John Collins and Trae Young have to lead the Atlanta Hawks defensive turnaround

Jan 7, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) reacts during the first half at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 7, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) reacts during the first half at Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports /

If the Atlanta Hawks (17-21) want to correct their season, they will have to fix their hapless defense. Opponents have scored 130-plus points on them seven times this season. That is more than from 2013-2018, per 92.9 The Game’s Mike Conti. They’ve done this all since the start of December.

Four of those have come at home while the Hawks themselves have managed to crack the mark themselves just twice all season.

In this month-plus span, opponents have taken advantage of the Hawks having a roster full of 10-day guys or rotation players returning from health and safety protocols.

To their credit, the Hawks have not used that as an excuse for their poor play.

Defensive adjustments will take more than talk from the Atlanta Hawks top players

Following their 134-118 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, assistant Joe Prunty, who has coached the last three games, echoed general manager Travis Schlenk’s sentiments.  Both of the Hawks top two players spoke with the media about what they’ve been seeing, to quote Schlenk, “game after game” with another tough stretch on the way.

Trae Young got his league-leading 14th game with at least 25 points and at least 10 assists of the season. After the game, he seemed to follow along with that line of thinking.

"“As far as the defensive end, it’s more about effort and just your want and a lot of it’s game plan. So those two things go hand-in-hand and I think we’ve got to do better on both of them. We’ve got to want it more.”"

What was interesting in that excerpt that comes via Sarah K. Spencer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution was Young’s mention of the game plan. He doesn’t go any further so it is hard to discern what aspect of the plan he is referring to. But it is notable with the coaching staff and scheme being revamped this past offseason.

It was a similar message from John Collins. While he didn’t shoot especially well in his return from health and safety protocols, he had 21 points and eight rebounds. He has been vocal about the Hawks defensive issues this season and is still searching for answers.

"“I’ve banged my head against the wall a couple of times trying to figure it out myself. There’s really no excuse”, Collins told Chris Kirschner of The Athletic adding, “I really don’t have an answer for you. All I can say is it’s unacceptable and we have to dig down and do the things necessary to win or this is going to be the result every night.”"

Both players are spot on, but they also carry the burden of getting it corrected as the best players on the team.

For Collins, that has already begun with his on-ball defense this season. But, with a non-vocal force like Clint Capela behind him, he needs to be a better communicator and talk more, orchestrating and getting guys in their proper positions defensively.

He could also stand to get stronger but that won’t be happening during the season. This is also not to take away from what has really been a tremendous season of growth for him.

Young’s turn seemed to be on the same course earlier in the year. His hands were more active and he was more consistently engaged on the defensive end. While there he recently averaged 1.8 steals over a five-game stretch, the engagement has waned too often.

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It would be easy to say that his pursuit of individual numbers recently has taken a toll on his defensive progress. But that is only partly true. It likely is taking a toll but he isn’t chasing numbers by any stretch. Since returning from his stint in protocols, Young’s usage rate is only 1.8 percent higher than it was before he entered.

Young’s usage rate in losses is just 0.5 percent higher than it is in wins. His turnover rate as well as his effective field goal and true shooting percentages all take a dip in losses, though.

While he is contesting more shots per game, he has deflected fewer passes.

At 6-1 and of slight build, Young will never be a true ball-stopper on defense. But he can, and has shown a willingness to, be a disruptor. With his passing ability, getting steals and turning defense into transition offense is just as good.

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It’s just going to take turning words into acton (or in Collins case, actions into words on the court) to take this group back to the heights of last season without major changes.