When the Atlanta Hawks are discussed, it is usually in the context of Trae Young or, now, Dejounte Murray. And rightfully so – both are All-Stars capable of taking over a game at any moment. More infamously, John Collins is also much-discussed but generally with the label of trade fodder.
In their 117-98 win over the previously unbeaten Milwaukee Bucks, Young sat out but Murray and Collins both did what they are expected to do.
Murray had 25 points, 11 assists, eight rebounds, and three steals in another spectacular performance while Collins chipped in 14 points with several coming in key moments. But it was the surprising efforts of AJ Griffin that had people talking.
The rookie finished with 24 points and four rebounds while matching Murray with three steals.
John Collins, Dejounte Murray pump up young Atlanta Hawks teammate
Those career-high numbers at least doubled up Griffin’s previous bests and came as he could knock down just 2-of-6 threes; small potatoes for a player billed as a long-range sniper – he has shot 50% from beyond the arc this season. And, yet, even without his signature shot, Griffin was a game-high plus-28.
Afterward, Collins spoke with Hawks digital reporter Annie Finberg about the explosion from the 16th overall pick.
He offered lofty praise.
“We love it,” Collins said. “AJ’s been one of our hardest workers on the team. And I love to see hard work pay off. We all love to see AJ. He’s a shining light around the Hawks facility, around the arena. As you saw, the bench was up and active whenever he got a bucket. So, shouts out to my boy, AJ. He earned a lot of respect tonight.”
Griffin began earning that respect right after being drafted. He did not play in summer league or the preseason because he injured his foot while training.
It’s also no small feat that he got so much floor time under Nate McMillan.
The head coach is notoriously reluctant to lean on young players. But he spoke highly of Griffin this summer and did so again following the wing’s impressive performance against the 2021 NBA champs.
“He played solid basketball,” said McMillan, “on both ends of the floor.”
Again, that may seem like nothing major. But Griffin entered the league with some questions as to how he would hold up defensively. In his first extended action, the 19-year-old picked up just one personal foul.
McMillan showed his satisfaction with the rookie and his floormates by leaving them on the floor to close this one out.
Griffin’s teammates certainly took note.
“It just shows our depth,” Murray said of the Hawks getting the win. “Just the way that we got a deep group. Having Trae out, still haven’t got [Bogdan Bogdanovic] back. Having dudes like the rook step up. Jalen [Johnson] step up. I think that’s really what it was.”
Griffin couldn’t get through his entire postgame interview without getting a victory bath.
“I love my team,” he said once things settled down. “The energy. You see right there the love I get from them. It’s a blessing, for real.”
Once pegged as a lottery pick, Griffin’s drop was not as drastic as Johnson’s (20th overall) last year. But the Hawks are likely just as happy that he “slid” to them and to see him play so well despite having such a limited summer.