Written by Kris Kristofferson, recorded by Janis Joplin and appropriated by Bob Weir and the Grateful Dead, the song “Me and Bobby McGee” is known mostly for this line: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” I’ve never been sure as to the accuracy of that sentiment, but it does kind of apply to the Hawks.
The tanking Hawks have pared their roster almost to the nub, and Dennis Schroder could be outbound any minute. The only keeper – using a loose interpretation, there being no true keepers on a 24-win team – would seem to be John Collins, last year’s Round 1 pick.
The year’s draft is Thursday night. The Hawks hold four of the first 34 picks. As much pressure as such an occasion exerts on a tanking team, there is this case a feeling of liberation. The Hawks, see, are free to do anything – and none of it would be wrong.
They could pick a big man. (Lots available.) They could pick a point guard. (Some available.) They could trade down. (Tanking teams seek to maximize assets, and if somebody offers two Round 1 picks for your No. 3 overall, that’s a net gain.) Or they could trade up, hoping to land a second lottery pick. (Two lottery picks > one lottery pick.) Heck, in keeping with the history of this franchise, they could even take someone named Williams.
(OK, I lied. Taking Robert Williams, the big man from Texas A&M? That’d be a mistake. He doesn’t always play hard. He’s my must-to-avoid in this draft.)
Hawks-related rumors have flown for months. That they’re lukewarm on Marvin Bagley III, the Duke freshman who led the ACC in scoring and rebounding. (FWIW, general manager Travis Schlenk said that’s not so.) That they were leaning toward Jaren Jackson Jr. of Michigan State, even though he’s the least accomplished of the young bigs. (The NBA judges on potential, not collegiate production.) That the Hawks have fallen in love with Trae Young, the Oklahoma point guard who led the nation in scoring and assists, seeing in Young a rising Splash Brother. (Schlenk cut his teeth at Golden State.)
The latest whisper, as reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, is that the Hawks are eyeing Luka Doncic, the Slovenian-born wing lately of Real Madrid, with the No. 3 pick. The consensus on Doncic has been all over the transatlantic map. Once seen as the potential No. 1, he was believed to be slipping out of the top five. Now he’s again trending upward.
With the possible exception of Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., Doncic is the most intriguing player available. He’s 19. He’s 6-foot-8. He can shoot and pass. NBAdraft.net lists Toni Kukoc and Hedo Turkoglu as his closest comparisons, and both were fine NBA players. Doncic, however, is seen as the most-NBA-ready European ever.
Then again: Darko Milicic was the No. 2 pick in 2003 (behind LeBron James; ahead of Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade) and Andrea Bargnani was the No. 1 in 2006 (ahead of LaMarcus Aldridge), and those aren’t exactly feel-good stories. Any European player will carry more mystery than a typical collegiate one-and-done simply because the European has played in, er Europe – as opposed to the ACC, the Big Ten or the Big 12.
That said, the Hawks aren’t drafting for next season so much as for the next five seasons. If they take Doncic at No. 3 and he disappoints, that wouldn’t be the difference between playing for the 2019 NBA title and losing in the Eastern conference finals. Rebuilding is a volume business. Not every pick will hit. The Warriors’ Round 1 choices from 2008 through 2012: Anthony Randolph, Stephen Curry, Ekpe Udoh, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes and Festus Ezeli – two great, one good, one fair and two terrible. Golden State wound up OK, though it took a while.
Think of this Hawks draft as one of those blue-sky brainstorming sessions. “What if we take a big guy early and a point guard at No. 19? What if we take Trae Young – hey, his name is TRAE, as in 3-pointer! – and worry about big men next year? What if we take nothing but big men?” (Sam Hinkie, author of the Philadelphia renaissance, came close to doing that: The 76ers’ draft yields from 2013 through 2016 included Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Dario Saric, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons – all 6-10 or bigger. Philly wound up OK, too.)
Anything the Hawks do Thursday night must reflect this greater truth: They got terrible on purpose, and unless you draft the next Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – there’s none available, alas – you don’t go from terrible to terrific. As much as Schlenk tries not to say the word “process,” perhaps for fear of having to pay royalties to Hinkie, that’s what this is. There’s no fast fix. This draft could be the first real step on the road to brighter tomorrows, but it’s just one step.