MILWAUKEE – As the NBA regular season reaches its final days, teams out of playoffs contention find reasons to shut their key players down, with an eye to the NBA draft and the approaching off-season deck shuffle, where key trade assets should be in prime health.
The Atlanta Hawks are no exception, with their 29-52 record leaving them well out of the post-season conversation. With the Hawks travelling to Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee on Monday morning, the Hawks decided to leave young stars Trae Young and John Collins out, citing rest as the explanation.
With this being their second last game of the regular season, rest would not appear to be required, but nonetheless it was an Australian big man who was a beneficiary of the decision.
Isaac Humphries was signed to a 10-day contract on March 29, giving him a two-week opportunity to showcase his skillset on an NBA floor. With the Hawks shorthanded against the Bucks, Humphries was given a dream chance to enter the starting line-up for the first time.
Perhaps the nerves were hidden below the surface, but it was a relaxed Humphries who casually responded to The Pick and Roll when asked for confirmation of his promotion.
“Yeah, apparently I’m starting. I was just sitting down on the court and they let me know,” Humphries said with a smile.
“The first couple of games I really just wanted to try and find my feet a little bit, figure out how to kind of fit into the system. I’m just trying to play the role, be solid, do what I’m asked to do. I think I’ve found a level of comfort and tonight should be really fun.”
Lloyd Pierce, the first-year head coach in Atlanta didn’t know a lot about Humphries when he was initially signed, though he has been impressed with the early glimpses.
“I used Noel Gillespie who coached our G League team this year, and got intel from him. He’s got a shot and is a five man that can play the four,” Pierce said.
With nine of the currently contracted sixteen players on his roster 24 years of age or younger, Pierce has enjoyed the process of fostering new faces into the NBA system throughout the year.
“We’ve had three or four guys this year that had their first NBA experience with us. I’m just thankful to put [Humphries] out there and give him that first opportunity,” Pierce said.
Humphries has taken the once thought unconventional path of the NBL and then G League to reach the NBA, and that journey has not been lost on his coach.
“I can’t imagine what that feels like, and especially with him being a guy from Australia who went the G League route. He really got the last 10-day opportunity of the year. There is a lot of growth for him, but he understands how the game is played at the NBA level.”
Humphries suited up in 46 games for the Hawks G League affiliate, the Erie BayHawks, averaging 11.3 points and 7 rebounds in 21.9 minutes per game.
Humphries was glowing in his praise for the BayHawks organisation, and also noted some definitive differences from his time with the Sydney Kings in the season prior.
“The NBL is just different because it’s older guys, fully grown men. The G League is kind of like college, everyone’s young and trying to figure things out still so there’s leeway,” Humphries explained.
“In a professional league like the NBL there’s vets that have played in Europe, there’s some NBA guys that have come as imports so it’s like a real pro-league so that would be the difference, just playing with and against fully grown men.”
That leeway Humphries spoke of quickly evaporates at the next level, resulting in a challenging adjustment for the Australian.
“They are talented players [in the G League], it’s just when you get up here they are more athletic, quicker in their mind as well. You just have to be on always, there is no room for lulls or anything like that. It’s definitely been a learning experience.”
Humphries would play 17 minutes in his first start, tallying six points and reeling in four boards, shooting 2-for-4 from beyond the three-point line.
With just one regular-season game left, the complexity of trying to impress while remaining unselfish in the midst of an uncertain future presents a challenge in its own right.
“It’s kind of a weird situation but my mindset has been to just come in and be really solid, do what I need to do, rebound, hit shots that I get, that was my goal coming in."
"I believe there’s nothing worse than someone just coming in and f****** s**** up. I mean, I can’t say that, screwing things up,” Humphries said with a laugh.
In a world where the emotion of true accomplishments in an athletes career can be muted, Humphries has been a breath of fresh air this past week, far from hiding his joy at reaching the NBA, though he is far from done, despite an air of uncertainty about what’s to come.
“I have no idea what next year will bring honestly but I had a lot of fun in the G League. I definitely needed something like that, to take that risk, to play with that chip on my shoulder and really try to prove myself. I think next year hopefully will be something better, but you just never know.”
Hopefully it will once again be the NBA calling his name.
“Exactly. I hope so,” Humphries responded with a big smile.