Remarkable journey: This wasn’t the plan, but Tyler Cavanaugh is already in the NBA

Tyler Cavanaugh had his return plane ticket in hand.

The Hawks forward was to play his fifth NBA game as an emergency call-up in New Orleans and then return to the G League affiliate in Erie, Pa.

Cavanaugh never boarded that flight. 

After a 16-point, six-rebound performance, that included shooting 6-of-7 from the field and 4-of-4 from 3-point range Nov. 11, the Hawks began making plans to keep Cavanaugh around on a permanent basis. The offensive production aside, what made Hawks management take notice was how he stood out against Pelicans center DeMarcus Cousins.

“Look at the New Orleans game,” said Malik Rose, whose Hawks front-office position includes general manager of the Erie BayHawks. “Boogie Cousins was doing his normal Boogie Cousins thing, and the kid didn’t back down. He stuck his nose in there every second he was on the floor. That was one of the games that (coach Mike Budenholzer) fell in love with him. That’s when he solidified himself as an NBA player.”

This wasn’t the original plan. Far from it.

Rose saw the undrafted Cavanaugh (6-foot-9, 238 pounds) at the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational Tournament after playing collegiately at George Washington. He called the prospect a diamond in the rough. Cavanaugh and his agent, Keith Glass, agreed to sign with the Hawks. Why? They were the only team to offer money.

The plan was for Cavanaugh to sign a minimum contract worth $50,000, go to the Las Vegas Summer League, stay in Atlanta for open gym, go to training camp, get cut and then play for the BayHawks. Cavanaugh played in just two of the Hawks’ five summer league games as the team took a long look at returning players Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, first-round pick John Collins, two-way signee Josh Magette and, oddly, Ryan Kelly, a player the team waived and could not re-sign.

“They really didn’t want him,” Glass said. “Malik Rose was the only one who wanted him.”

Until the Hawks were desperate.

The Hawks’ front court was decimated by early-season injuries. Center Miles Plumlee had not played after suffering a strained right quad in training camp. Forward/center Mike Muscala suffered a left ankle sprain Nov. 3. 

Budenholzer called Rose. “Who is the best big in the G League,” he asked. “We need him here now.” Rose couldn’t say. It was just two games into the G League season. But he immediately had a suggestion.

“We just had Cavanaugh at camp,” Rose recalled. “He knows the plays. He knows how to play. He’s not going to embarrass us. He can buy us some minutes until guys get healthy. That’s how he got called up and won his job.”

More injuries hit the team after Cavanaugh was recalled after playing one game with the BayHawks. Starting center Dewayne Dedmon had a left tibia stress reaction Nov. 30. Collins, a forward, had a left shoulder sprain Nov. 30.

The Hawks signed Cavanaugh to a two-way contract Nov. 5 and two a two-year deal Dec. 18. The second year of the deal is an incentive-laden team option. The team had to part ways with Nicolas Brussino to clear a roster spot.

Cavanaugh made the most of an opportunity.

“The world is crazy,” Cavanaugh said. “Crazy things happen. … It’s been a whirlwind, and I’m blessed to be in an organization where Malik Rose gave me a chance, believed in me and spoke highly of me when they needed someone to be called up in the beginning of the year. Just continuing to get better every day. That’s what they preach here. It’s been a blessing.”

Budenholzer and Rose each remarked about the toughness of Cavanaugh as a major asset. He fits the Hawks system as a big man who can shoot. Rose marvels at his compact, repeatable shooting stroke.

Cavanaugh has appeared in 25 games, including one start, and averaged 5.4 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14.6 minutes. He is shooting 48.1 percent from the field, including 37.1 percent from 3-point range.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of the opportunities that were presented to me,” Cavanaugh said. “Unfortunately, guys go down and that’s part of the league. We need those guys back at full strength so we can be at full strength. I’ve been able to take advantage of my opportunities and solidify my place here.” 

Cavanaugh said his “Welcome to the NBA” moment came when the Hawks hosted the Mavericks on Dec. 23. Cavanaugh got to play against childhood idol Dirk Nowitzki. He even had to guard the future Hall of Famer for stretches of the game.

The remarkable journey all started with the three-day Portsmouth tournament in April. Cavanaugh was the second-leading scorer at 19.3 points in the three games. He also averaged 6.3 rebounds and had a .579 shooting percentage, including making 6 of 8 3-point attempts.

“I wanted him in Erie,” Rose said. “He was a development project that we could grow in Erie. Somebody who could give us some minutes and be a serviceable big. One thing Hawks bigs have to be able to do is shoot. You find one who can shoot, who is 6-8 or 6-9 and has positional size for the power forward, he sticks out to you. 

“What stuck out to me when I first saw him in Portsmouth is that he knows how to play. The ball moves. He’s on the right side of the floor. He’s where he has to be when he supposed to be there. He’s a good passer. Even if he made a pass and it went out of bounds, you knew what he was thinking and what the other player should have done.

“Portsmouth is physical. Everyone is trying to get noticed. They are all on audition because the stands are filled with nothing but scouts. They kept hitting him and he didn’t back down. I said I have to have him.”

Sometimes plans change – for the better.

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