As Hawks rebuild, Budenholzer shows he will rely on young players

Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer (AP Photo)

Before the season, with speculation about whether Mike Budenholzer would be on board with the roster rebuild, I wrote: “Surely Budenholzer would rather be chasing championships as a coach/top executive. But that’s no longer his job with the Hawks. I think he will do his best to win as many games as he can with the team he’s got, while also staying faithful to the organization’s long-term plan.”

After 20 games, I’d say that’s what Budenholzer has been doing with the 2017-18 Hawks. Anyone worried that the coach would shun his younger players in favor of short-term veterans shouldn’t be worried any longer. And the Hawks have been reasonably competitive even if it’s clear they aren’t good enough to win many games.

Three rookies have been, at one time or another, part of Budenholzer’s rotation: John Collins, Tyler Cavanaugh and Josh Magette. Those three players and Tyler Dorsey all rank among the top 50 in minutes played by NBA rookies; only Boston and Sacramento have more players on the list, with five each. Budenholzer also has relied on Isaiah Taylor, who played 52 minutes last season for the Rockets.

Collins, a first-round draft pick, was expected to play a major role but Cavanaugh and Maggette are G-League imports and Taylor was a street free agent (and quasi-rookie) when the Hawks signed him. It’s not just that Budenholzer has played those youngsters, it’s that he’s done so even when he had viable veteran options.

The Hawks signed Taylor on the eve of the regular season and it wasn’t long before he checked in a game. Initially it seemed Taylor would be an emergency stopgap while Dennis Schroder recovered from an ankle injury but soon he was taking some of Malcolm Delaney’s minutes, and Budenholzer was telling Taylor to be more aggressive offensively. Eventually Delaney worked his way back into the rotation as an off guard and DeAndre’ Bemby returned from injury but Taylor still is playing a significant role.

Magette and Cavanaugh have had Hawks timelines similar to Taylor’s.

Magette, a “two-way player,” beat our Quinn Cook for a roster spot and played in the first three games. The Hawks eventually sent him down to Erie once Taylor established himself but brought Magette back last week after Taylor went to the injured list. The Hawks could go with Schroder and Delaney logging all of the point guard minutes, with Bembry and Belinelli capable of filling that role, but Magette has played at least 13 minutes over the past three games.

The Hawks cut Cavanaugh during training camp then re-signed him to a “two-way” contract once injuries thinned their frontline. Like Taylor, Cavanaugh seemed to be a stopgap solution until vets (Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala) returned from injury. But he stayed in the rotation upon Ilyasova’s return, with Budenholzer saying more than once that he likes Cavanaugh’s impact.

Meanwhile Collins ranks 12th in minutes per game (22.9) among NBA rookies. He’d probably have more minutes if not for foul trouble: Collins has committed 5.8 fouls per 36 minutes, the most among all rookies who have played at least 250 minutes. Collins has been one of the most productive rookies in the league, with Budenholzer playing him mostly at center to take advantage of his prowess as a pick-and-roll rim runner.

It’s possible that Taylor, Magette and Cavanaugh won’t stick as NBA players with the Hawks or anyone else. Magette and Cavanaugh are likely to be sent back to Erie soon as the Hawks get healthier (by rule they can only spend a limited amount of days with the Hawks). But Budenholzer has been willing to find out what those three players can offer in major roles even when he could have called on vets instead.

I think that shows Budenholzer’s willingness to play young guys in service to player development. That’s the way it should be for the Hawks during Phase 1 of their rebuild–really, how many more victories would they have if Budenholzer didn’t play the fringe youngsters.? Budenholzer had never been in this situation though, either as a longtime Spurs assistant or Hawks head coach, so now we have evidence that he’s on board with the long-term plan.

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