Hawks have the primary decision in NBA Draft

Making the first pick of the NBA draft is a double-edged sword. For some franchises, it can change their entire trajectory. Just ask the Orlando Magic, who made the NBA Finals after taking superstar centers Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard at the first spot in the 1992 and 2004 drafts, respectively. Conversely, the wrong choice can lead to wasted seasons, rife with roster upheaval and organizational chaos. The Portland Trail Blazers would jump at the chance to re-do taking center Greg Oden over one of the best scorers of all time in forward Kevin Durant in the 2007 draft. 

In other words, the Atlanta Hawks holding the first overall pick in the 2024 NBA Draft is not a decision to underrate. After a mediocre 36-49 season, hitting on this pick could fuel postseason runs as early as in the 2024-25 season. Therefore, it is worth understanding who exactly the Hawks might select in a draft that lacks a consensus top player. 

First, it is important to understand the team’s current makeup. It starts with the All-Star backcourt duo of point guard Trae Young and shooting guard  Dejounte Murray. Young is one of the best playmakers in the NBA — albeit a flawed defender — while Murray is known for his defensive instincts. At the small forward spot, Jalen Johnson is the prototypical “3&D” forward, shooting a respectable 36% from three-point range and taking on the toughest defensive assignments. Role players like guard Bogdan Bogdanovic and forward DeAndre Hunter are also capable of providing an offensive spark off the bench. It should be noted that Atlanta had the fourth-worst team defensive rating in the NBA last year, so the Hawks may look to boost the defense..

Given that context, three prospects jump out. Forward Alexandre Sarr who played for the Perth Wildcats of the National Basketball League (NBL) in Australia has been linked to the Hawks for months because of his defense. Standing at seven feet tall with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he shows excellent shot-blocking ability, recording 1.5 blocks per game for the Wildcats last season. Sarr has the height to be a good rim protector, but he lacks the strength to hold his own against stronger centers. Even so, he immediately projects as a high-level perimeter defender who can execute defensive switches at an elite level. His offensive game is the real question. The Hawks played at the fifth-fastest pace in the NBA last year; Sarr fits that tempo and routinely converts defensive steals or blocks into offense. He also makes good playmaking decisions when he has the ball. However, he struggles to score in isolation and has poor dribbling skills. He scored 9.7 points on 52% from the field and 29.8% from three on limited volume. While he has upside as a shooter due to solid mechanics, he needs to develop his offensive skills more.

Connecticut center Donovan Clingan is also a compelling option. His 7-foot-2, 280 pound frame makes him an NBA-ready rim protector instantly. Stylistically, he compares well to Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert, who Snyder built top defenses around during his tenure as the head coach of the Utah Jazz. Clingan can pull down rebounds and is an impressive interior scorer, making 64% of his field goals. Running pick-and-rolls with Young and Clingan could easily become a staple of the Hawks offense. However, he does not have the lateral agility to cover on the perimeter, finishing last in the shuttle run, lane agility and three-quarter sprint at the NBA Combine. He shows little upside as a three-point shooter, as evidenced by taking only nine three-pointers last season, and connecting on only 56% of his free throws, indicating a lack of shooting touch. 

If the Hawks want a more developed offensive player, small forward Zaccharie Risacher is an intriguing shooter with nice defensive tools. He shot 40% from three-point range last season for the French club JL Bourg. His shooting would be very valuable in a Hawks lineup that ranked 22nd and 16th in three-point percentage and attempts, respectively. Even at 6-foot-9, he kept up with smaller and faster point guards on the perimeter even though his defensive production was limited. One concern with Risacher’s game is that he was not very efficient with his offensive possessions, as evidenced by a PER (player efficiency rating) of 15.19 barely above the average of 15.00. Despite his strong three-point numbers, he only shoots 70% from the free-throw line and does not draw contact, only drawing three free throw attempts per game. Even as more of an offensive threat, he is not much of a playmaker and averaged a paltry 1.4 assists per game. Drafting Risacher would be a bet on his synergy with Young, allowing him to convert open three-pointers and his defensive tools coming along to form a nice pairing with Johnson. 

While betting odds — at the time of this article’s writing — suggest that one of those three players will be the pick at the top of the draft, it is worth discussing more unlikely directions that Atlanta could go in. Small forward Matas Buzelis, who played for the G League Ignite, is an athletic wing who profiles well as a shot-blocker at the professional level. He was a double-digit scorer, albeit on poor efficiency, and shows some playmaking ability. However, his inefficiency and poor shooting numbers make his profile worrying. Kentucky guards Reed Sheppard and Rob Dillingham both profile as excellent shooters, but their lack of size coupled with Young and Murray already being on the roster make either Sheppard or Dillingham somewhat redundant. Buzelis’s teammate, forward Ron Holland, has phenomenal athletic tools and scored almost 20 points on aggressive drives to the rim last season. The problem is that Holland’s shooting is a massive projection and he will take a lot of development to deliver on his potential. 

Even if there is not a slam-dunk selection available at the top pick, the Hawks have a variety of intriguing options. Whoever it is, the priority should be to select a wing or center that can contribute to the Hawks’ defense or bolster their shooting. Young is still a very capable primary option and finding pieces that fit around him is the Hawks’ clearest path towards contention.