FILE - In this Jan. 19, 2019, file photo, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) and forward John Collins (20) leave the court after the team's 113-105 loss to the Boston Celtics in an NBA basketball game, in Atlanta. The instant camaraderie these two talented youngsters have make the Hawks one of the most intriguing storylines in the NBA losers bracket. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland, File)

Column: NBA losers' bracket is packed with intriguing teams

March 29, 2019 - 11:35 am

ATLANTA (AP) — The first time they took the court together, Trae Young threw up a lob and, somehow, John Collins knew right where the ball would be.

What followed was a thunderous dunk that hardly anybody else saw. It was merely a summer workout, held on Atlanta's practice court shortly after Young was drafted by the Hawks.

Yet it was a sign of the instant bond these talented youngsters would have — and make the Hawks one of the most intriguing story lines in the NBA losers' bracket.

"I feel like people are starting to take notice," Collins said. "We're proving ourselves in this league, and giving the NBA a reason to look out for us in the future."

Atlanta is hardly alone, either.

Sure, as the regular season winds down, the real season is about to begin. But don't sleep on those woebegone squads at the bottom of the standings, who were long ago eliminated from playoff contention and have already come to terms with watching from home like the rest of us.

There's the Hawks, with their dynamic duo of Young and Collins, 20 and 21 respectively but already looking like they've played together for years. There's the Dallas Mavericks, who are building Team Europe in the heart of Texas around Slovenian sensation Luka Doncic and talented Latvian Kristaps Porzingis. There's Team LeBron (a.k.a. the Los Angeles Lakers), who will undoubtedly be giving LeBron James some major help after such a disappointing season. And, yes, we'll even include the New York Knicks, a franchise that has proven far more adept at tanking than building a winning team, giving them a shot in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes.

In Atlanta, Young has proven to be a dynamic point guard, with an innate knack for breaking down defenses and hitting clutch shots. Alleviating any concerns about his size (just under 6-foot-2 and barely 180 pounds), he has already posted six games with at least 30 points and 10 assists.

A guy named Oscar Robertson is the only player to do it more often as a rookie.

"I can feel the excitement building up in Atlanta and even around the league," Young said. "I've gotten a lot of texts from people, just talking about how excited they are about the future of our team."

Then you mix in Collins, proving to be a steal in the 2017 draft at No. 19. The high-flying big man has taken a huge leap forward in his second season, giving the Hawks a couple of franchise cornerstones.

"If they continue to grow and develop," coach Lloyd Pierce said, "we will be special."

The Hawks figure to face constant comparisons with the Mavericks in the years to come, and not just because of their intriguing young talent. Last summer, Doncic was drafted by Atlanta at No. 3 but dealt to Dallas for Young, who went two spots later, and a future first-round pick.

So far, this looks like a trade that's going to work out just fine for both sides.

Doncic is the clear rookie of the year favorite, averaging 21.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game. Next season, he'll be joined by Porzingis, who was acquired from the Knicks in a deadline deal while in the midst of recovering from a torn ACL that has kept him out for more than a year.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can hardly contain his glee at the prospect of the polished-far-beyond-his-20-years Doncic pairing up next season with the 7-foot-3 "Unicorn," who is still only 23 and was averaging 22.7 points and shooting nearly 40 percent from 3-point range when he went down in February 2018.

"We're looking for 'The Unicorn' to unicii," Cuban quipped to ESPN. "I don't know if that's a word, but that's what we expect."

The Lakers have endured a miserable season, giving James a much longer summer break than he's used to after eight straight trips to the NBA Finals. But any team with the world's best player (yep, even at age 34, he's still the King), a storied franchise history and such an attractive destination figures to find plenty of talent lining up at the door.

Los Angeles will surely make another run at disgruntled New Orleans big man Anthony Davis, who wants out of the Big Easy, and anyone of note in the free-agent class can expect a call from the Lakers.

"It's challenging," said James, who'll have plenty of time to rest his weary body and figures to return highly motivated next season. "But I kind of knew what I was getting myself into."

The Knicks might have the most upside potential, but they also face the most daunting rebuild.

First of all, they must win the NBA draft lottery in order to nab Williamson, the franchise freshman currently at Duke but sure to be the No. 1 pick. New York has done all it can on the court, winning just 14 of 75 games to lead the race to the bottom of the standings, but a new format means they will merely have the same odds of landing the top selection as the next two worst teams (presumably Phoenix and Cleveland).

Having dumped virtually anyone who knew how to dribble, the Knicks also will have an enormous amount of money to spend in free agency, which could be used to go after two max-salary free agents (Kevin Durant? Kawhi Leonard? Kyrie Irving?). But, when throwing around all that money, they'll have to hope that no one notices the guy signing the check s is James Dolan, the NBA's most despicable owner.

"If the Knicks did draft me, I would love to be there," Williamson told the New York Post last week, giving those mournful fans in the Big Apple their first glimmer of hope in a long time.

And let's not forget the dysfunctional Suns. If they win the lottery, Phoenix could pair Williamson with 22-year-old Devin Booker, who this week became the younger player in NBA history with consecutive 50-point games. Suddenly, the desert wouldn't look quite so barren.

No matter what, let's be sure to check back with these guys a year or two from now.

Chances are, they'll no longer be in the losers' bracket.

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Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry@ap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry

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