Even considering L.D.’s plan to use a deeper rotation, it’s possible Etan Thomas and Josh Powell won’t get regular minutes during the season. As it stands now Thomas is no higher than the No. 3 center behind Al and Zaza , and with Al expected to play minutes at power forward Powell might be fifth or six in the bigs pecking order.
Yet even if Atlanta’s two new big men don’t get much game time the word at Hawks training camp is they are already paying dividends with their physical play during practices. One observer said he wouldn’t be surprised if a fight breaks out soon because of the way Thomas and Powell mix it up.
Not that such a development would be unwelcome for the Hawks as they try to shed their finesse rep.
“All of Etan’s career he’s brought toughness,” Smoove said. “Josh has come in and he’s a physical player. We definitely need that. He played on a championship-caliber team with two rings. The physicality is there, and I like that. It definitely brings a ‘no back down’ attitude to the bigs.”
The Hawks are known as an athletic, skilled team, which is another way of saying they haven’t had any real bangers. They can run the floor, grab steals, block shots and throw down dunks but when it’s time to grind (i.e., the playoffs) they come up short.
Thomas and Powell are grinders.
“They have certainly brought some physicality to our practices, which I embrace,” L.D. said. “Both guys play that style. Coming here and being who they are, it makes our practices that much more competitive.”
Before injuries and age intervened, Thomas earned a rep for being tough and scrappy despite being short for a center. He’s still got a grown man’s build (those biceps in particular are impressive) and a disposition to take on all comers.
He said he’s noticed the Hawks are ready to make amends for last spring.
“One of the things I’ve constantly heard is the way last year ended left a bitter test in their mouths,” Thomas said. “Yeah, they won 53 games, and that’s a great season, but the way it ended left a bitter taste. Everybody is really hungry and determined not to let that happen again. Everybody came ready.”
When the Hawks signed Powell, Rick Sund cited his experience with the Lakers as a plus. Powell didn’t play much for the Lakers over the last two seasons but was praised for his practice habits and professionalism.
He has the insight that only comes from being part of a championship program–the other day during a grueling set of sprints at practice, Hawks assistant Lester Conner told Powell: “Bring those two championship rings in here so they can see what we are working for.”
What does it take to reach that level?
“The first thing is you have got to have a group of guys that is committed,” Powell said. “Commitment can be from all aspects: defensively, offensively, sacrifice. We obviously have the talent. We have a lot of guys with skills. We just have got to continue to work hard and create good habits.
“[You do that] with the effort. When you have that in practice it’s much easier to have in games. We have to have that mindset, that killer mentality.”
Thomas and Powell are helping to bring that out in practice. It’s already led to a few heated engagements.
“You’ve seen it a little bit,” Smoove said. “A little complaining. It is definitely getting a little physical out there. I like it. There ain’t nothing wrong with a little testosterone going, the energy is going and the body fluids are going.”
No call, no cry
L.D. stopped practice today when players started complaining about the calls by local officials brought in for scrimmages. The calls were pretty bad–lots of illegal screens went without a whistle, to the point that even J.J. lashed out–but L.D. didn’t want to hear it.
“Let the officials make the calls and play,” he told them. “That’s a big part of our growth. We are always complaining to officials about calls. We have got to get that [blank] out of our system. That starts here in practice.”
L.D. elaborated on his stance afterward:
“To me nothing positive comes out of that. They are not going to change the call, so just leave them alone and just play basketball. It’s a very emotional game, and I understand that. . . . [But] we don’t want to get into being a team that complains a lot and always disputing calls and that type thing. Stay away from that and just play ball.”
L.D. said he was called for one technical foul during his 10-year career–he even remembered the city (San Antonio) and the official (Wally Rooney). He said he never was called for a tech as an assistant coach.
Now that he’s moving over to the head coach’s seat, his interactions with officials will increase dramatically. How does he think he will handle them?
“I don’t know how am I going to be,” he said. “If if it ain’t going the way I like it, obviously I am going to voice my opinion and stick up for my players. Some [coaches], they are masters at how they work officials. Some guys they take the approach of leaving the officials alone. That is kind of the approach I want to take and want my players to take the same approach. I know it is an emotional game but they have to fight through that and kind of let me handle it.”
The nagging injuries are starting to pile up as the two-a-days start to take their toll after a summer off. Today Josh Powell (groin) was added to an injured list that still includes Al (ankle), Pape Sy (back), Mo (knee), and Jamal (back).
“That’s normal training camp stuff,” L.D. said. “Their bodies are not quite used to this kind of work when they haven’t done anything for a while. Not saying they haven’t played any basketball, but the two-a-days and some of the starting and stopping [lead to soreness].”
– Conner is a lively presence during practices due to his talent for mess talking. He shouts out encouragement, praise, critiques and whatever else he thinks the Hawks need to hear.
The other day during sprints Conner walked near reporters and shouted at players: “Miami who? We are going to run them out of the gym!” Today during suicide sprints at the end of practice Conner yelled out: “Best-conditioned team in the league!”
Coincidentally, that last one is a Pat Riley rallying cry, too.