The Atlanta Hawks are entering their 73rd NBA season. In that time, they have rostered several top-tier talents, but who’s the best ever?
Although the Atlanta Hawks have only won one NBA title, the team is still has a rich history. This franchise has had numerous superstar talents come and go, but a few stand out from the rest. However, unlike many other franchises, most of the greatest Hawks ever are far from their playing days. Even though players like Trae Young and John Collins have done a lot for this franchise recently, they do not surpass the legends before them. If they can continue putting high statistics, while advancing deeper and deeper into the playoffs, they easily could appear on this list in the coming seasons. Nonetheless, as of now, their sample size is simply too small. Reducing this franchise’s best down to a top-8 was brutal, so here are some players just missing the cut.
The Hawks in the early 2000s were an exciting group of young players with tons of promise. A surprising cornerstone of that young core was Josh Smith. Smith was taken straight out of high school with the 17th overall in 2004 but direly needed some fine-tuning. Nonetheless, Smith was named onto the All-Rookie 2nd team and was poised to become the next big forward in Atlanta. With the 5th most minutes in franchise history, Smith carved out an impressive career by averaging 15.3 ppg, 3.2 apg, and 5.3 rpg. However, Smith stands out from other Hawks’ players due to his incredible defense. He ranks 2nd and 5th all-time, respectively, in blocks (1,440) and steals (857).
Smith was undoubtedly a fan-favorite in Atlanta, but another player barely missing the top-8 was even more adored. Tree Rollins is arguably one of the first players people think of when they consider the most historic Atlanta Hawks. In 1977, the Hawks selected Rollins 14th overall with the hopes of securing a defensive post presence. Although his offensive output was relatively minuscule, his defense was unparalleled. In his lengthy Atlanta tenure (2nd most games played), Rollins ran away in the blocks leaderboard, accumulating almost 800 more than the next player. Not including Rollins was disappointing, but his overall impact cannot be overlooked.
8. Joe Johnson
This may come as a surprise because Atlanta did not draft Johnson, nor did he last that long as a member of the franchise. However, Johnson was the most significant factor for Atlanta basketball throughout his stay. While some would argue Al Horford might deserve this spot, Johnson had a much greater role overall. In 2005, the Hawks sent Boris Diaw and two first-rounders to acquire Johnson from Phoenix. While this is a large investment, it almost immediately paid out. In his 7 seasons, Johnson was elected to six consecutive All-Star games.
Johnson was unable to secure many other accolades, but his numbers speak for themself. His 20.9 ppg and 5.2 apg rank 7th and 8th, respectively. Moreover, Johnson ended his Atlanta tenure 6th in all-time points (10,606), assists (2,653), and steals (741). Despite his lone All-NBA third team in 2010, Johnson was a premier wing in basketball. If not for LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and others, he easily could have walked away with more all-league titles. Nevertheless, Johnson should be considered an instrumental player in Hawks’ history.
7. Kevin Willis
Like Johnson, Kevin Willis lacks the league-wide acknowledgments but has dipped his hand in several Hawks’ record books. Willis was taken 11th overall in the 1984 NBA draft and had a slow but steady rise to prominence. He entered the league as a tough, brawny big man with a natural rebounding ability. Overall, Willis averaged 9.7 rpg, but in the 1991-1992 NBA season, he racked up a ridiculous 15.5 boards per night. He would’ve won a rebounding title in almost any other season, but Dennis Rodman posted an insane 18.7 rpg that year.
Willis had an extended NBA career, playing 22 seasons for 8 different franchises. However, his 753 games in Atlanta (4th ever) make up over half of his career. In that time, Willis became the franchise’s 7th leading scorer (10,582), 3rd leading rebounder (7,332), and had the 9th most steals (581) and blocks (425). Despite only one all-star game and one All-NBA third-team appearance, Willis is entirely worthy of a spot on this list of the greatest Atlanta Hawks ever.
Mookie Blaylock has a very inconsistent franchise ranking for many. Some consider him to be top-15, while others had him even higher than sixth. What cannot be debated, though, was his remarkable defense. The 6’0″ guard had those lightning-quick hands needed to strip ball-handlers. Additionally, Blaylock’s defensive expertise transferred onto his offensive game too. By analyzing the defense, Mookie frequently found open teammates in the smallest of windows.
Blaylock’s game was centered around defending and distributing. So much so that in just his 7 seasons, Blaylock recorded the 2nd most assists (3,764) and the most steals (1,321) in franchise history. Furthermore, his defensive prowess was not only incredible within the Hawks’ organization but league-wide as well. He made the All-Defense 1st team twice and the 2nd team four times. Therefore, that alone is enough to grant him a spot on this list. But, let’s not overlook his 14.9 ppg and 4.6 rpg, which is especially shocking when considering his height.
5. John Drew
Here is where ranking the best Hawks ever becomes somewhat tricky. John Drew is an interesting character among the Hawks’ cast as he may not have accomplished as much as others, but his value was unparalleled. In the 2nd round of the 1974 draft, the Hawks were not expecting to find a 1st team All-Rookie caliber player like Drew. However, he showed tremendous upside at an early age. In fact, in just his second season, at the ripe age of 21, Drew made the all-star team.
