A Surprising Eastern Conference Contender Has Five Players in ESPN’s Top 100 With Their Best Player Still to Come

Every year, ESPN releases a ranking of the top 100 players in the NBA. And more often than not, the title contenders are well-represented.

Heading into last season, the Milwaukee Bucks had four players within the top-100, headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo at number three. The year before, the Los Angeles Lakers had two of the league’s top-five players in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But in the first half of the 2021 rankings, there’s a surprising team that already has five players on the list, as well as a star who hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

The Atlanta Hawks have five players ranked between 51 and 100

The Atlanta Hawks were one of the bigger surprises of the 2020-21 season. After three years of missing the postseason, Atlanta finished 41-31 and nabbed the five-seed in the Eastern Conference. From there, they ran past the New York Knicks in five games, stunned the one-seed Philadelphia 76ers in seven games, and gave the Bucks a run before losing to the eventual champions in six games.

Now with heightened expectations, the Hawks are getting serious validation from ESPN that their roster is for real. Atlanta has five players between 100 and 51 on the new list: Danilo Gallinari (No. 99), Kevin Huerter (95), Bogdan Bogdanovic (64), Clint Capela (55), and John Collins (54).

The 2008 sixth overall pick Gallinari is an elite three-point shooter, sitting 12 threes behind Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond for 50th on the NBA’s all-time list. Bogdanovic, like Gallinari, is a sharpshooter who averaged over 21 points per game in his final 25 regular-season contests.

Both Huerter and Collins were drafted by the Hawks. Huerter, taken 19th overall in 2018, is a valuable scorer as a starter and off the bench, evident by his 27-point performance in Game 7 against the Sixers. As for Collins, the 19th pick in 2017 isn’t far removed from a career-best 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks two seasons ago.

Finally, Capela is one of the best rebounders in all of basketball. Entering his eighth season, the former Houston Rocket led the NBA with a career-high 14.3 rebounds per game, while also averaging 15.2 points and 2.0 blocks for the Eastern Conference runner-ups.

Trae Young is a top-25 player in the NBA

It’s a good sign for Atlanta when five players are listed in ESPN’s top 100. It’s even better when that doesn’t even include the face of the franchise.

Trae Young is all-but-guaranteed to be one of the top-25 players on ESPN’s list. The fourth-year point guard was 28th in 2019 and 29th in the 2020 rankings, where the latter ranking came fresh off of a career-high 29.6 points per game season. But last year, particularly in the postseason, Young transformed into a superstar.

The 6-foot-1 guard averaged 29.2 points against the Knicks, capped off by a 36-point performance to close out New York in Game 5. In the following series against the 76ers, Young averaged 29.0 points and 10.9 assists, scoring 39 points in Game 5 and earning double-doubles in five of the series’ seven games. Then against the Bucks, Trae stole Game 1 with a 48-point masterpiece, but a bone bruise in his ankle forced him to miss the final three games of the series.

Young’s defense, the one thing keeping him from elevating into the top 25 until now, has also shown signs of improvement. The former Oklahoma Sooner earned 1.3 defensive win shares over 63 games in the 2020-21 season. For context, he earned just 0.7 defensive win shares over 81 games in his rookie season.

Can the Hawks match up with other title contenders?

The Hawks have a roster good enough to make the playoffs again. With a true All-Star like Young, several great role players, and a veteran coach in Nate McMillan, Atlanta should be able to make some noise once again. But is it enough to hang with the bonafide contenders in the East?

The Hawks fell to the Bucks, who will return Antetokounmpo as well as former All-Stars Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday, and Brook Lopez. The Nets have three of the top-25 players in the NBA in Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, along with a veteran-heavy bench. Even the Heat, who are just a year removed from an NBA Finals appearance, have two top-25 players in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo along with the newly-acquired Kyle Lowry.

The point being, is there enough star power on Atlanta’s high-quality roster? When LA won the title in 2020, James and Davis were the only two players in the top 100 before the season. But clearly, they didn’t need much else to go with those two superstars.

So realistically, for the Hawks to be at the same level as their title-worthy competitors, they will need someone like Collins to become an All-Star caliber player. Still, six players on ESPN’s list headlined by Young is nothing to sneeze at. Health permitting, the Hawks should be an exciting and competitive team once again.

All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.

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