Welcome to the inaugural Hawks Q&A. It comes at quite a weird time, with the season on hiatus because of coronavirus. But there are still things we can discuss regarding the team, while everyone out there is hopefully staying safe and healthy, so let’s dive in (some questions have been edited for clarity).
Q: What is the status of Clint Capela’s heel injury? Any concern it will nag him his whole career?
A: Some good news on that front. At the time of the season’s suspension March 11, which is the most recent time injured Hawks players have been evaluated, Capela was making good functional progress and had progressed to participating in half-court workouts, according to a person familiar with the situation (that can mean shooting, agility drills and practicing with the team, though it’s not as if he’s getting up and down the court in a full-contact scrimmage). That’s a great step for Capela, seeing as how stubborn plantar fasciitis and heel injuries can be to fully recover from. There was absolutely no reason to rush Capela back and risk a setback, even if the season had continued normally, and there was a significant chance he wouldn’t play at all or played on a stringent minute restriction. Capela was a huge acquisition for the Hawks, and they want to be cautious with him until he’s 100% cleared (coach Lloyd Pierce has already declared the Hawks a playoff team next year, and they’ll certainly need Capela in order to achieve that).
As far as whether the injury will continue to bother him throughout his career, that’s impossible to predict, but him making progress and the Hawks displaying ample patience with him is a good sign. One thing that’s pretty easy to see, if you look at his availability with the Rockets from the end of December to the beginning of February, is that trying to play through it didn’t help, with him missing several games here and there.
I also received a question or two about Capela’s locker-room presence. It’s a little hard to tell, since he wasn’t playing with the rest of the team and often had to work out by himself in practices, particularly in the earlier stages of rehabbing. But in person, Capela comes across as calm, cool and collected. He has spoken several times about wanting to help the Hawks’ younger players, and he has plenty of playoff advice to lend. On the bench, Capela is quite active. In the loss in Memphis on March 7, I could spot Capela coaching up rookie Cam Reddish during a timeout, and he also made a point to give Trae Young encouragement throughout the game.
Also: Skal Labissiere was cleared to return to modified team practice, which is usually the last step toward being fully cleared.
Q: Is there anyone in this draft that would be a starter on next season’s Atlanta Hawks or is any person drafted in this draft, no matter how high, going to be coming off the bench next season?
A: It feels a little odd to be talking so much draft in March, but with the season suspended and so much up in the air, I get it. That’s a really tough question to answer without knowing who it will be, and therefore which starter he’ll be trying to beat out. I think, of all the positions the Hawks could look to add, it makes the most sense to go after a two-way wing. Of course, that’s the unicorn most teams are after. But this isn’t the strongest draft class. There don’t seem to be many players who fall into that category, and there’s not a clear projection for how the lottery will go.
It’ll depend on where the Hawks pick and if they decide to keep it, but I’m pretty sure the state of Georgia would flip its lid if the Hawks somehow got UGA’s Anthony Edwards, projected to be a top pick and certainly capable of being a secondary playmaker and scorer. Then you have Isaac Okoro of Auburn, who is ahead of the game on defense but shot 28.6% from 3-point range this season, adding 12.8 points per game.
One thing to keep in mind is the Hawks’ inexperience hurt them this season. Anything is possible, if they bring in a player who starts excelling quickly, but they also hopefully won’t have to put too much on a rookie’s plate.
Q: Pierce has pointed to the team’s lack of effort, particularly on the defensive side, several times this year after bad losses. What changes can Pierce make to address this before the start of next season? (Also, which areas would Pierce and the team like to improve, and how do they plan on doing so?)
A: Looping two Pierce questions together to streamline the process. Throughout most of the season before the All-Star break, particularly the dark period when Kevin Huerter’s injuries and John Collins’ suspension overlapped in November, Pierce would often say some version of “We just didn’t compete” after losses. The blowout loss in Detroit stands out to me, when the Hawks gave up a 20-0 run in the first quarter and it took Pierce more than an hour to come out from the locker room for his postgame media availability (they held a team meeting after the defeat). “Compete” and “competitive spirit” were buzzwords for Pierce, and it became clear after that game that pretty much meant effort plays and knowing what it takes to win in the NBA. That means rebounding and going for 50-50 balls, but also being vocal and communicating on defense (which can be tough for young, rookie-heavy teams) and exercising good judgment, so, not pulling up for bad jumper after bad jumper with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. At times, he would also use the term for when the Hawks let a bad shooting night affect their defense.
A lot of those little effort plays add up, but the Hawks absolutely must be a better defensive team next season if they want to take a step forward, and that’s a big focus. They’ve already done a few things to address that. First, they added Capela. Even if he’s not a defensive savior, it will be an improvement over Damian Jones, who wasn’t good at all on defense, or rookie Bruno Fernando, who didn’t look ready for the amount of minutes he had to play. As far as communication on defense, veteran center Dewayne Dedmon certainly gave the Hawks a defensive voice (I remember walking into the locker room in Boston, the first game after Dedmon rejoined the team, and thinking “This is the loudest I’ve ever heard the pregame locker room” as Dedmon told funny stories and caught up with old friends), but he only played 10 games for them this season. Adding Capela also prevents Collins from having to play as much center, which means Collins won’t have to match up with much bigger, elite 5’s as often.
Most of the veterans that didn’t contribute much (Evan Turner, Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe) are gone. Rookie Cam Reddish showed defensive promise and got much better throughout the season. We’ll see what the Hawks add in the offseason to further beef up the defense. Also, with Pierce establishing a clear goal of making the playoffs next year, the team figures to have more motivation outside of just rebuilding for the future. If you watched the Hawks’ two bad losses to the Grizzlies in March, with Memphis fighting tooth and nail to maintain the eight-seed in the Western Conference, you’ll know what I mean. One thing to point out is over the Hawks’ past 27 games, they went 12-15, and Pierce maligning their lack of competitive spirit was much more rare compared with that 8-32 start.
Q: What was the relationship between DeAndre’ Bembry and Pierce toward the end of the season? Do you think Bembry will be back next year?
A: No, I don’t think Bembry will be back, but that doesn’t have anything to do with his relationship with Pierce. He’ll be a free agent, and I just don’t see the Hawks keeping him around after the rough season he had. He played in 43 games and didn’t really move the needle, and hadn’t played since Jan. 20 at the time of the season’s suspension, sidelined with abdominal pain. I spoke with him about his injury and it sounded like he basically had strained his groin and it was taking a while to heal up.
As of now, Bembry is the longest-tenured Hawk, but injuries have often set him back. He played in 38 games as a rookie and 26 in the 2016-17 season before having by far his best year last season, playing in 82 games with 8.4 points per game, but then this year seemed to be another step back.
Q: I’m just curious why Trae Young is an All-Star? His usage rates is in the 99th percentile of the league and his production is just not translating to any wins. When is the blame going to be put on him?
A: Well, he was voted an All-Star by fans, media and fellow NBA players. If you’re not a big Young proponent, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. But if you think Young is the reason the Hawks have struggled last season or this season, think again. The majority of his supporting cast in both seasons has not been good, and neither team has been built to win. It doesn’t really make sense to blame Young for that.
You can criticize Young for not being a good defender, which is fair, and it does put the Hawks in the tricky position of needing to surround him with good defenders to make up for it. But he’s an offensive wizard and excels as a playmaker, tied for third in the league in scoring (29.6) and second in assists (9.3) at the time of the season’s suspension. With what looks to already be an improved roster next season, that could be a better measuring stick for Young, looking past what he’s already accomplished.
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