ATLANTA — After dabbling in relative draft obscurity the year before, Danny Ferry took a quick leave of absence from the Atlanta Hawks’ war room to discuss a recognizable name from a recognizable place on Thursday night at Philips Arena.
In this same setting last year, the Hawks drafted international prospects Dennis Schroder and Lucas Nogueira, two long-range projects aimed toward building a formidable roster somewhere down the road. Schroder averaged 13 minutes of playing time in 49 NBA games; Nogueira spent the year in Spain. This, of course, came as little surprise. Ferry is a noted admirer of the international game and has witnessed and experienced other franchises utilizing the draft-and-stash system, bringing international projects along slowly until they’re ready to help the 12-man roster.
But that was not the plan — or, at least not the first-round result — with the ’14 version.
Ferry, orchestrating his third draft as the Hawks’ general manager, reached into the collegiate ranks for his first pick this time around, taking Michigan State forward Adreian Payne at No. 15 overall. The subsequent conversation centered on familiar topics: Tom Izzo, Spartans, NCAA Tournament, juniors and seniors, collegiate programs. Less who and where, replaced by how and why. That doesn’t mean Ferry abandoned the budding international flavor of his organization’s talent stockpile, though.
Following Payne, Atlanta selected an imposing 7-foot-3 center out of Cape Verde, 22-year-old project Will Tavares, before trading for fifth-year senior Lamar Patterson out of Pittsburgh in the second round.
Still, it’s a first-roud choice that sets up as the polar opposite of the draft-and-stash approach the franchise took with Schroder and Nogueira. And though Tavares fits that mold, Payne provides something different, projecting as an immediate-impact type of selection.
The 23-year-old was a four-year college player in Izzo’s program and will be expected to step in right away and compete for minutes in a Hawks frontcourt that includes (at the moment) Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Pero Antic. Averaging 16.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, the 6-foot-10 big man helped the Spartans to the Elite Eight in last season’s NCAA Tournament, boosting his stock throughout his senior season.
He’s experienced, versatile and presumed to be athletic and skilled enough (he shot 42.3 percent on 104 3-pointers last season) to play as a "stretch big" at the NBA level — one of the obvious fits as a post player in coach Mike Budenholzer’s shooter-friendly system.
"We want to play with pace and space. Adreian is someone that can do both," Ferry said. "From being able to run the court and compete on both ends, along with being able to shoot the basketball, he fits into the way we want to play … He’ll be able to shoot and open the court up for our guards and for everybody in general. Obviously that’s something we value."
Payne added to that sentiment over a phone interview with media members: "It’s the type of way I play, and I’m just really excited about it. (Budenholzer’s) a great coach and he’s got great players and I just really can’t wait to get ou there and be a part of the program."
Limited as Ferry’s draft history with the organization might be, an interesting theme has started to emerge divided along these exact lines: long-range future projects and players capable of providing instant production. He has yet to draft a one-and-done player, or even a college underclassman. In the age of college freshman superstars, this is worth noting. Before Schroder and Nogueira, the Hawks drafted John Jenkins and Mike Scott, two upperclassmen playing major-college basketball. They followed that up on Thursday with two uppclassmen and an international (and enormous) project.
Two lines drawn, future and present.
In many ways, the latter strategy is more rewarding on draft night. It’s an easier sell than wait-and-see.
Both, however, have cemented their place in what is now an international event for an international game, and Ferry, taking his cue from the Spurs system that helped mold him and Budenholzer, plans to find the right mix with, apparently, annual mid- to late-first round picks.
That plan, as always, aims to land a star. But slightly less imperative? Land a guy that fits the system, either by developing and molding talent — something Ferry expressed he takes great pride in here in Atlanta — or drafting a guy that fits into the puzzle right off the bat.
Four-year college players like Payne help limit the margin of error on projecting the talent to the next level. Basically, at 23 with four years of college basketball under his belt, most players are who they are, although Payne is certainly still learning on the job after only picking up the sport before entering high school. So will that college experience pay off next season?
"That’s something that they’ll have to determine on the court," Ferry said. "But (Payne) is a little older. He has gotten the four years of college, and with where we were drafting that may be a good thing. Maybe he was undervalued a little bit because of being older. Sometimes we overvalue the younger guys and undervalue the guys that have been in college for four years. Hopefully this is one of those instances."
The Hawks look like they’re trying to avoid the boom-or-bust business. They wouldn’t mind striking gold, but at the very least they’ll attempt to strike the right balance. How that works out for them and their system in the long haul — in terms of getting out of the NBA’s no-man’s land of "Good But Not Contending" that has plagued this franchise perhaps more than any other in the league — remains to be seen.
The stability of this roster long-term remains unclear, in part because of the contract situations with a few key veterans (only two players are guaranteed money into the 2016-17 season: guards Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver) but also because there is still so much unknown with a few of Ferry’s selections. We’re still waiting to truly evaluate the ’13 haul.
The ’14 haul, at least the most recognizable member of it, should not take near as long to evaluate.