It’s nearly March, and Hawks rookie Trae Young, good for much of the season, is getting even better. The league countered Young after his hot start, and he countered that counter. Young is on the come this late in the season, a development that debunks one of the pre-draft knocks on him.
The worry was that Young’s slight frame may not hold up against the NBA’s bigger, physically mature players. The narrative was that the grind of the 82-game schedule may be too much for a player who is (not quite) 6-foot-2 and (maybe) 175 pounds.
Well, Young has played in all 61 Hawks games. His 1,854 minutes played ranks second to Collin Sexton among rookies. Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce gave Young offensive freedom while gradually increasing his minutes through the season, and that plan appears to be paying off.
Young was an immediate hit as a passer — he’s truly a whiz with the ball -- and now that his jump shot is coming around, watch out. The Rockets found out late Monday when Young went for a career-high 36 points while making eight of 12 three-point tries.
“He was hooping,” Chris Paul, Houston’s legendary point guard, told reporters afterward. “It’s funny because Coach and everybody was like, ‘Man, he can play.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, we knew that.’”
I assume Paul was exaggerating for effect because if not, Houston’s advanced scouting needs a lot of work. Young has been “hooping” for a while now.
Over the past eight games he’s averaging 22.4 points and 9.3 assists. That scoring isn’t inflated by volume shooting: Young scored 179 points on just 136 shots during that span. He’s been cooking.
Increase the sample size, and Young’s offensive play still has been impressive. Throw out his hot start (which wasn’t sustainable) and his subsequent slump (which was inevitable). In 38 games since Dec. 1 Young has averaged 18.7 points and 7.7 assists with a 55.7 true shooting percentage (includes free throws and the higher value of 3-pointers).
In that nearly half-season sample, Young has scored at about league-average efficiency while being heavily involved in his team’s offense and creating shots for teammates. Before Tuesday’s games, Young’s scoring average since Dec. 1 ranked ninth among lead NBA guards, and his assist average ranks sixth. You’ve heard of the guys who have been better: Paul, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook.
Young is an NBA star in the making. I thought so back in November and it’s only become clearer. This isn’t a pretty good player doing big things on a bad team. It’s a superlatively talented player making a bad team more competitive than expected (Young’s defense is another matter, but give it time).
The Rockets are true contenders in the Western Conference. The Hawks probably would have beaten them if anyone other than Young and John Collins had it going.
“For me, I’ve grown up with a dad who raised me that winning is the only thing that matters,” Young said about his career-high scoring night. “So, for me, of course you want to play well, of course you want to do well in the game and help your team, but at the end of the day I don’t feel good about it.”
Eventually the Hawks should win more if they add more talented players who fit general manager Travis Schlenk’s “dribble, pass, shoot” formula. Collins is a very good big man and rookie wing Kevin Huerter is promising, but the Hawks need as many skilled players as they can get for Young and the team to reach their full potential.
Adding those kinds of players would allow Young to play off the ball more, which should result in more catch-and-shoot opportunities. It would lessen Young’s offensive responsibilities. It also would theoretically allow Young to save more energy for his defense which, as mentioned, is not good.
Already, Young is learning how to thrive in the NBA as a relatively small player. For an example, look at the evolution of his drives to the basket.
Early in the season Young was getting to the rim frequently and finishing well. As expected, opponents started closing off that path, and Young’s scoring efficiency at the basket plummeted. His 3-point shot also wasn’t falling, so Young had to find other ways to score.
Young’s solution was to rely more on his soft floater, which was part of his bag of tricks at Oklahoma. The result: Young’s 44 percent shooting in the four to 14-foot “short midrange” ranks in the 81st percentile among NBA point guards, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Subjectively I’ve noticed that, as defenders start respecting Young’s floater, he has used their anticipation of that move to draw fouls. He gets his man on his hip with a quick first step, then changes speeds and contorts his body to induce contact. Now Young ranks in the 83rd percentile among point guards in the drawing shooting fouls, per Cleaning the Glass.
It’s impressive for a rookie to make those kinds of adjustments in a short period of time. Young plays with a necessary edge for a player his size, but he also has the smarts. The NBA isn’t wearing down Young , as his critics predicted it might. His play is only growing stronger.
As the Rockets found out, Trae Young can play.
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