In the final seconds, with the Hawks leading the Heat by four, Trae Young wasn’t necessarily nervous as he went to the line, shooting two.
It was only after he sank the first free throw, awarding him a career-high 50 points as the Hawks stunned the likely playoff-bound Miami on Thursday night, that Young tensed a bit. He ended up missing the second shot, putting him at 18-for-19 from the line in the Hawks’ 129-124 win, just shy of perfect, but still tying his career-high of 18 free throws made.
His production shooting free throws essentially has doubled from his rookie season — some of it is strategy and skill, some of it, even Young acknowledges, is getting more calls now that he’s not a rookie anymore. Either way, it accounts for a big part of what Young tries to achieve on the court.
“It’s always been a big part of my game, throughout my whole basketball career,” Young said Friday. “But especially now, you think of the best scorers to ever play, they always know how to get to the free-throw line. So for me, I consider myself one of the best as of right now, so l’ve got to figure out a way to get to the free-throw line. And it helps our team. It helps get their team into foul trouble, too, so it’s good.”
Last season, Young made 4.2 of his 5.1 free-throw attempts per game (82.9%). This season, Young ranks second in the NBA in free throws made per game (8.0) and third in attempts (9.4). He trails only Houston’s James Harden in free throws made per game (10.5). In free throws attempted per game, he’s behind both Harden (12.1) and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (10.4), with Antetokounmpo making 6.4 per game.
Of players averaging at least seven free-throw attempts per game, Phoenix’s Devin Booker is the most accurate (92%), followed by Portland’s Damian Lillard (88.9%), then Harden (87.1%), then Young (85.6%).
Young’s performance at the line has helped him climb to second in the league in scoring (30.1 points per game), behind Harden (35.2).
Young has a knack for knowing where the defender is coming from and taking advantage, whether it’s mid-dribble or mid-shot, in the lane or on the perimeter. In the win vs. Miami, he showed off pretty much every variation.
In the third quarter, up against Kendrick Nunn, Young shot from 3 just as defender Nunn lunged, drawing a foul for a four-point play. In the fourth, he drove right and banked one in, drawing contact from Bam Adebayo for the and-1 to tie the score at 119-119 with 2:36 to go.
Of course, it’s always going to be frustrating when players excel at drawing fouls, as Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce points out. Unless they play for your team.
“It’s exceptional,” Pierce said of Young’s ability to get to the line. “I watched the film (from the win vs. Miami on Thursday), every single one is a legit foul. … When you play against it, you’re always complaining.
“When you have a guy that can do it, you’re not complaining at all. And I’m trying to be non-biased, unbiased, however you say it, and when I watch it, he does a great job. Four or five he had last night, he gets the defender on his hip, he stops, the guy runs into him, it’s a foul. And that’s a really unique skill to have. It’s a skill, it’s a talent.”
Young worked out with both Chris Paul and Harden over the summer, which he said helped him improve his foul-drawing skills.
“Just different tools, different ways,” Young said of what he learned. “Obviously you see how they stick their arms out, they know whenever you’re coming off a screen, the defender’s trying to get over and they’re using all their force to get over, so if you stop, their momentum’s going to carry their body into you. So a lot of people don’t know that, and if they do, it’s hard to stop, regardless. I just know how to get fouls.”
Against Miami, he still had plenty of success from the field (tying his career-high with eight triples). But it’s a useful skill to have, particularly when other shots simply aren’t falling, or when opposing defenses actively try to take away Young’s 3-pointer or floater game.
“When you’re a scorer, you have to find different ways to score,” Pierce said. “It’s not just come down, shoot a ton of 3’s. You’re not always going to be able to get to the rim, so you have to find ways (where if) they’re taking something away, you can still punish them. He’s really developed that skill set.”