New role should seal former top pick's fate with Hawks

The Atlanta Hawks have had to reshuffle their starting lineup and rotations this season, perhaps sealing the fate of a former top draft pick.

Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter
Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
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The Atlanta Hawks (26-33) suffered a 124-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets on February 29.

In an ominous ode to the 2022-23 season, they closed out the month of February with a 6-6 record. But they may have also solidified a few things. 

Kobe Bufkin’s performance in his extended stints since Trae Young went down with a pinky injury that required surgery is promising, for one thing. But the Hawks have also gotten a more effective and efficient De’Andre Hunter.

Hunter, 26, has come off the bench for the last 11 games since returning from knee surgery.

He is averaging 16.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.1 assists while shooting 44.7% from beyond the arc in that span.

The points and steals would set new career highs for Hunter across an entire season. He is also shooting a career-best 41.7% on the season. But that this surge has come off the bench could be a sign that the Hawks had the right idea putting him on the trade block.

The Hawks were 11-13 with Hunter in the starting lineup this season. And, as the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, he is the highest draft pick on the Hawks’ roster.

Has Saddiq Bey made De'Andre Hunter expendable to Hawks?

But they have gotten strong production from 2023 trade deadline acquisition Saddiq Bey, who is averaging a career-high 6.5 rebounds this season. Bey had been starting for nearly one month before Hunter underwent surgery that knocked him out of commission for more than one month.

Since taking over for Hunter in the starting 5, he is averaging 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds.

Hunter is still the better shooter, connecting on 36.5% of his deep looks in his career compared to 35.4% for Bey, who is shooting a career-worst 32.1% from downtown this season.

Hunter is also a far better defender than Bey. The latter is proving to be a superior rebounder, though. And, while he is in the final year of his rookie contract and headed for restricted free agency, he figures to command less than Hunter received – $90 million over four years.

That difference should embolden the Hawks to part with the clearly talented Hunter.

That is especially true if they are still intent on retaining Bey as was the case last offseason when both he and Onyeka Okongwu were extension-eligible.

The Hawks extended Okongwu for $61.9 million over four years. But the deadline to get an extension done came and went with Bey’s situation unresolved. It would be a lot easier to sort out without Hunter’s contract weighing down the books.

Bally Sports Bob Rathbun suggested Hunter is at peace with his current role.

“[I] feel fine,” Hunter told reporters, speaking on his health after the loss to the Toronto Raptors on February 23. “That's the role I'm playing right now, so I just try to maximize as best I can.”

That should eliminate any concerns of discontent from the former Univerisity of Virginia standout. But holding on to Hunter makes less sense from a financial standpoint if this is to be his role with the Hawks.

He is the team’s third highest-paid player behind Trae Young and Dejounte Murray.

Golden State Warriors veteran Chris Paul, Miami Heat wing Duncan Robinson, Los Angeles Clippers swingman Norman Powell, and Oklahoma City Thunder trade acquisition Gordon Heyward are the only players who can claim higher contract values coming off the bench than Hunter.

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