Hawks preview: Time to grow up



Tim Povtak For Sporting News - Property of Sporting News

This must be the most patient franchise in the NBA. Instead of trading for some much-needed experience or luring veterans with free-agent money this summer, the Atlanta Hawks continued to grow their own seasoning.

It's like planting a garden instead of going to the grocery store to buy the vegetables for the salad. The intent is admirable, but the wait can be agonizing.

 

The Hawks were the youngest team in the NBA last year (at an average of 23.6 years old) and paid a painful price with their eighth consecutive losing season. But they remained true to their course this summer, believing homegrown talent is the long-term solution to their problems.

Atlanta rejected a wide variety of trade options for both the No. 3 and the No. 11 picks in the 2007 draft, staying the course to take, respectively, power forward/center Al Horford (Florida) and point guard Acie Law (Texas A&M). The team's coaches believe they have now completed their team for the future.

Now it just has to mature -- quickly.

"High on our list of (offseason) priorities was bringing in a veteran guy," Hawks Coach Mike Woodson admits. "But we just felt like the guys available (in the draft) were too good to pass on. The guys we have aren't new to this. I've got to quit calling them young. It's time we made our move with what we have."

The Hawks haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. It might be 2009 before they make it again unless they speed up the maturation process and find a fountain of experience.

Atlanta took Law to eventually replace journeymen point guards Tyronn Lue and Speedy Claxton, who were disappointing last year. It drafted Horford, the son of former NBA player Tito Horford, expecting him to soon replace center Zaza Pachulia.

Swingman Joe Johnson has blossomed, making both the All-Star game and the Team USA Basketball roster as a member of the Hawks, but he may be the most experienced key member of this team at age 26.

The Hawks are convinced that power forward Josh Smith, 21, will soon be joining Johnson in the All-Star lineup, and they would love to pair him in the frontcourt with Horford, who is probably better suited for forward but will often play center, where he is needed most.

Marvin Williams, also 21, will be the starting small forward. The No. 2 pick of the 2005 draft is a wing player with big-play potential. And like everyone else on this roster, he just needs more time on the floor.

Swingman Josh Childress, now in his fourth season, was second behind only Johnson in minutes played (36.9 per game), giving the Hawks another young, versatile player and even more hope for the future.

Woodson goes into his fourth season sporting a 69-177 record. His team has gone from 13 victories in his first season to 26 in the second and 30 in the third. Management has been patient, but Woodson must improve considerably for the fourth consecutive year or he won't be around to see this team come to fruition.

"This is a very pivotal year for all of us," Woodson says. "It's time for us to make our move and get to the playoffs. I know I'm under pressure to do that. But that's OK. That's why I took this job."

Both rookies will be under a microscope immediately. Horford is coming off back-to-back national championships at Florida, and he might be the most ready-to-play rookie in the league.

When it comes to hype, Horford can't compare with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, the first two picks in June's draft. But he won't get the break-in time those two will on teams just starting to rebuild. The Hawks need his rugged frontcourt presence immediately and will ask him to protect scorers like Johnson, Smith and Williams.

In the previous two drafts, the Hawks passed on point guards Chris Paul (New Orleans) and Deron Williams (Utah), and many expected them to take Ohio State playmaker Mike Conley with the third pick instead of Horford.

They instead waited to take Law at No. 11. He isn't the pure point that Conley is, but more of a combination guard.

"He knows how to run a team," Woodson says, "and that's the highest praise I can give a young point guard. In summer league, he did exactly what I wanted. He's a winner who is going to help us win."

The Hawks have now accumulated enough young parts that they have the look of a franchise that is set for many, many years. The question, though, is whether there is enough veteran leadership to make it all work this season.

"This team has to grow up now," Woodson says. "These are NBA players. We're ready to see what happens. They're ready, too."

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Image courtesy of Yahoo Sports.