the Year contender Young. This trade became heavily criticized when Young had a slow start out of the gate and Doncic thrived from the jump of his NBA career. But with Trae's skyrocketing second half of the season and Reddish falling to the Hawks with the other pick they received in that Doncic deal, things have turned out just fine for Atlanta.
Reddish was overlooked for the majority of his freshman season at Duke with the presence of Williamson and the No. 3 pick of the draft, RJ Barrett. His 3-point percentage (33.3%) wasn't as efficient as expected, but he was the odd man out as a third option and never really found a rhythm. His pure stroke shows promise, he has plenty of range and he gives Young another marksmen on the perimeter alongside Huerter.
Reddish was extremely excited about the opportunity to play off of Young, "I think he's a great leader, (he has) a tremendous work ethic. I think he can do it all on the court. Obviously he's a tremendous passer. Will be able to find me throughout the entire game. I'm looking forward to learning from him, being around him, soaking it all in."
Young was one of the first people to reach out to Reddish after being drafted and he showed his excitement to work with Hunter, too.
.@TheTraeYoung 📲 @camreddish#TrueToAtlanta pic.twitter.com/lBqn16X4FO- Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) June 21, 2019
Hunter and Reddish are somewhat familiar with each other, both being Philadelphia-natives competing against one-another in high school. Reddish relished those moments and is ready to get to work with his new teammate, "Our high schools were in the same league. So we grew up kind of playing against each other a little bit. We know each other just enough. I'm looking forward to getting to know him a little bit more. Getting ready to get to work."
And he's not just ready to work, he's ready to win - Reddish let the media in on one of his favourite moments with his college coach Mike Krzyzewski, a memory and attitude he plans to bring to the Hawks, "I remember during the Louisville game, during halftime, he told us he doesn't coach losers. That stuck with me. I got to bring that winning mentality to Atlanta."
Lastly, their No. 34 pick Fernando gives the Hawks a project that could develop into a starting centre to fit the last piece of the puzzle. Fernando's size, strength, athleticism and defence were never a question among NBA scouts - his offensive game and decision making needs some polishing but he shows the touch, hands and footwork to become a solid two-way centre and massive lob target for Young. Centre was the only remaining position on Atlanta's current roster that does not have a future piece in place to grow with the rest of the team - the Hawks filled that need with this second round pick.
For the last several years, stakeholders around the NBA debated whether the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics had the best young core in the East. It was not a matter of 'if', but 'when' each of those teams would be ready to contend for a title.
Those are no longer teams of the future, but true contenders now. Which means it's time to take stock in who is ready to follow in their footsteps as next up in the Eastern Conference. Suddenly, the Atlanta Hawks look ready for that label.
They have a core of Young, Huerter, Reddish, Hunter, Collins and Fernando that should evolve in the near-future, as well as last year's second round pick Omari Spellman.
They'll have their choice of whom they would like to bring back this offseason, if any, of the following - Dwayne Dedmon, Justin Anderson, Vince Carter, Alex Poythress and Isaac Humphries.
They have a number of expiring contracts following next season - Hill, Crabbe, Evan Turner, Alex Len, Miles Plumlee, DeAndre Bembry (qualifying offer) and Jaylen Adams (team option) - as well as two more first round draft picks in the 2020 draft.
They'll likely give Collins a contract extension in the 2020 offseason but after that, they should have plenty of space to try and recruit an established free agent in a class that holds quality names like Andre Drummond and DeMar DeRozan (player options), Draymond Green and Montrezl Harrell (unrestricted) and a handful of valuable restricted free agents that they could throw money at.
The 2019 NBA Draft will likely always be remembered as Zion Williamson's draft, but if the Hawks bright future comes to fruition, look no further than that very same draft as an explanation to how everything worked out in their favour.
And what would a piece like this be without a prediction? Even as a core of 19 to 22-year olds, expect Atlanta to gain some postseason experience as soon as next season. By 2022, the Hawks will be among the top teams in the league, contending for an NBA title.
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