Hawks guard Trae Young signals a three-point shot during a foul in the second half Nov. 5, 2019, against the San Antonio Spurs at State Farm Arena in Atlanta.
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Trae Young, future NBA All-Star, carries Hawks without John Collins

Clippers wing Kawhi Leonard (two-time NBA Finals MVP) and Rockets guard James Harden (2018 NBA MVP) are the only two players more central to their team’s offense than Hawks point guard Trae Young (still only 21 years old). Young is scoring more efficiently than both while putting up 30 points per 36 minutes. Young is responsible for a larger portion of his team’s assists. 

Obviously, I’m not placing Young on the same level as those two legends. His short resume includes a good rookie season on a losing team. But watch Young play, and you’ll see that he’s quickly developing into the superstar the Hawks have lacked for so long. 

When the league announced a 25-game suspension for John Collins, it was clear what had to happen for the Hawks to stay afloat. Young, the team’s most valuable player, would have to be even better. Opponents were loading up to limit Young when he had Collins as an effective pick-and-roll partner; with Collins out, Young would have even less space to operate. 

Here are Young’s averages in five games without Collins: 29 points, 9.8 assists, five turnovers, 3.8 rebounds and two steals. Young had a 57.7 true shooting percentage in those games (value of free throws and 3-pointers included). That’s excellent efficiency for the 145 shots he took over those five games. 

The Hawks were 10-1/2-point underdogs at Denver on Tuesday night. Their odds went down more when a shoulder injury forced Hawks sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from the game early in the second half. Young still carried the Hawks to victory with 42 points (21 shots) and 11 assists. He nearly did the same thing two nights earlier at Portland, when the Hawks were a nine-point ’dog, with 35 points (30 shots) and 10 assists in the overtime loss. 

Young is averaging 28 points per game. He’s scored 30 or more points in five of nine games. Young ranks No. 1 in the NBA in points per shot attempt for high-usage players, just ahead of Harden, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded). Young is No. 2 in assist percentage among such players just behind Dallas wing Luka Doncic, the guy he’ll forever be compared with after the Hawks traded Doncic for Young on draft night

I’d be skeptical about making too much out of nine games if not for Young’s excellent rookie season. Also, his production and efficiency have improved in nearly every way. 

Young has pulled off the difficult task of increasing his scoring and efficiency. Young is shooting 51.5 percent on 2-pointers compared with 47.7 percent in 2018-19. Young has made 40.2 percent of his 3-point tries this season vs. 32.4 last season, while taking the at a higher clip. 

Young’s rates of free throws, assists, steals and rebounds are up. Young’s turnover rate has increased a bit, but it’s acceptable considering how much he’s doing for the Hawks. You can live with 5.4 turnovers per 36 minutes when it comes along with 9.4 assists per 36 minutes and efficient, high-level scoring. 

There’s growth in Young’s game. The effective floater he developed last season looks even better now. Young figured how to better draw fouls late in his rookie season and that’s continued (his 9-for-30 shooting at Portland was offset by making 14 of 17 free-throw tries). Young’s 31.1 percent shooting on pull-up 3’s last season dragged down his scoring efficiency; he’s making 35.9 of those shots (23 of 64) so far this season. 

Young’s defense was bad as a rookie. It’s getting better. His increased activity level is reflected by the improved steals rate and, per NBA tracking stats, deflections: 1.9 per 36 minutes vs. 1.5 last season. According to Cleaning the Glass, the best defensive lineup for the Hawks has featured Young alongside rookie wings D’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish with Collins at power forward. 

Young’s second season is off to a sensational start. It’s going to be difficult for him to keep this up. He’s a young man, but it’s hard work being a do-everything player in the NBA. But he’s shown some craftiness in that area, too. 

Young looked exhausted in the second half at Denver. So, on occasion, Young handed the ball to a teammate to initiate the offense while he stood outside the 3-point line. That allowed Young to have more energy for the finish. Young still helped to space the floor because his defender can’t leave him to help, lest Young take a pass and spot-up for a deep 3-pointer (that’s what they call “gravity.”)

Young’s potential to be an NBA star was obvious to me when I went to watch him play at Oklahoma before the draft. It didn’t take long for him to prove that he belongs in the league. Now, with Collins out and Young cooking, he’s showing that he’s quickly on his way to being an an NBA All-Star.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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