Trae Young Puts Atlanta Hawks Back on Map
Seven seconds is all it takes.
We’re late in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Tankathon match-up between the Atlanta Hawks and the Phoenix Suns. The Hawks are down three, slightly reeling after another bucket from Tyler Johnson.
Trae Young decides to stop the bleeding.
He receives the inbound pass from John Collins. As he crosses half court, Young tosses it ahead to Collins. Almost immediately, Collins pitches it back to Young. He raises and fires from darn-near 30 feet, and it just does not matter.
Not a smidgen of emotion is present on Young’s (young) face. He backpedals with his hands spread but facing downwards.
The message is clear: Relax. We got this.
The Hawks do, in fact, have it.
That triple ties the game at 105 and encourages a timeout from the Suns. From that point onward, the Hawks outscore Phoenix 15-7 for an eight-point victory. Young finishes with 23 points and eight assists, a night after dropping 30 and 10 against the Detroit Pistons.
This is Young now. Calm. Confident. Flashy, but in a way that seems necessary. He’s the engine of a suddenly competent Hawks offense.
They’ve played “the right way” all season, ranking top-five in shots at the rim and corner threes, and near the bottom in mid-range attempts. Unfortunately the result just never matched up to the process. Up until January 25th, the Hawks ranked 27th in offensive rating, scoring 104.4 points per 100 possessions.
The tide seems to be turning now. The Hawks are posting a 112.5 offensive rating over their last 13 games, good for 14th in the league. That number shoots up to 113.4 with Young on the court. He’s been The Guy, averaging 22.1 points and 9.0 assists with a 44/40/82 shooting split during the run.
Putting Atlanta on the map
It’s a cold and rainy Saturday in Charlotte, North Carolina. Fans and media members find themselves stuck in a downpour outside Bojangles Coliseum. There seems to be a palpable buzz despite the weather. Some of the greatest basketball talents in the world—young and old—are on the other side of the door.
While most are excited about the obvious stars—the LeBrons, the Durants, the Curry’s—there is intrigue about the Young-Collins duo.
Young specifically raises eyebrows. His one-man band set the NCAA on fire last season with a barrage of deep threes and slick passes. He had to acclimate himself to the NBA game, but it appears things are slowing down for him. He’s leaving his mark on games like he did in Norman.
So, what happens when you put a dual threat into a who-the-heck-cares exhibition with an elite rim runner?
You get a freaking show.
The Rising Stars Challenge—now known as the Team USA vs. Team World game—was objectively bad basketball for the most part. It’s understandable: nobody’s trying to get hurt in a meaningless game.
Besides, getting the crowd hyped was of more importance than ICE-ing pick-and-rolls against Ben Simmons. (In short: there’s no way Tom Thibodeau could watch this game without having a heart attack.)
Young captured the spirit of the game. He pulled from any and everywhere. He showcased his tighter-than-a-college-student-budget handle. There were lobs. There were nutmegs. Ultimately, there was fun to be had.
Young (25-7-10) and Collins (12 points on a bunch of dunks) didn’t just energize the crowd, they sent a message.
There’s something cooking here in Atlanta.
“We’ve been doing it all year,” Young said during his media availability the next morning. “That’s something people don’t really get to see from us coming out of Atlanta. We don’t really get the recognition we probably deserve. We felt like, on a stage like this, we wanted to put on a show.”
The Best of All WORLDS
Young is special because he’s a combination of some of the NBA’s greatest guards. The Young-Stephen Curry comp has been made ad naseum. Still, not many players make deep threes look as effortless as those two do. Via Basketball Reference, Young has made 35 treys from 28 feet or further. Only Curry (46) has more.
Like Curry in Golden State, the Hawks leverage the threat of Young’s shooting to stretch defenses thin. However, that’s about where the comparisons between the two end.
Young’s vision and passing ability is a tier or two above his alleged NBA doppelganger.
A closer comp may be Steve Nash, someone Young said influenced him growing up. Nash was a legendary shooter in his own right with the manipulation skills of a movie villain.
Young has seen every coverage now. He knows where rotations will and won’t come from, and how to exploit them. That knowledge, combined with the threat of his pull-up shooting, makes him almost unguardable in pick-and-roll situations.
The Hawks like mix in traditional high ball-screen action with “Double Drag” looks to fully stretch defenses to their limits. With Young handling, Collins rolling, Dewayne Dedmon popping and shooters in the corners, the defense is forced to pick its poison.
Young is currently generating 95.3 points (57th percentile) per 100 pick-and-roll possessions (passes included), via Synergy. On passes to the roll-man, that number skyrockets to nearly 126 points per 100 possessions (79th percentile). He’s been less effective (but still good) when kicking out to spot-up shooters (101.9 per 100, 58th percentile).
Young isn’t just getting his teammates open, he’s creating high-value looks.
Per PBP Stats, he leads the NBA in assists on corner threes (75). Only three other players—James Harden, Giannis Antetokoumpo, and Russell Westbrook—have assisted on 60. Young also ranks fourth in at-the-rim assists (233). If you go full Moreyball and add the two, Young’s 308 assists rank second to Westbrook (327) and slightly ahead of Harden (306).
Establishing the foundation
Young deserves credit for being a smart and talented player. On the flip side, head coach Lloyd Pierce has done an excellent job of cultivating and utilizing his talents.
“Lloyd has definitely helped me in a lot of ways,” Young told Basketball Writers. “He’s been around the game for a long time. He’s coached some of the greatest players of All-Time, so if he tells me something, I listen.”
Pierce has been in the NBA as an assistant or player development coach since 2007. He worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors, Memphis Grizzlies and Philadelphia 76ers before becoming Atlanta’s head coach last May.
He played a big role in Jeremy Lin’s early development with Golden State; Danny Green in Cleveland; Robert Covington in Philadephia and many others. Those others include Curry, which makes the relationship between Pierce and Young a somewhat familiar one.
At 20-40, the Hawks currently sit 5th in the lottery with a 10.5 percent chance at the number one pick. It’s hard to believe they will be out of the playoff picture for long, though.
With Young at the helm and a talented young core around him, the Hawks could be a terror for years to come.
Stats are accurate for games played through February 24th
Nekias Duncan is an avid NBA watcher with an appreciation for angled screens, Spain pick-and-rolls, and anything Khris Middleton does on the court. When he isn’t writing about or watching basketball, he’s dropping the best puns the east coast has to offer. Follow him on Twitter at @NekiasNBA.