Marvin Williams knows a thing or two about dealing with great expectations. During his freshman season at North Carolina, it wasn't uncommon for Williams to be greeted with a standing ovation in class the morning after a big win, even if he showed up a minute or two late.
But after a loss, complete silence the next morning. And don't dare be late. "It was chilling. The professor would call you out. 'You're late, Mr. Williams,'" the Hawks' forward said. "You could walk in there late after a loss if you wanted to, but it wasn't going to be pretty. That's just the way it goes when people expect you to win championships. It's all or nothing."
While realistic external expectations for the Hawks this season fall something short of a championship --- the defending champion Lakers retain that distinction with training camps kicking off around the league today --- they are higher than they've been in years.
The Hawks are firmly entrenched as a playoff contender. All five starters and eight of the top nine players return from last season's Eastern Conference semifinals team, a group that piled up 47 wins en route to the franchise's best regular season and postseason in more than a decade.
Veteran additions Jamal Crawford, Joe Smith and Jason Collins are expected to help fill the gaps, along with rookie point guard Jeff Teague, rounding out a roster that has made a steady climb up the conference food chain the past five seasons.
"We've made our case on the floor," said sixth-year forward Josh Smith, the longest-tenured member of the team. "We haven't been able to hype our way into anything. So anything we've earned, wins, respect or whatever else, has come the hard way. We worked for it."
The rest of the league appears to have taken notice.
The Hawks have seven national TV games this season, equaling their haul over the past 11 years. And when the conversation turns to contenders in the East, the Hawks are the first team mentioned after Cleveland, Boston and Orlando.
"There's no doubt, you have the big three and then the Hawks ," former Hawks All-Star and now NBA TV analyst Steve Smith said. "On paper, you see Toronto and say they've gotten better. And you see Washington's gotten healthy, so you assume they've improved. And there's Chicago, Miami and Detroit that everyone expects to be in the mix. The difference is you have to see all those other teams on the floor before you are sure. The Hawks are coming back intact. And that's something you can't overlook in this league.
"You expect them to make the playoffs now."
For Williams, it's a complete turnaround from what he experienced during his rookie season with the Hawks , when he, Joe Johnson and Zaza Pachulia joined a team coming off a 13-win season.
"It's definitely different, but we did it the hard way, the right way," Williams said. "We teased the city a couple years ago with that series against Boston, and the only thing on our minds last year was getting back to the playoffs again so we could take another step. We did that by beating Miami and then playing Cleveland in the second round. Now I think this city expects us to be a contender this year, to come back and take another step. And we should expect that, too.
"There's no sense of playing if you don't have those kind of expectations and if you don't believe it down in your bones that you've got a chance to be one of those special teams. We know we're one of those teams."
Just being in the conversation is a startling change for the Hawks and many of their fans, most of whom have lived through the tumult of the past decade. That included dreadful seasons and more recently the off-the-court glare of an ownership dispute.
Attendance has risen for seven straight seasons, and ticket sales are up 21 percent from last year, best in the NBA, according to Hawks vice president of ticket sales and services Brendan Donohue. Backed by 18 sellouts last season, the Hawks recorded the second-highest attendance total (686,688) in team history.
Coach Mike Woodson admitted that his sixth team is his best, at least on paper. The challenge is putting it all together.
"It's really no different than how we did it last year," Woodson said. "The system is in place, in terms of how we want to play. We want to score more points, we want to rebound better and be a better defensive team. But everybody wants to do that.
"So it's really about all these new guys buying in the way Mo Evans and Flip Murray did last year. That's how you keep building on what we've started here is integrating your new players into the fabric of what's already in place and pushing for that next step."
Today: Training camp opens
Oct. 7: Exhibition opener vs. Hornets, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28: Regular-season opener vs. Pacers, 7 p.m.