When fouled, Hawks aim to take advantage at free-throw line

Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks (24) fouls Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) in the second half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

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Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks (24) fouls Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) in the second half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

In his junior year of high school, an undersized Trae Young got tired of bigger players trying to push him around.

Because he knew the ins-and-outs of what referees would have to call as a foul, Young found success using the opposing team’s physicality against it.

“That’s when I started really focusing on just knowing what I’m allowed to do as an offensive player and what the defense is allowed to do, and so I just use, sometimes I just use their size and their strength against them,” Young said.

In Young, who is in his third year in the NBA, the Atlanta Hawks already had one of the most skilled players in the league at drawing fouls. The 6-foot-1, 180 pound guard has an uncanny knack for gauging a defender’s approach and finding a way to draw contact, whether he’s driving in the lane or getting a shot up from the perimeter. He trains specifically on his balance and his ability to stop-and-start, so he can use it to his advantage in games.

With the addition of Danilo Gallinari, who also excels at free-throw shooting, the Hawks are poised to thrive at the line this season.

“That obviously is going to help us a lot, getting guys in foul trouble on other teams and just getting to the line and getting easy points is always a good thing,” Young said. “The more we can do it, the better, and we’ve been doing a really good job so far, and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Last season, Young was second in the league — behind only James Harden — in free throws made per game (eight), and third in free throws attempted (9.3), behind Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was No. 26 in free-throw percentage at 86%, adjusting for minimum playing time required. Gallinari was No. 6 on that list (89.3%) last year, making 4.3 of 4.8 attempts per game. Last season, the Hawks were No. 12 in makes (18.5) and No. 15 in attempts (23.4).

In the preseason, the Hawks were first in free throws made per game (28), second in free throws attempted (35) and second in free-throw percentage (80%). In their first two regular-season wins, the Hawks are No. 1 in free throws made (28.5), No. 1 in free throws attempted (33.5) and No. 2 in free-throw percentage (85.1%). Young is second in the league in free throws made (13.5) and attempted (15.5), behind only Harden in both categories.

“Just those two guys alone, and the percentages, are a great asset to what we can do,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said of Young and Gallinari. “We want to live in the paint, we want to create opportunities in the paint. But we also have guys who know how to get us into the bonus and if we can get in the bonus and if we have guys that can get to the free-throw line, that’s a great combination.

“There’s a strategy involved in that. We have to identify how we get to the bonus early, ways that we can play downhill and not settle, and then we have a couple guys that have the tricks and know how to do it. We’re still trying to get some other guys to learn some of that, as well.”

Second-year wings De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish had success getting to the line in the preseason (Hunter averaged 3.5 makes and 4.3 attempts, with Reddish adding 5.3 makes and 5.7 attempts). If they’re able to pick that up in the regular season, that would give the Hawks an even bigger boost there.

For Gallinari (who averaged 6.0 makes on 6.3 attempts in the preseason), getting to the line will definitely be a strength for the team, and it’s one they’ll have to reinforce every game. Gallinari went 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the Hawks’ season-opening win vs. the Bulls, but didn’t play in Saturday’s win in Memphis due to a left foot contusion.

“It’s something that we have guys capable of drawing fouls and (going) to the line,” Gallinari said. “It’s been great in the preseason and it’s something that we know we’ve got to keep up … It’s one of our strengths and it’s something that we need to exploit and bring every night.”

Combined ShapeCaption
Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson (1) blocks a shot by Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) in the first half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson (1) blocks a shot by Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) in the first half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

Combined ShapeCaption
Memphis Grizzlies forward Kyle Anderson (1) blocks a shot by Atlanta Hawks forward De'Andre Hunter (12) in the first half Saturday, Dec. 26, 2020, in Memphis, Tenn. (Brandon Dill/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Against Memphis, it became clear how badly the Hawks could frustrate other teams at the line, as they went 15-for-17 in the fourth quarter, with Young accounting for much of that (9-for-11) as the Grizzlies defended him higher and higher up the floor. In a close game, those points were crucial to the Hawks pulling away for the win.

Much of Young’s success drawing fouls comes from him studying other teams on film and understanding how defenses will approach him, Pierce said. Young is both a good 3-point shooter (known to pull up from the logo from time to time) and has an elite floater game, so it’s hard for defenses to take away everything at once.

“A lot of times, teams will just blitz any pick-and-roll, or maybe even throw another body, but they chose to pick him up higher and try to deny him out of the action,” Pierce said. “We had to have some other guys initiate the offense, but if you’re going to play that way and people are going to crowd your body, and you have the basketball, it almost falls right into his hands in terms of his ability to get fouled, to stop on a dime and have people run into him.”

Young also is fine-tuned to his teammates and can adjust quickly, per John Collins. In the second half Saturday, Collins changed his spacing strategy and Young immediately caught on. It’s something they usually don’t even have to verbalize, Collins said of his relationship with his third-year teammate.

Collins also went 5-for-5 from the line in the win.

“When Dillon Brooks was trying to press him full-court, I stop up a little bit, give him a little space, he comes back in front of me, boom, boom, boom, quick stuff like that that makes a difference,” Collins said. “That was kind of a late game play that caused them to go back to the line, and I feel like for me, it’s amazing just to watch him go to work and know that hey, at the end of the day, Trae can get a call when he needs to, and I have to give a shout-out to Gallo, another master at getting calls … It’s nice to have two guys that can do that.”

And, of course, Young is simply good at selling calls, which helps his case: “Trae’s a master at getting calls, just flat-out,” Collins added. “He understands how to get guys off-balance, he understands how to get guys’ momentum to work in his favor, he understands how to sell a call, the whole nine.”

As much as Young watches film to prepare for how a defense will guard him, it also just comes with the flow of the game, he said, picking up reads and adjusting after the first few minutes.

For Young, it goes back to a simple concept. Knowing the rules, and knowing what defenders are and aren’t allowed to do.

“I know when I set a screen, a big man can’t just run through me, that’s just the rule,” Young said. “I know the rules and that’s, for me, I take pride in that.”