When John Jenkins was picked 23rd in the NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks, some people thought that his youth would give him the edge on a rotation spot in a backcourt filled with aging players. Thanks to GM Danny Ferry's moves, he might end up starting thanks to attrition alone.
Jenkins will have the opportunity to fill Joe Johnson's shoes after the six-time All-Star was shipped to Brooklyn this July. Johnson had been the team's incumbent at shooting guard, playing approximately half of his minutes there as the team's most visible - and most highly-paid - star. Now Ferry and his staff will have to ask themselves an important question before opening night; can one JJ replace another?
The Hawks are stocked full of shooters in an unpredictable depth chart. Players like Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, and Deshawn Stevenson are all proficient marksmen, but it is arguable whether any of the three are the type of player who can start for a high-level team. Jenkins will enter training camp on the heels of a strong summer league performance, and he'll get the chance to be a true x-factor for an Atlanta team that will be rebuilding their backcourt in 2012-2013.
The expectations will be high for the rookie shooting guard now that he'll be given the chance to earn a starting role from day one. Jenkins is expected to be part of an Atlanta youth movement that includes point guard Jeff Teague and young veterans Al Horford and Josh Smith. Ferry and his staff have bit down hard on the idea of rebuilding after trading away Johnson and Marvin Williams. If Jenkins can emerge as a legitimate starter right away, it will help provide the Hawks with an identity from which they can grow.
Jenkins's main competition at shooting guard now will be former 76ers staple Lou Williams. Williams is a combo guard who can handle both the point and off-guard positions. He's also coming off the best season of his seven-year career after putting up nearly 15 points per game for a Sixers team that rolled into the second round of the playoffs. On paper, it seems like Williams would have the edge on that starting slot. The Hawks will be crowded at point guard between Teague and Devin Harris, and Williams is likely to earn most of his minutes at the 2.
However, stats can be deceiving. Williams cut his teeth in Philly as an explosive presence off the bench. His ballhandling and athleticism make him a strong member of a second unit, and his flexibility gives him the chance to exploit tired opponents and weak benches. However, while Williams is a decent three-point shooter (36 percent last season, 33 percent for his career), he doesn't provide the extra dimension behind the arc that Jenkins does. It's likely that he'll remain in his super sixth man role with the Hawks, but he could end up playing mentor to the rookie next season as a starter.
The other major competition will come from veteran shooter Anthony Morrow. Morrow is one of the few players on the Hawks that can match Jenkins's long-range prowess (Korver is the other), as he has connected on nearly 43 percent of his three-point attempts in his career. He also has the ability to play small forward in stretches.
That ability will come in handy on an Atlanta team that is better equipped for small ball than a traditional lineup. The Hawks have thrived in the past with Horford playing center and Smith at power forward. If the team were to put their two stars in those roles, it would free up space for Morrow and Jenkins to play alongside each other at the wings. That may end up being coach Larry Drew's best option; Morrow and Jenkins lead a depth chart that includes aging players like Willie Green, Korver, and Stevenson at SF/SG.
That's a roster with lots of outside shooting, but Jenkins may prove to have the sweetest stroke of them all. His best bet, however, is to show off his continually improving game inside the three-point line. Jenkins scored 15.6 points per game in his first professional action in this year's NBA Summer League. However, only 24 of his 78 total points came via three-pointers. If he can prove that he's a more flexible option than Morrow, Korver, or Stevenson, he'll be in line for rotation minutes almost immediately. On a team that will be in flux after some significant trades this summer, that can translate into a starting role in a heartbeat.
John Jenkins will be given plenty of opportunities to succeed in the Peachtree City. He proved at Vanderbilt that he'll work to make the most out of every chance he gets. While Jenkins still has to round out his game, he's developing into a more complete player with one elite skill, and that alone should be enough to earn him big minutes on a potential playoff squad. He'll have to work hard to earn that coveted starting spot in the NBA, but after watching him in Nashville for three years, that part should be of the least concern to the Hawks and their staff.