Trae Young has become a polarizing figure in his third season in the NBA – apparently among his colleagues as well. What makes the Atlanta Hawks guard so strident? And is that really even the case?
It’s shocking how much can change with one calendar year. In early 2020, Corona was associated predominantly with the Mexican beer and opinions and coverage of some players were totally different. Trae Young is perhaps the best example of how an image can change in 12 months. In early 2020, the Atlanta Hawks point guard debuted in the NBA All-Star Game – and he even started, just like the other main star from his draft class Luka Doncic. Young and Doncic will forever be linked due to the trade for each other on Draft Day 2018. The prevailing opinion both then and now – at least outside of Atlanta – is that Doncic was the better player. Still, many believed Young could become a transformational talent offensively and he was also expected to be one of the future faces of the league. He showed in the All-Star Game that he belonged among the best of the league with 10 points and 10 assists in just 16 minutes. One year later, Doncic returned to the All-Star Game without Young, who didn’t even make the reserves list despite the spectacle taking place in Atlanta. Young said he wasn’t concern about the snub, which did have a reason. His statistics took a step back compared to last season. But Young also has reached a strange point were his reputation doesn’t quite fit with the reality, and that not only his performance on the court counts.
Young is going through the same experiences that many young players face who have received a certain level of hype but not yet won enough. Devin Booker for example was seen by many in a negative light that he scored 70 points in a game because that didn’t demonstrate the right priorities. For nearly every player, sooner or later the focus will shift away from what they do well towards more their weaknesses – a form of anti-hype. One issue with Young is so-called ref-baiting where he seeks contact to his defender to get fouls called. He is hardly the only player who does this, but Young might do it the most often – he has made the most free throws in 2020-21 at the time of this writing. Young is aware that this aspect of his game doesn’t help his popularity, but he doesn’t really care as long as it’s good for his team.
Rumors were circulating in Atlanta about poor chemistry long before Lloyd Pierce was axed as Hawks head coach on March 1. Weeks before the firing, John Collins reportedly criticized in a team meeting the way that Young was running the offense. The main problem was that the beef even reached the general public. But media speculation surfaced around the firing that Young had long not agreed with his only NBA coach’s concepts and didn’t implement them on the court. Apparently, Young wasn’t the only player not happy with Pierce, but he was the most important – and thereby Young received the tag as “coach killer”. Young did however approve of the hiring of Nate McMillan, saying: “He’s giving everybody confidence, and I think the main thing is he’s telling everybody to be themselves.” In such tough questions, nearly every franchise – except maybe San Antonio and Miami – will usually side with their star. Of course, the Hawks’ failing to win didn’t help Pierce, but it’s a little more complicated about just how much fault Young had in the firing.
Ambitions vs reality
Atlanta went into the 2020-21 season with high ambitions after spending a lot of money in the off-season on new players (including Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic) and giving the young All-Star a solid supporting cast. The Hawks were looking to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2017. There were a lot of factors why things hadn’t been working out – the Hawks were 14-20 when Pierce was fired – and Young could not influence all of them. The team got hit by injuries including to second-year player De’Andre Hunter, who seemed to be the team’s second-best player before going down. Atlanta was facing the same problems as last season. Young could not keep the team afloat on his own – though that is exactly what everyone in Atlanta had been expecting from their savior. The organization had after all given him the keys to the car like almost no other young guard before him. He had the ball in his hands more and longer than almost any other player in the NBA with only James Harden, Damian Lillard and Doncic having more time of possession.
Differences and parallels
It’s almost presumptuous to look at the similarities between the third and fifth picks from 2018 when you consider how huge the differences are. Doncic has a different influence on the game, not only because he has an entirely different physical presence than Young. Doncic officially weighs in at 101 kilograms and 2.01 meters compared to Young’s 1.85 meters and 20 kilos fewer. The latter is not a trivial difference either as it impacts how the youngsters deal with their weaknesses. Doncic could decide that he wants to focus more on his defense and become a plus defender within a short period of time. Young however can light candles and pray to the Holy Rodman and he will remain physically limited and thereby one of the poorer defenders in the NBA. Young’s physique also gives him a different shot profile than Doncic. The Hawks talent is limited in his ability to finish at the rim, meaning he must work that much more on his floater for example.
All of the criticism overshadows the fact that Young is also positive in some aspects for his team. Atlanta is 11.5 points better with him on the court, ranking him in the 94 percentile according to Cleaning The Glass – he was in the 90 percentile in 2019-20. All told, the net-rating of the Hawks in his minutes – 5.3 – is that of a 54-win team. Young is not a perfect offensive player as he commits too many turnovers and is not overly efficient as a scorer. He even took a step back in this regard. Still, Atlanta have an elite offensive rating (116.6) in his minutes and their rating of 101.7 with him on the bench is 3 points worse than the worst offense in the league (Cleveland). Because of his ability to drain really deep three-pointers, Young is a player for whom coaches have to make special schemes – similar to the likes of Steph Curry or Damian Lillard. But Young’s reputation from beyond the three-point line doesn’t match his actual numbers. His current 36.5 percent is a career high, but it’s his willingness to take the shot which makes the difference. Defenders must respect his shot from anywhere on the court. His biggest strength though is his passing. Despite the apparent disagreements in the locker room, Young seems to possess a very good chemistry with Collins as well as Clint Capela on the court, and the young star is one of the best lob passers in the league. Young-to-Collins (second) and Young-to-Capela (fifth) were two of the top five assist combinations this season at the time of this writing. A majority of Young’s assists come from the pick-and-roll, at which he is considered a maestro. He has the second-most assists in the restricted area and has set up the seventh-most three-pointers. Sure, Young has committed a lot of turnovers but that is not a surprise considering the high number of touches he has. But Young also draws a lot of fouls – ranking only behind De’Aaron Fox in shooting fouls among ballhandlers with more than 10 pick-and-rolls per game.
Atlanta is not yet done
Young is still in the middle of his development – he is far from “done” and the Hawks know that they are seeing his evolution. Young is only 22 years old and still has holes in his game. But so does the team’s roster. Atlanta management has not yet built a team around him that can optimally promote his strengths and hide his weaknesses. The 2020 off-season, especially the draft, was an example of the team’s failures in that regard. The Hawks drafted Onyeka Okongwu even though Capela, Collins and later Gallinari would block the big man’s chances for consistent minutes. Plus Tyrese Haliburton was available – a player who would have been an excellent fit alongside Young with his skillset and length. It would make sense to have Young move more without the ball and become more of a weapon with his shot. The Hawks don’t have a lot of options at playmaker though and it would be hard for fans to accept that of Young after being declared as the savior. Can Young with his physical limitations be the best player of a title favorite? It’s too early to answer that. But what’s clear is that there are few players who can influence a game so comprehensively on offense and whose potential is still far from exhausted.