The Hawks’ future could be in College Park

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

In an NBA where the current MVP favorite is a former second round pick, player development has become more important than ever before. Current big names like Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, Milwaukee Bucks guard Khris Middleton and Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert weren’t just handed their spots upon arriving to the league – they had to earn them in the NBA’s development league, the G League. For the local Atlanta Hawks, hitting on their draft picks is more important than ever. After trading first-round assets for guard Dejounte Murray and second rounders for forward Saddiq Bey, they will need to build talent using non-premium picks. Their G League affiliate, the College Park Skyhawks, presents a critical opportunity to develop said talent in a competitive environment.

In the eyes of Skyhawks head coach Steve Gansey, the team’s focus is both on the season and instilling NBA habits in his players. “NBA scouts want to see toughness, impact on the game beyond scoring, guarding well, good body language and an understanding of coverages.” said the second-year coach. “However, these guys are also here for a reason beyond just a call-up – they’re trying to show what they can do in playoff situations.”.

How has their season gone? To answer that question, The Technique attended the Skyhawks’ Feb. 8 home face-off against the Westchester Knicks.

College Park beat the Knicks by 12 two days earlier to get to a .500 record of 8-8, but it wasn’t a flawless performance. Team turnovers and poor finishing, leading to getting outscored in the fourth quarter, could have proved costly for the Skyhawks. Gansey noted these areas during a presser as a point of emphasis coming into the back-to-back rematch. “We’ve struggled with back-to-backs all year, so we need to bring the toughness, respect the opponent and come together.”.

Though there’s room for improvement, being fourth in three-pt FG%, fifth in defensive rating per game and ninth in rebounds per game is a mark of the talent the squad possesses. Offensively, Gansey said they’re aiming to attempt “thirty threes a game” off of high-quality looks. Shooting guard Langston Galloway, a former NBA rotation piece, has been critical to their success beyond the arc while point guard Brandon Williams orchestrates the offense. Williams has also played games for the Portland Trail Blazers and brings a lethal combo of shooting and passing.

Defensively, their success stems from everybody knowing their role and playing well within the structure. Of course, it’s easier to do that when big man Giorgi Bezhanishvalli is dominating the paint. In the previous start against Westchester, only his fourth consecutive one of the season, Bezhanishvalli’s career performance of 30 points and 12 rebounds was instrumental in the Skyhawks win.

The first quarter of the Westchester rematch decisively belonged to the Skyhawks, as the team hit five threes in the first quarter on 46% shooting from three and 55% shooting from the field. Williams started off hot with 10 points and three assists while the team was able to hold the Knicks to only 32% shooting from the field and force three turnovers. They were able to carry the intensity on both sides of the ball into the second quarter, where the Skyhawks went out to a 23 point lead at half due to their usually excellent three-point conversion rate (nearly 50% as a team) and edged the Knicks out on second-chance opportunities by grabbing seven more rebounds. Three other Skyhawks – Galloway, shooting guard Armoni Brooks and forward/guard Tyrese Martin – also ended the half in double digits.

Unfortunately, the team didn’t look quite as sharp coming out of half. The turnovers they’d been trying to avoid cropped up again, with Westchester forcing several turnovers. Furthermore, their success from deep started to slip, coinciding with the previously-cold Knicks heating up. Forward DaQuan Jeffries, a former Skyhawk, proved to be a problem defensively for College Park as he forced three steals and played great defense in the third quarter. As a team, the Knicks held the Skyhawks to only 19 points in the quarter and cut the lead to 11.

The fourth quarter served as redemption for the home squad, powered by clutch scoring from Williams and Brooks. Multiple times, Williams broke the defender down by getting around him with his speed and driving straight to the rim for the contested layup. Brooks hit two big threes and stayed hot from the field, efficiently providing clutch offense as they held the Knicks at bay and closed the game out, 121 to 107. Even though he came off the bench, Brooks ended the game with 28 points on an incredible 11 of 16 from the field and five threes. Williams ended with 24 points of his own, but also set his teammates up by dishing out 10 assists. Galloway helped with floor spacing, hitting on seven of his nine shots from the field and chipping in with four threes that always seemed to come at demoralizing moments for Westchester. On defense, rookie forward Donovan Williams helped keep the Knicks off the glass with eight defensive rebounds and Bezhanishvalli served as an intimidating presence inside. An underrated part of the win was bench forward Malik Ellison, who tied Williams in rebounds.

Now over the .500 mark at 9-8, the Skyhawks are excited to have two consecutive wins under their belt that display what they are capable of. In his postgame presser, Brandon Williams expressed as much, saying that “it’s nice to see that our off-court chemistry has spilled into the game and we’re trusting our instincts.”. That confidence has rubbed off on the rookie Donovan Williams as well, who feels he’s been able to adjust to the ramp-up from his time at UNLV. “At the end of the day, it’s just basketball,” said Williams “and I’m a lot more comfortable playing my game and making the right cuts to help the team out.”.

Despite their performance, there is still room for improvement on their pregame goals. Not getting to their spots in the third quarter and self-inflicted turnovers plagued them again, which could be costly down the road. Still, the Skyhawks are aware of the challenge – and plan on showing their growth against a league-leading Long Island Nets team. For the former Net, Donovan Williams, it’s a great opportunity to play against guys that he knows well and still has good relationships with.

The mental toughness, competitiveness and growth that these players show are tantamount to their futures not just in the NBA, but as professional players of the game. It’s inspiring to see and Hawks fans should be on the watch for their next favorite rotation player to emerge from College Park.