The Atlanta Hawks’ preseason media session was held in a massive warehouse so far in the depths of the Upper Westside you’d think Google Maps was playing a joke on you. And once inside the building, there was all kinds of organized confusion. Some players were snapping promotional photos. Others were taping silly clips about emojis and their favorite rappers that’ll be used on the State Farm Arena jumbotron once the season tips off on October 19.
There was also an interview area, where players and coaches sat on a slightly elevated stage, fielding questions peppered their way. Coming off a so-so season where the eighth-seeded Hawks were manhandled by the Miami Heat in the opening round of the playoffs, there were lots of questions about the season ahead. Here’s how four of the most important pieces to the Hawks’ 2022-23 puzzle answered those inquiries.
The Head Coach: Nate McMillan
Coach McMillan will be the first to tell you that he and his staff were outfoxed by the Heat in the postseason. At times during the five-game series, it almost felt like someone from the Miami front office infiltrated Atlanta’s huddle and reported back to his bench with the plays. Wherever superstar guard Trae Young went on the court, a Miami defender was already there waiting on him. It was frustrating to watch. But it wasn’t just Trae being smothered and covered; everyone in an Atlanta uniform looked stressed and strained.
“Back in June, I went to talk to Trae [at his home],” says McMillan, who’s entering his second full season as Atlanta’s head coach. “I flew out to Oklahoma City and just talked about this past season and areas that we need to improve on. And one of the big areas that I feel we need to improve on is the connection between the two of us. I think that we need to be better at communicating with each other.”
Coach said they also discussed how the team could lessen the offensive burden on Young by signing another explosive player, Dejounte Murray. “As I told [Trae],” said McMillan, “we’re bringing in another guard, an all-star guard. Do you know what that means for you? What that means is that you’ll be playing without the ball more than you’ve probably ever had. He was really excited to learn to play off the ball and play with Murray.”
The New Guy: Dejounte Murray
Basketball purists know Murray’s game well. Offensively, the 26-year-old guard who shined for seven seasons with the San Antonio Spurs puts you in the mind of a young Clyde Drexler or Dwyane Wade by how he smoothly drives to the paint or drills shots from the perimeter. And defensively, his long, active hands and Alvin Ailey-level footwork make getting past him a chore.
“[Fans are going to get] a lot of excitement and playing defense [from me],” said Murray, who earned his first All-Star Game selection and lead the NBA in steals last season. “I love defense. I believe the best offense is getting a stop and getting out and running. I’m just excited. We got a lot of weapons, dudes that can do a bunch of things. It starts on the defensive end and it translates to the offensive end. It’ll be exciting.” The Hawks finished 26th out of the 30 NBA teams in defensive rating, so any improvements in that area are welcomed.
But some pundits still question the move of Murray teaming with Young. They don’t worry about the team’s offensive potential—with Young leading the NBA in total points (2,155) and Murray pacing the Spurs (21.1 points per game) a season ago, lighting up the scoreboard shouldn’t be an issue—but wonder if the two offensive centerpieces will bump heads when it comes time to share the ball.
“It ain’t really [about] proving nothing to the league,” says Murray. “It’s proving to the people who do believe in us, which is the organization that made the move to bring me to this team. I ain’t trying to step on no toes. They have a great thing going here. Trae earned the rights of who he is [in] this organization. I’m coming to help. I said I wanted to come to Atlanta, and I came to Atlanta. It’s more of me fitting in. Also, it’s allowing me and Trae to grow our game playing off the ball. When you can do many things in this league, you allow yourself to win. I think it’s a great challenge for both of us. But at the end of the day, you know, we both are smart basketball players.”
They’re not just intelligent, though. They’re ridiculously unselfish. Both players averaged over nine assists per contest. Young even topped the NBA in total assists, making him just the second person ever to lead the NBA in total assists and points. “The goal is just to push each other, grow through the ups and downs, and just go out and win basketball games,” said Murray. “And I think we will do that.”
The X-Factor: De’Andre Hunter
Hunter isn’t worried about getting the ball. He knows Murray and Young will find him in the natural flow of games. Honestly, the talented Hawk’s biggest concern coming into the new season is simply staying in the games. Just 24 years old, Hunter is entering the fourth year of an NBA career that’s been filled with health challenges. Of Atlanta’s 221 regular-season games over the past three years, the 2019 lottery pick missed nearly 40 percent of them due to various ailments.
But for now, Hunter appears fully rehabbed from any ankle and back pains. During the Hawks’ first two preseason wins against the Milwaukee Bucks in early October, in fact, Hunter averaged a very healthy 19 points and four rebounds. If his goal was to make a good early impression, he’s done just that.
“I don’t never really set individual goals,” said Hunter, a focal point of an Atlanta small forward rotation that includes free agent Justin Holiday and exciting rookie AJ Griffin. “My goal was to help the team win. That’s what they brought me here for, whether defensively or offensively. If we win, everything else will take care of itself.”
Hunter has some selfish reasons for contributing to the winning this year, too. He’s in the final year of his four-year/$32 million deal. If he can prove to the organization that he can stay upright while dropping solid numbers, the young man will be looking at more zeroes than a spilled bowl of Cheerios.
“We know that Dre is in a contract year,” said Coach McMillan. “And I’ve talked to him about that. He’s in a good place. He was able to work out this summer unlike last year. Last year, during the months of August and September, he had a [medical] procedure where he couldn’t do anything. He’s been playing five-on-five [this year]. He looks good. Mentally, he seems like he’s in a really good place. He’s focusing on trying to do whatever it takes to help this team win.”
The General Manager: Landry Fields
In the Atlanta Hawks front office the past two seasons, Fields has dealt with his share of real trades (fan favorite Kevin Huerter was sent to Sacramento this offseason) and fantasy transactions (the Hawks inquired about disgruntled Brooklyn superstar Kevin Durant). As the GM, Fields will have to eventually deal with Hunter’s contract situation. But for now, he wants to make sure John Collins, a Hawk at the center of incessant trade chatter, is in a good head space.
“With John, he’s always gonna remain professional,” said Fields, who played five seasons with New York and Toronto. “I was sitting down with him just literally yesterday [and said], Hey, being in your shoes and being a former player, I understand the trade talks, what that’s like, and how that’s impacting not just you, but your immediate circle and your family. These are the things that we have to always consider. What you’ve got to do is always communicate through that. Don’t allow this to sit and boil up. Let’s have a shared partnership. We’re gonna give you everything that we’ve got and be honest with you about where we’re at.”
Where the Hawks are on the court, compared to Philadelphia, Boston, and the East’s other top teams, will sort itself out pretty quickly. Atlanta’s first opponents are the young Houston Rockets. Ten of the next 15 contests after that opener are against squads that qualified for the 2022 NBA Playoffs. We may not know exactly what we have in these new-look Hawks by the end of that stretch, but Fields and everyone else will at least have some clue.
“Last year,” said Fields, “you could see teams visibly preparing for us in the way in which we probably hadn’t seen before. I would classify that as something good because it at least gives us a sober look at where we’re currently at and where we need to go.”