The NBA considers “clutch” time as the last five minutes of games with a scoring margin of five points or less. The Hawks are 7-13 in those situations this season, worst than the teams for every All-Star perimeter player. And Young’s scoring and playmaking stats in the clutch, as defined by the NBA, lag behind the 14 ball-dominant perimeter players set to play in the All-Star game (Kevin Durant is out with an injury).
Young’s effective field-goal percentage, which accounts for 3-pointers, is worse in the clutch than every All-Star guard and small forward except Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) and Donavan Mitchell (Jazz). Those players have better clutch net ratings, which is team points scored minus points allowed per possession. Young’s assist-to-turnover ratio in the clutch is worse than every All-Star who can be considered a point guard except for Utah’s Mike Conley (position designations can be hazy in today’s NBA).
Clutch Stats for Trae Young and All-Star perimeter players
|Trae Young, ATL
|Bradley Beal, WAS
|Jaylen Brown, BOS
|Mike Conley, UTA
|Stephen Curry, GSW
|Luka Doncic, DAL
|James Harden, BKN
|Kyrie Irving, BKN
|LeBron James, LAL
|Zach LaVine, CHI
|Kawhi Leonard, LAC
|Damian Lillard, POR
|Donovan Mitchell, UTA
|Ben Simmons, PHI
|Jayson Tatum, BOS
*effective field-goal percentage (accounts for 3-pointers)
^true shooting percentage (accounts for 3-pointers and free throws)
#net rating (team points scored minus allowed per possession)
Young’s performance in the clutch may be why he’s not playing in the All-Star game. It doesn’t matter much in the big picture. What’s more important is that Young improve his late-game play to help the Hawks surge after the All-Star break and contend for a playoff berth.
The Hawks fired coach Lloyd Pierce on Monday. The next day, interim coach Nate McMillan addressed the team’s struggles in the last five minutes of games. The Hawks had just faltered late in a loss at the Heat.
“I thought we lost our poise,” McMillan said. “We settled for some deep shots quick in the shot clock, as opposed to making (the Heat) work and creating a better shot down the stretch.”
Most of those quick, deep shots McMillan described were attempted by Young. Hours later, Young helped the Hawks pull away in the fourth quarter to beat the Heat. Young was even better at Orlando the next night as the Hawks rallied from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes to win.
The Hawks need more of that from Young. He spent his first two pro seasons playing for teams that weren’t good enough to win many games like that. Now there’s more talent surrounding Young. His next step is figuring out how to lead the Hawks to victories in the close games that are inevitable in the NBA.
“He has to grow as a player each year because teams are going to be doing things different,” McMillan said. “You can’t come back the same guy you were the year before that. You have to show growth because you are going to see different things.”
I’m interested to see how McMillan deploys Young. I thought Pierce could have created more off-ball scoring chances for Young. But that requires Young being willing to give up the ball. It’s understandable why he might be reluctant to do so. Young is one of the league’s elite players at making things happen with the ball.
This season more opponents have left Young little choice at winning time. They’ve trapped him near midcourt or denied him from getting the ball in the first place. Those strategies have seemed to frustrate Young. Sometimes he floats aimlessly on the perimeter after giving up the ball.
That dynamic is not all Young’s fault. His teammates sometimes tend to stand and watch him work against defensive pressure instead of moving to open space. But Young carries a heavy burden as the best player on the team. Usually he’s the one making decisions with the ball. If opponents won’t allow that at winning time, it’s on Young to find other ways to score and make plays.
I’m betting Young will figure it out. He’s a smart, ultra-competitive player. And he’s already shown he can add elements to his game once opponents scheme to take away others.
After struggling to score at the rim as a rookie, Young developed an excellent floater to loft over big men who challenge his drives. He’s become craftier at drawing fouls coming off screens and using change-of-pace moves to get into the lane. Young uses a right-to-left crossover dribble to create space for 3-point shots even when his defender knows it’s coming.
It’s on McMillan to maximize Young’s abilities. Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk has built a roster on the “pace and space” model that’s now the NBA standard. Young is the centerpiece of that plan. But McMillan’s Indiana teams didn’t fit that mold.
The Pacers under McMillan didn’t play fast, spread the floor by shooting a lot of 3-pointers and attack the basket. They slowed the pace, shot a lot of mid-range jump shots and grinded out victories with defense. McMillan’s old-school approach reportedly was one reason the Pacers fired him following last season.
“I know people have talked about my style of play,” McMillan said. “It’s not ‘my’ style of play. It’s the players’ style of play. The players will decide and create that style of play that is on the floor.”
If that’s the case, then the Hawks under McMillan should play fast and shoot a lot of 3-pointers with Young as the catalyst. The challenge will be finding the right balance between pushing the pace and playing more under control when the possessions are most important.
It’s a compliment to Young that opponents focus on stopping him late in tight games. They’d rather another Hawks player run the offense than risk Young using pick-and-rolls to score or feed teammates for open shots once the defense collapses to keep him out of the paint.
Said McMillan: “The good players, and those All-Stars that continue to be All-Stars, they find ways to be better and not allow a team or a particular defensive strategy to take you out of the game. You’ve still got to find a way. Michael Jordan and Kobe (Bryant) and all those guys, they knew were going to see double-teams and triple-teams. But they were still able to be productive and their teams win games.”
Young still is only 22 years old. It’s not yet realistic to expect him to meet the standard of all-time greats. But Young set a high bar for himself by making the All-Star team in his second season. He couldn’t clear it again this year. If Young performs better in the clutch and the Hawks win more games, it’s likely he won’t be left off another All-Star team for a long time.