- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A 15-13 team is nothing to celebrate, but when that team is the Atlanta Hawks — a franchise that has averaged 27.2 wins a season since 1999 — that record is a sign of serious progress.

By going 5-1 in the last two weeks, the Hawks moved above .500 for the first time in eight seasons. And what’s more, Atlanta has climbed into second place in the Southeast Division and sit four games behind Orlando.

But unlike many franchises, which use trades and/or free agency to cure their talent-deficient rosters and induce winning ways, the Hawks have built their team the hard way — by growing their own talent through lottery picks.

If a team is committed to building through the draft, they must be prepared to patiently let their young prospects develop even if it means nights, months and seasons of embarrassment.

That’s what the Hawks have done. But now they finally appear to be turning the corner.

Four of the Hawks’ leading scorers were taken in the first round. The lone exception is leading scorer Joe Johnson (22.2 points), whom they acquired by trade from Phoenix in 2005. Two reserves also were selected in the first round and a third early in the second.

The Hawks have one of the youngest teams in the league, averaging 25.2 years of age and 3.9 seasons of experience. In piecing together their recipe for success, Atlanta management has sought players with a common theme: length, athleticism, versatility and quickness.

Johnson is a 6-foot-7, seventh-year guard who can score from the perimeter, in traffic or even when posting up against small forwards. Josh Smith (the 17th pick in 2004) is a 6-9, 235-pound high-flying swingman with even greater versatility than Johnson. He leads the team in blocks (3.22) and ranks second in scoring (17.1), rebounding (8.1) and assists (3.5).

Marvin Williams, the second overall pick in 2005, is listed as power forward on the team’s depth chart, but the 6-9, 230-pounder is more of a forward/guard. Williams, (16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds) uses his outside shooting capability and quickness to create mismatches with slower post players and his length and strength to take advantage of shorter guards.

On top of that, Josh Childress — another 6-8 high-flying guard/forward, taken sixth overall in 2004 — comes off the bench for 11.2 points and 5.2 assists.

Anchoring Atlanta in the paint is rookie Al Horford (third overall last summer), who nearly averages a double-double with 9.5 points and 9.2 rebounds.

The youth, versatility and athleticism make for a scrappy gang that isn’t the highest scoring bunch — 22nd in the league with 94.5 points a game — but they have matched firepower with the league leaders in victories this season over Phoenix, Dallas and Utah.

When coach Mike Woodson took over in 2004, he said he would always stress strong fundamentals and defense to his young charges. And the Hawks appear to have bought into that defensive focus, limiting teams to 95.0 points a game (seventh in the league) on the season. And in their last 10 games, only four other teams — San Antonio, Toronto, Detroit and Boston — have held their opponents to fewer points than the 94.6 the Hawks have allowed.

The Hawks still have much growing left to do. But they’re eager to prove themselves. And the progress they’ve made thus far is significant considering where they have come from. And judging by the potential the roster is loaded with, Atlanta’s brighter days are definitely ahead.

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