Trae Young might have made All-Star team with better play in clutch

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) is fouled by Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams (7) while going for a shot near the end of the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) is fouled by Orlando Magic guard Michael Carter-Williams (7) while going for a shot near the end of the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, March 3, 2021, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The NBA All-Star game is scheduled to be played Sunday at State Farm Arena. Hawks point guard Trae Young won’t be in it. That’s nothing new for Atlanta. No Hawks players were picked for the NBA’s showcase game in 1978 at the Omni or 2003 at Philips Arena.

The difference is that Young has a stronger case than any home-city player during those years.

Young ranks fifth in scoring and third in assists among Eastern Conference players. The Hawks (16-20) have a losing record, but so do the teams of four East All-Stars: Bradley Beal (Wizards), Zach LaVine (Bulls), Nikola Vucevic (Magic) and Damontas Sabonis (Pacers). Young, an All-Star starter last season, said he was “confused” by being left off the team completely this year.

One explanation is that the group of East guards is deeper this year. But there’s no way to tell for sure why Young wasn’t voted an All-Star. The league releases only part of the results for fan, media and player voting for starters. The votes of the 30 coaches for reserves isn’t disclosed at all.

I’m guessing Young didn’t make the All-Star team because of the perception that he hasn’t been good late in games. There’s evidence to support that view. Part of the reason the Hawks have faltered during the clutch is because Young hasn’t been efficient on offense at winning time.

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

Player, team Team record eFG%* TS%^ AST/TO NET RTG#
Trae Young, ATL 7-13 41.9 51.2 1.56 -17.2
Bradley Beal, WAS 9-8 43.0 57.4 0.80 -8.8
Jaylen Brown, BOS 11-11 46.9 50.5 0.50 -5.6
Mike Conley, UTA 5-7 50.0 63.9 1.50 -14.1
Stephen Curry, GSW 9-7 52.3 62.9 2.00 -0.2
Luka Doncic, DAL 8-6 56.6 62.3 4.00 -1.4
James Harden, BKN 10-2 57.5 71.2 3.67 16.6
Kyrie Irving, BKN 8-5 57.5 60.9 2.67 6.9
LeBron James, LAL 11-5 58.2 58.1 1.50 18.1
Zach LaVine, CHI 10-12 48.0 57.5 0.78 -1.9
Kawhi Leonard, LAC 5-9 30.4 44.2 1.00 25.7
Damian Lillard, POR 14-5 77.6 84.8 2.67 19.7
Donovan Mitchell, UTA 8-7 32.9 38.1 2.67 -6.9
Ben Simmons, PHI 13-5 77.8 78.4 1.60 28.2
Jayson Tatum, BOS 11-11 54.3 61.4 0.83 0.7

*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.

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