The Hawks Trae Young wraps a pass around formidable Utah center Rudy Gobert last month.
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

In praise of the assist, something else Trae Young does well

While searching the world wide web for pithy quotes about the assist — basketball’s humble leavening agent — one gem from late actor Burt Reynold’s magically appeared. He was a rascal, that one.

“My acting is a bit like basketball,” Reynolds is reported to have said. “Most females in my films come off very well. I give great assists. And if I’m lucky, I even score.”

Scoring, in its many forms, is quite a popular activity. Assisting, while recognized as important, doesn’t enjoy quite the same cachet. Although, it should.

When the Hawks’ Trae Young is at his best, he assists as well as scores, as in last Thursday when he went for 39 points and 18 assists. That last number was a thus-far career high. That was the eye-opening figure. 

When he is inconsequential, as he was Saturday night in Dallas before departing with an ankle injury in the third quarter, the Hawks suffer for more than his lack of points. He had one lonely assist, a number so low as to surely be a mistake. But, no, I looked again and there it was: One assist.

Of course, it helps if the guy on the other end of the pass can do something worthwhile with it, not always given on a team with the NBA’s second-worst record.  

With the assist, unselfishness can be quantified. And so long as Young makes nice with the other guys — it was Magic Johnson who, repurposing a famous presidential quote, said, “Ask not what your teammates can do for you; ask what you can do for your teammates” — he earns every shot he takes. No matter how loud the calliope music in your head might be when he takes it.

Little known fact: Every time there’s an assist in the NBA, an angel gets its wings.

Yeah, I like assists. I’ll put that on my resume for St. Peter, because doesn’t that speak to a caring, giving soul?

After all it was point guard Steve Nash, third all-time in assists, who said, “I believe that the measure of a person’s life is the affect he has on others.”  

The assist has come a long way in gaining a foothold in popular culture. There’s even a hip name for it, a “dime.” It’s a term perhaps dating back to the pay phone — ask your grandparents about that strange device — when a person might ask for a little assist, a dime, in order to make a call.

Allowing for inflation, shouldn’t they really be at least a silver dollar now?  

Young today ranks higher in the league in assists (second at 9 a game) than he does scoring (fourth at 29 points a game). Here in the infancy of his career, he has 1,060 assists so far, just 14,746 more to go to catch all-time leader John Stockton. Young needs to pick up the pace just a little.

Assists must be important, or else why would someone like LeBron James bother with them? He’s your NBA leader, at just over 10 a game. 

Wins are still too scarce in Atlanta, so you look for other little comforts. Like enjoying a nice assist, now that there is someone in town who is adept at the craft. It is necessary to recognize that a lob pass at the rim is just as lovely as the dunk that it initiates. Maybe even better. And a half-court bounce pass to a teammate streaking to the basket is actually more productive than any shot launched from those same distant coordinates.   

Because assists spread joy. Like the momentary Hawk, Toni Kukoc once said, putting a Croatian spin on the syntax: “One score makes happy one player, one assist makes happy two.”

These days we all can benefit from the lessons of cooperation and unselfishness that inhabit the assist.

And if you happen to score, isn’t that a bonus?

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About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.
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