For 8 seasons, Drew performed at a very high level in Atlanta. By the end, Drew totaled up the 5th most points (12,621), 5th highest PER (21), and 4th most steals (859) in team history. And although this is quite impressive, it does not entirely equate to his 5th overall ranking on this list. His play was undoubtedly important, but his value proved to be even greater. On September 2nd, 1982, the Hawks sent Drew to the Utah Jazz for rookie Dominique Wilkins. While this should not really play into his franchise ranking, it clearly shows how big of an impact John Drew had on the Atlanta Hawks’ organization.
4. Cliff Hagan
Like John Drew, Cliff Hagan was also involved in a monumental trade. However, this trade was far from beneficial to the Hawks. That is not to say Hagan did not perform well with the team, but rather not as well as who the Celtics got. After initially being Boston’s 3rd round pick in 1953, Hagan did not make his NBA debut until he was traded to the Hawks in 1956. In return, Boston received the draft rights to Bill Russell. Even though the Hawks had their fair share of established big men (coming up later in this article), it is still a major opportunity missed, but Hagan did come in handy in 1958 when he averaged 25.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg, and 3.5 apg.
After a horrendous rookie campaign, Hagan drastically flipped the script and was voted to 5 consecutive All-Star games. After 745 games (5th most) with the then St. Louis Hawks, Hagan left the organization as an all-time great. To this day, Hagan is still the franchise’s 5th leading scorer (13,447 points) and has the 9th most assists (2,242) and rebounds (5,116) too. However, the most significant thing Hawks fans and Hagan himself can hold onto was their 1958 NBA Title over none other than the Boston Celtics and Bill Russell. Hagan was actually the leading scorer in the 1958 playoffs. Consequently, if not for Hagan’s vital production and really the entire 1958 St. Louis Hawks team, the Celtics could have won 10 straight championships.
3. Lou Hudson
Lou Hudson is yet another oddball player in Hawks’ history. His ability and production were on the level of a franchise great, but his cumulative numbers are somewhat lacking because the NBA did not record steals or blocks for 7 of his 11 year Hawks’ career. Nonetheless, Hudson was an early rendition of a two-way wing. With the 4th overall pick in 1966, the Hawks selected Hudson. In his first season, Hudson was voted onto the All-Rookie 1st team. Soon thereafter, he became the franchise’s workhorse, playing the 3rd most career minutes ever in a Hawks uniform.
Hudson got involved in every aspect of the game too. He averaged 22 ppg (5th most), 2.9 apg, 4.9 rpg, and 1.7 spg (4th most) in his tenure. As a result, Hudson was elected to 6 all-star games, but just one All-NBA second team. Seemingly, if the NBA included All-Defensive teams and always recorded defensive stats, Hudson would be a much more apparent franchise legend. Nonetheless, Hudson amassed the 3rd most points (16,049) in franchise history and certainly deserves to be the 3rd best Hawk ever.
While the previous candidates are talented, the battle for the best Atlanta Hawks player ever was a two-horse race. Wilkins is typically the first player people think of when considering the Atlanta Hawks, but he just barely misses out on being the best. As previously mentioned, Wilkins was traded to Atlanta shortly after Utah took him 3rd overall. Wilkins was ready for pro-competition right off the bat as he made the All-Rookie 1st team. Furthermore, in just his fourth season, Wilkins won the NBA scoring title (30.3 ppg) and made his first of 8 all-star games.
A key contributor to why Dominque stands out as the face of the Hawks was due to how long he played for them. Moreover, Wilkins’s 882 games and 32,545 minutes are by far the most in franchise history. Similarly, he sits comfortably atop the scoring list with 23,292 points (2,412 more than the next). Additionally, Dominique was so much more than simply a scorer, as he ranks 8th in assists (2,321), 4th in rebounds (6,119), 2nd in steals (1,245), and 7th in blocks (588). In Atlanta, Wilkins made the All-NBA 1st team once, the 2nd team four times, and the third team twice. However, two big stains on his legacy place him in second. First, the fact that he played for so long allowed him to be so widespread and high in the franchise’s record books. And secondly, unlike this list’s top entry, ’Nique never won an NBA title.
1. Bob Petit
There are two reactions to this placement: ‘Who?’ or, if you know him, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ While Wilkins did everything he possibly could to surpass this old-timer, he simply cannot be better because of name recognition. Bob Petit was Dirk before Dirk, Tim Duncan before Tim Duncan; he was and still is the exact model every team desires from their power forward. Petit is so old that he never played for the Atlanta Hawks. Instead, he was drafted 2nd overall to the Milwaukee Hawks in 1954. And what an incredible pick it was.
Petit won the Rookie of the Year after averaging 20.4 ppg, 13.8 rpg, and 3.2 apg. Somehow, this would be his lowest scoring and second-lowest rebounding season ever. Likewise, it was the only year in which Petit was not a member of the All-NBA 1st Team. In an 11 year career, this man not once finished worse than the All-NBA second team… truly astonishing. However, the accolades are only beginning.
In just his 2nd professional season, Petit became the first-ever NBA MVP. Petit would then win a second in the 1958-1959 season. In both MVP seasons, he was the league’s scoring champion, too, as well as being the rebounding champion in his first MVP year. As an 11x All-Star, Petit took home four of the game’s MVP trophies. Not to mention, he was the superstar on the Hawks’ lone NBA title, with averages of 29.3 ppg, 17 rpg, and 2.2 apg. Lastly, Petit is the all-time leader in rebounds (12,849), 2nd in points (20,880), and 7th in assists (2,369) within the Hawks’ organization.
With all the league-wide accomplishments, the ring, and the in-house records, Bob Petit simply has to be the greatest Hawk of all time.
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