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Hawks ready to soar into the real season

Hawks forward Josh Smith, left, and Charlotte Bobcats center DeSagana Diop go for the rebound during last week’s preseason game. The Hawks open the real season Tuesday in New Jersey.

Hawks forward Josh Smith, left, and Charlotte Bobcats center DeSagana Diop go for the rebound during last week’s preseason game. The Hawks open the real season Tuesday in New Jersey.

ATLANTA — For a team that looks so familiar on paper, the Hawks look much different on the court.

Point guard Jeff Teague will be the only new starter when the Hawks open their season on Tuesday at New Jersey, but some of the veterans have new looks.

Strong forward Josh Smith has lost about 25 pounds. He is down to about 225 pounds on his 6-foot-9 frame. He says he sought the quickness he had as a rookie seven years ago, in part because he was asked to alternate more between the two forward spots last season.

“If I’m going to be a more versatile player this year, to be able to get around those screens and be more mobile, I had to get back to the weight that I was accustomed to playing when I first got into the league,” Smith said.

Several Atlanta players have said small forward Marvin Williams looks like he’s an inch taller after offseason back surgery.

“I went to a gym to work out with Josh and the first time I saw him I said ‘Where is the rest of you?’” Teague said. “He just said ‘I’ve been getting ready and back to my old self, jumping higher and playing faster.’

“I was like ‘Man, big ups to you!’ Then I saw Marvin and it looks like he grew an inch. I was like, man! But I was excited. It looks like these guys put in a lot of work and are ready to play.”

Williams, entering his seventh season, looks more upright instead of slightly slouched. He has impressed teammates with his renewed athleticism in training camp.

“He’s like a totally different player moving around out there,” Teague said. “It’s like the highlights I was watching when he was younger, flying around and dunking and things like that. It looks like he’s in the best shape of his whole career.”

Backup center Jason Collins has added more muscle in his shoulders and chest as he prepares for his battles with Orlando’s Dwight Howard.

In his first year as coach, Larry Drew showed he was comfortable in moving Al Horford from center to power forward to clear a spot for the 7-foot Collins in a bigger lineup. That was enough to convince Smith he’d be spending more time at small forward this season.

Drew sought more movement and balance on offense. Orlando swept four straight from the Hawks in the 2010 conference semifinals, leading to the end of Mike Woodson’s run as coach.

The changes led to less scoring from five-time All-Star Joe Johnson. His 18.2 points per game led the team but ended his streak of five straight seasons averaging more than 20 points per game. He took 225 fewer shots from the field than in 2009-10 but called his season “a down year.”

Johnson, 30, is entering the second season of his six-year, $123 million maximum contract.

“That contract is going to hamstring them for a long time,” said TNT analyst Charles Barkley last week. Barkley said he does not believe the Hawks are capable of being a serious contender in the conference.

“They’re a good, solid team, but they’re not good enough,” Barkley said in an interview at the Atlanta-based TNT studio. “They might win a round but that’s it.”

General manager Rick Sund said the team will try to avoid paying a luxury tax. That led Sund to seek bargains as he signed Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic to veteran minimum deals and invited Jerry Stackhouse to camp without a guaranteed contract.

Former sixth man Jamal Crawford signed a two-year deal with Portland, leaving the Hawks without their fourth-leading scorer from last season.

Crawford’s exit appears to shrink the margin of error for the Hawks to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for a fourth straight year.

“For us to be one of the better teams, make no mistake, all our players have to play to their full potential,” Sund said. “We’ve got three players that are All-Star caliber in Joe, Josh and Al. We have a player in Tracy who is a former All-Star and then players like Teague and Marvin have to play to their ability.”

Teague has almost no competition at point guard while Kirk Hinrich recovers from shoulder surgery. Hinrich may return in February.

Among players competing for rosters spots are guard Brad Wanamaker, who signed as a free agent from Pittsburgh; second-year guard Pape Sy, who appeared in only three games last season; and rookie center Keith Benson, a second-round pick from Oakland University.

Smith, Williams, Horford and Johnson have been the foundation of the team for several years. Center Zaza Pachulia, entering his seventh season with the team, is another mainstay.

Now all the key players are veterans. Teague, a third-year player entering his first full season as a starter, is the youngest.

Drew and Sund say now is the time to break through the second round of the playoffs.

“We have a sign in the locker room ‘No more excuses,’” Drew said. “We’re at a point of our careers now where it’s time to take that next step. Certainly in order to do that we have to come out of the blocks early. We have to hopefully avoid injuries to key players and we have to play collectively.

“That’s the message I’m giving to the players this year.”