Ken Sugiura: Hawks' apparent interest in Donovan Clingan could be boon for franchise

Ken Sugiura, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Basketball

ATLANTA — It could be a smoke screen or recycled rumor. Or maybe there’s a nugget of truth.

And that’s that the Hawks, who hold the first overall pick, are leaning toward Connecticut center Donovan Clingan in next week’s draft. Two officials with NBA teams (not the Hawks) told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Monday that they believe that the Hawks are high on the Huskies post player.

If that’s the case, and if the Hawks can play their hand properly, it could be a deft move for Atlanta’s woebegone NBA franchise.

In media-generated draft projections, Clingan is rated below French prospects Alexandre Sarr and Zaccharie Risacher, largely considered the top two. ESPN has Clingan No. 3, as does Yahoo Sports. A mock draft by The Athletic slots Clingan No. 7.

But one official told The AJC that Clingan, a high-energy, shot-blocker who turned heads with a strong showing in the Huskies’ run to the national championship, has had the Hawks’ eye even before they won the first pick in the draft despite having only a 3% probability.

And here’s where Hawks general manager Landry Fields can make a potentially franchise-altering move. (Albeit one that has a chance of blowing up in the club’s face.)

If he can find a team that really wants Sarr or Risacher, Fields can trade out of the top spot in exchange for an additional draft pick and still nab Clingan. The jeopardy, though, is trading down too low and giving someone else the chance to take Clingan, whose stock appears to be rising.

Washington, which picks second, also holds the No. 26 pick. Houston does not have an additional first-rounder this season, but could certainly surrender its 2025 first-round choice, which would be of value for the Hawks as they don’t have a pick next year as part of the trade for Dejounte Murray.

The ideal partner might be San Antonio, which holds the fourth and eighth picks, although that risks Clingan getting taken third. There is a thought that the Spurs want Risacher to pair with last year’s No. 1 pick, fellow Frenchman Victor Wembanyama. (Unrelated, but this duo would have no choice but to be called the French Connection.) The Spurs might deem the No. 8 pick too high a cost to move up three spots. But San Antonio could still return the Hawks the 2025 first-round pick that they traded to the Spurs as part of the Murray deal.

Certainly, there’s the allure of picking first and having the choice of any player in the draft. But trading down – if the Hawks are actually targeting Clingan and can find a trade partner – is a strategy borne of logic.

First, if Clingan is the player that the Hawks actually want, then they need to go ahead and take him, no matter what the industry consensus is. Second, the fact that there’s uncertainty over who the No. 1 pick should be — mostly, the debate is between Sarr and Risacher — speaks to the reality that there isn’t a prospect in this draft who is a clear-cut star. That being the case, it lessens the importance of having the first overall pick and ought to increase the Hawks’ willingness to move out of it.

And, to that point, the No. 1 pick is not a guarantee of anything. In the past 10 drafts, arguably five have proven to be the best player in the class — Karl-Anthony Towns, Zion Williamson, Anthony Edwards, Paolo Banchero and Wembanyama. The other five aren’t close — Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz, DeAndre Ayton and Cade Cunningham.

Sarr plays for the Perth Wildcats. Their general manager, Danny Mills, previously spent seven years with the 76ers. He told HoopsHype the following about Sarr:

“If everything went right for Sarr over the course of his career, 100 percent he can be an All-Star,” Mills said. “There’s no doubt in my mind.”


Especially for someone with a vested interest in seeing Sarr going first, Mills’ assessment is, ironically, the opposite of hoops hype.

However strongly the Hawks may feel about Clingan — or Sarr or Risacher — there are teams that felt the same way about Wiggins and his fellow No. 1 disappointments. Probably even more strongly, in some cases.

That’s why acquiring extra first-round picks — and increasing the possibility of landing a player who hits — makes a lot of sense.

In his Monday news conference, Fields did not divulge much. He did say that, as of Monday, he was planning to use the pick and not trade it and that he was narrowing down the possibilities.

Both bits of information should be received with a grain of salt. If Fields were interested in trading it, he would not come out and say that as it would reduce his trade leverage. Further, it wouldn’t be a great look if he said he wanted to trade down and then wasn’t able to make a deal.

Similarly, saying that the club has yet to decide on a single prospect is the better answer, as it fuels the perception among other clubs that the player they have targeted is also the one that Hawks want also.

And, possibly, both answers may actually be the truth.

I asked Fields about if there was wisdom in moving back and acquiring additional picks. He said that “we, as a group, looked at a ton of different scenarios” and that he and the decision makers will continue to consider them as they present themselves. He also said that his phone has “definitely been ringing” and that he’ll make the final call on the selection.

One other possibility to consider — Fields may not find a partner with an acceptable offer. If that’s the case, he’ll have a career-defining decision — go ahead and take Clingan at No. 1 or go with the more conventional choices of either Sarr or Risacher.

He would be immediately second guessed and probably ridiculed for reaching if he went with Clingan. Sarr or Risacher would be much safer choices from a public-perception standpoint. But, if the team’s research has indeed led it to Clingan, then that has to be the choice. Fields, whose stewardship of the team has yet to amount to much, will have to live with it either way.

He probably doesn’t want to see how many general managers/lead decision makers who’ve made No. 1 picks in recent years are still in their jobs, as it doesn’t bode well for him. He might as well go with the player he believes most in.

“At the end of the day, it is what it is,” Fields said of the impending judgment. “It doesn’t really bother me, frankly.”

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