Over the first two months of his NBA career, Trae Young struggled. Through October and November of 2018, Young shot 25 percent on three-point attempts and found it difficult to generate any offense for a bad Atlanta Hawks squad.
Meanwhile, Luka Doncic — the player Atlanta traded out of taking in favor of Young — made an instant impact with the Dallas Mavericks and had the look of a future superstar.
Predictably, the trade and the chasm between the two players brought on a rash of media and fan criticism, both to the Hawks and Young. Doncic was a future champion and true franchise cornerstone, while Young, at the time, looked like a bust in the making, a streaky shooter that couldn’t defend at the NBA level.
But, as it turns out, 20-year-old NBA guards tend to require some patience.
After the All-Star break, Young rewarded the Hawks for that patience, and made it clear as to why they were so determined to draft him. As his long-distance shooting improved to a more respectable 35 percent, Young averaged nearly 25 points and 9 assists after the NBA’s marquee weekend.
In that time, Young also led Atlanta on a stretch as a .500 win percentage team, whereas they looked like a bottom-five unit prior.
Now in his sophomore season, Young has capitalized on that strong second half and proven a revelation in Atlanta. Young has almost effortlessly contorted defenses, thanks to his Stephen Curry-esque gravity, and has used that gravity to make plays that few other NBA players can.
Young’s impact is evident in the stats: with him on the court this season, Atlanta has posted an offensive rating of 109.1 points per 100-possessions, around a league-average figure. When he’s been on the pine, that number plummets to a dismal 94.3, a full six points lower than the New York Knicks’ league-worst outfit, per Cleaning the Glass.
His ability as a passer has seemingly revitalized the career of Jabari Parker as well. With John Collins suspended, Parker has stepped into a primary role alongside Young, and the pair have had their share of impressive performances.
Young’s ability to manipulate a pick-and-roll is beyond his years. Here, Young baits the San Antonio Spurs into a double team, only to find a wide-open Parker underneath for the bucket.
Young has seen some major improvements across the board this season, as his per-game averages have jumped to 27.3 points and 9.1 assists per. Meanwhile, his three-point percentage has ticked up to 38.6 percent, a number more impressive when you consider some of the shots he frequents behind the arc.
Young’s devastating pick-and-roll game has only been enhanced by his now-deadly floater. Per Cleaning the Glass, Young has hit on 51 percent of those shots from close or in the mid-range.
His mastery of that shot has made Young nearly unguardable in arguably the NBA’s most-often-used offensive set. If you trap him, Young has the ability to find the open man with a pass out of either hand. If you drop coverage, you leave him open to hit the floater.
Switching, of course, would be foolish as well. With his handle, quickness and small frame, Young could torture almost any big man that dare approach him on the perimeter.
Young has also further utilized the screen reject in his offense. He’s adept at feigning a move toward the screen before sharply cutting back the opposite way. If a defender cheats to get over the screen, they find themselves trailing as Young cuts through a clean lane for the layup.
Young’s best game the young season may have come in a win against the Denver Nuggets. The second-year pro dropped 42 points and 11 assists on one of the Western Conference’s top teams as he finished an impressive 8 for 13 from three and 13 for 21 from the floor.
Nikola Jokic was not equipped to handle Young’s pick-and-roll game.
Jokic was not the first lumbering big to be befuddled by Young’s quickness, however. Young had his way with the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge on more than one occasion as well.
Those plays are prime examples as to why switching a big onto Young is a bad idea for the opposition; dribbling moves and quickness aside, the passes Young completes are gorgeous and nearly impossible to defend against.
That said, for all his offensive brilliance, Young still has a glaring flaw in his game: defense.
Young’s size — or lack-there-of — has played a major role in his defensive issues. While Young, on offense, can take advantage when switched onto a big, it’s an obvious mismatch for the opposition when a member of their frontcourt has the ball against the 6-foot-2, 181-pound guard. Young has also had struggled to remain vigilant off the ball, where he’s often lost track of shooters or beaten on backdoor cuts.
Per Cleaning the Glass, the Hawks are eight points per 100 possessions better, defensively, when Young is on the bench as well.
Still, while the defensive concerns are valid, Young can more than make up for those deficiencies on offense — they could also be somewhat excused because of the sheer burden Young has to carry on offense — while the Hawks can mask those deficiencies with players like Collins, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter.
Whether fair or not, Young and Doncic may forever be tied together. Doncic came into the league with a superstar amount of hype and lived up to it. But, now, Young is right there with him.
Not only is he incredibly fun to watch, but Young has proven one of those rare players that could “wow” spectators at any moment. Soon enough, as the Hawks continue to build a competent roster around him, Young will find himself leading his team to the postseason, and maybe beyond.
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