Despite the fluctuations and depressions in the market, now is not the time to sell your Trae Young stock.
If someone told you before the year that Trae would be shooting only 28 percent from 3 and still scoring more than 15 per game, you would think they were lying. Yet here we are, bumping through the doldrums of early January, and Young is doing just that.
A large part of the pessimism comes from Young’s now lifelong connection to Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic thanks to the draft night trade involving the pair. The Slovenian is running away with the Rookie of the Year race, and the Atlanta Hawks will forever be ridiculed for giving up an opportunity to grab a bona fide superstar. (Editors Note: Shades of “Marvin Williams over Chris Paul” will never subside either.)
Still, Trae is playing well despite the ATL struggles and his poor outside shooting. The sniping will come around—this much we know after watching Young at the University of Oklahoma. What we see besides his scoring is what makes him a player whose stock is ready to explode soon.
As of this writing, Young is on pace to be the first rookie since Jamaal Tinsley in 2001-02 to average at least nine assists per 36 minutes and play more than 28 minutes a night, according to basketball-reference. He’d also be just the seventh rookie to accomplish such a feat.
Those numbers are even more impressive when you account for the pitiful team he plays on.
Young’s passing and vision could make him a very real threat for years to come. He has great pace in the pick-and-roll game. Don’t confuse pace with speed: Pace is simply the changing of speed, or the threat of doing so, that dictates to the defense where to move instead of trying to read their movements.
Young has mastered the shoulder hesitation and a skip in his step that freezes a defense. As opponents wait to see where he will go, that split-second shimmy of pace allows him a little window to read the second line D. He’s gotten really good at finding his rollers while decelerating in the lane:
Offenses try to create “single side bumps“—ball screens that occur near the sideline with an offensive player in the corner. As the handler comes off the screen, the defender in the corner is faced with a crucial split-second decision: stick with his man and leave the roller open at the rim, or help on the roll and give up a kick-out three.
It will look something like this, a clip from last year where the Hawks got Nikola Vucevic in a no-win scenario:
Every NBA player has practiced guarding this type of action numerous times and knows what’s at stake from their spot. Nonetheless, slow-developing ball screens can make it a struggle for offensive players to put enough pressure on the defense to get something positive from a single-side bump. The faster it occurs, the more difficult it becomes to guard.
Young knows how to toy with that corner defender via his eyes, an elite skill beyond his years.
Watch as Indiana Pacers star Victor Oladipo correctly sniffs out the bump and tags the rolling John Collins. Even though ‘Dipo thinks he takes Collins away, Young performs some misdirection magic to get his teammate a dunk:
Perhaps more impressive than the lobs he throws to his big men are Young’s cross-court darts to shooters. Make no mistake; they are straight bullseyes. Passing on the move is difficult because of how many moving parts there are: Defenders move, the ball is moving, the passer is moving.
Those darts require photographic memory of the defense and insane accuracy:
Right-hand passes, left-hand hook passes, overhead snaps in mid-air. Young has a full toolbox at his disposal. Remember, this guy is only 20 years old. He understands the difference between passing directly to the open man’s body and aiming for a window that he needs to enter for his shot. And he does it all without staring down his target on his drive. He rarely, if ever, over-bounces on his drives and misses open targets on the perimeter.
There are legitimate makings of an elite, All-Pro-caliber passer.
The Hawks have the right blueprint for building around Young. Drafting Kevin Huerter, a knock-down shooter, and a potential stretch big in Omari Spellman signaled a desire to keep the lanes completely open for Young and to play through him. As his teammates become better shooters and that blueprint turns into a standing structure, the Hawks will see their offense blossom.
Young is such a good catch-and-shoot threat that, for his own efficiency and output purposes, coaches must find ways to put him on the perimeter as a kick-out threat. Yet the attention he draws in ball screens, and his ability to constantly find the open man when defenses gravitate towards him, make him a threat to employ frequently. As he continues to get faster making decisions, the harder it will be for coaches to take the ball out of his hands.
That might be a difficult pill for Young to swallow. Thus far into his career, he’s produced a whopping 1.193 points per possession in spot-up situations, per Synergy Sports. He scored 52.6 percent of the time, a rate that places him among the league leaders. He’s 8-of-21 from deep in pure catch-and-shoots.
You’re reading that right: Through 38 games, one of the most electric and quick shooters in the world only has 21 catch-and-shoot attempts.
Part of that is Young’s teammates. When others are able to get dribble penetration, at least one other non-shooter is on the floor. Smart defenders and teams stay home on Young and find ways to force that weak link to pull the trigger from deep. For example, when Kent Bazemore starts a scramble off the ball screen, Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder refuses to leave Young:
John Collins shooting from deep is exactly what the Thunder want. He is thriving this season, but the Hawks must surround him with shooting in order for the Human Pogo Stick to play to his strengths. Lineups that put Collins with another big man stunt spacing on the floor, and it’s Young that feels those ramifications most.
While Young’s shooting and offensive output will continue to improve as his team does, his defensive aptitude has some mixed reviews. Expectations were low, based on the bar he set during his lone collegiate season in which he was hidden on defense as much as possible and exhibited minimal effort whenever possible. Such tricks don’t fly in the NBA. Players are too smart and can sniff those weaknesses from a mile away.
Young has not been terrible guarding the ball, and the Hawks work hard to keep him away from the post during mismatches and forced switches. His issues stem from general spacing, where he is late to rotate towards the ball when a breakdown occurs from one of his teammates. Sometimes, he turns around and loses sight of the ball. Other times, he is simply late. Either way, these are mistakes he must correct:
For someone as quick and slimy as Young on offense, he’s terrible at avoiding contact on screens. Instead of trying to get through it, he tends to run square into contact, then bulldoze through. The results have not been in his favor:
Most of his trouble comes from over-helping and being in poor initial position, which means a smaller margin for error against the screen. Combination screening actions bewilder Young, and the angles he takes to recover are questionable at best. Clearly, his largest area of improvement comes from how locked in mentally he is to his general positioning.
Young’s offense is ahead of his defense, and it’s likely that will always be the case. His defense has room to improve, and with more seasoning, he’ll find it. Hawks first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce is a strong defensive mind and teacher. His voice will grow, the young Hawks will grow and their defensive aptitude will climb.
It’s true that in some ways, Young has been disappointing. The flashy, deep shooting, Stephen Curry-esque performances have been absent. Instead, he’s treated us with passing ability far beyond his years and usage similar to his college days, where the ball is almost always in his hands.
Before you consider bailing on Young, you may want to think twice. Put him at a league-average 35 percent from three, and he would be averaging 21 points and nine assists per 36 minutes.
Once the shots start falling, we will be looking at Trae as one of the league’s most exhilarating young players.
Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of Saturday, January 5, 2019.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.