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Hawks counting on still-young Williams as starter
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ATLANTA — When Marvin Williams left Chapel Hill, N.C., last year, he was a teenager who looked — and played — like a baby when compared with the stars of the NBA.
    The Atlanta Hawks will show off the more mature Williams in his Chapel Hill homecoming for Friday night’s preseason game against Charlotte.
    The Hawks hope one year of seasoning is enough to prepare Williams for a starting job this season. Williams was carefully protected, with his playing time as a backup closely watched through most of his rookie season.
    Williams was the second overall pick of the 2005 draft by Atlanta after his freshman season at North Carolina. Hawks coach Mike Woodson quickly realized that the lofty draft status didn’t qualify Williams for an immediate significant role.
    Woodson brought Williams along slowly, starting him near the end of the bench and gradually increasing his playing time. Williams’ scoring average rose each month of the season — from 5.5 points in November to 12.3 points in April.
    Now the Hawks are letting Williams run free — and start. He’s the only player to start each of the team’s first seven preseason games. He has delivered 11.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game.
    Williams’ ability to handle the starting job may be the key to the young Hawks’ hopes to end their streak of seven straight losing seasons.
    Williams and third-year pro Josh Smith will give the Hawks a pair of 20-year-old starting forwards, each much younger than 2006 first-round pick Shelden Williams, who is 23 after starting four years at Duke. Josh Childress, 23, is a top reserve after coming to Atlanta in the first round of the 2004 draft.
    ‘‘I’m going to stay with the young guys this year — Marvin and Josh and Childress — because I think they’re ready to play,’’ Woodson said.
    The Hawks, who won 13 games two years ago and 26 games last season, are 4-3 as they enter their final preseason game. The Hawks are not viewed by many in the league as a playoff team yet, but Williams’ teammates say the second-year player can make a difference.
    ‘‘I definitely think Marvin is ready to start,’’ Childress said. ‘‘I’ve had a chance to work out with him this summer. He’s been amazing. He’s looking solid. His summer league performance kind of shows how he was picking up the pace.’’
    Added Childress: ‘‘Not that I’m old, but he’s matured a lot in the past year.’’
    Williams (6-9, 230) has added muscle in the offseason as he joins center Zaza Pachulia and Smith on the front line. Veteran Lorenzen Wright and Shelden Williams were added to provide inside depth and defense the team lacked last season, while Speedy Claxton was signed to play point guard and give Joe Johnson more freedom to score.
    ‘‘We’re all excited,’’ said Marvin Williams, who displayed his new confidence by scoring 17 points and leading the Hawks’ fourth-quarter comeback in a 110-105 loss to Washington Monday night.
    The Hawks trailed by 20 points in the third quarter before taking the lead on Williams’ 3-pointer midway through the final period. The Hawks lost, but it was another step in Williams’ growth.
    ‘‘I don’t think I was that type of player to do that last year,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It feels great. Having the coaches behind you is the biggest thing.’’
    Woodson said a ‘‘huge’’ step in Williams’ growth came this summer when he was named MVP of the Rocky Mountain Review in Salt Lake City. He averaged 23.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists in the summer tournament.
    The league’s general managers took note.
    In’s annual survey released Wednesday, Williams tied for second in the general managers’ vote for the player most likely to have a breakout season. Dwight Howard received the most votes. Eddy Curry and Kevin Martin tied with Williams.