In Detroit, a few days before Christmas, Trae Young whipped a bounce pass between Blake Griffin's legs on a pick-and-roll. Atlanta Hawks wing Justin Anderson got a dunk out of it, but the live camera angle didn't quite capture the ball's path. In a recent conversation with CBS Sports, though, Young was eager to talk about it. He smiled as he said throwing it between opponents' legs is "definitely my favorite" type of pass.
"It was a hell of a pass," Anderson told CBS Sports. "It was probably like his second or third time doing it this season. I just remember when I set the screen for him and I rolled, because I knew his guy was high, I just saw the ball go between Blake's legs, and I was like, 'I know I gotta dunk it for young fella,' because that was a crazy highlight."
Crazy highlights have become a regular occurrence for Young, and not just with his long-range bombs. While he made his name launching deep 3s, Young has been getting plenty of attention for his playmaking lately.
Young, whose Hawks return to action on Friday against the 76ers (7 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV), is tied for seventh in the league in assists, averaging 7.4 per game, which leads all rookies by a wide margin. This number puts him among elite names like Ben Simmons (8.2 assists in his first season), John Wall (8.3) and Chris Paul (7.8). But the Hawks don't want him to stop there.
The team is challenging him to average 13 assists. First-year head coach Lloyd Pierce believes Young will one day be able to dominate with his passing ability alone.
"He sees the opportunity to deliver [the ball] in different ways," Pierce told CBS Sports. "Wraparounds, bounce passes, between the legs, left and right hand skip outs. We've seen it all already, and I know there's a lot more to give."
There will be hiccups along the way, including plenty of turnovers -- Young is averaging four, which is fourth in the league -- but Pierce and the organization see that as just part of the deal with a ball-dominant guard.
"I don't even think [the turnovers are] a rookie thing," Pierce said. "James Harden I think is averaging six turnovers a game. [It's 5.6.] I think it's a usage thing. Guys that use and have the basketball, most dominant with the ball, you have to look at the assist-to-turnover ratio, and that's the number you're always trying to increase. The turnovers are just a result of you have the basketball more. As a team we want to keep them low, but if there's one guy like James who has it 80 percent of the time, his turnovers are gonna be high. So the six, I bet Houston is never concerned about the six turnovers, because they're getting 10 assists and 40 points on top of it because of that usage. And Trae's the same way as a rookie."
So how does Young grow into a playmaker who can take over games with just his passing and average 13 assists a night? It starts with desire. He is more than capable of scoring and knocking down 3s from logos near halfcourt, but Young wants to be, in his words, a true "floor general." He takes pride in his passing ability, which is something he's been developing since he was young, and said it's "just in my DNA" to get his teammates involved.
From there, Young's talent takes over. He has tremendous vision and a keen sense of awareness that translates into him understanding the geometry of the court at all times. As he explained, "I know how the defender is sitting, and how he's positioned, and how I can get the ball to my teammate."
Young is adept at throwing passes with both hands, which allows for much more freedom and creativity. Off the glass, between opponents' legs, behind his back, bounce passes through traffic, Young is willing, and able, to do it all. He cannot, however, precisely explain his best ones, offering only, "I see them before they happen."
In the preseason, Young introduced himself as a creative passer with an off-the-glass alley-oop to John Collins. Much to Collins' disappointment, it didn't go viral, but it's still the big man's favorite assist he's received.
"We have a chemistry where he's throwing it and sort of like my hands are on a string with his hands when he passes it," Collins told CBS Sports. "And I can sort of tell the motions he makes when he's about to go into the passes … It's super cool, because the body movements and signals we give each other. We don't really have to say too much and it just happens, and it works."
But while highlight reel passes are fun, Pierce likes to say he doesn't want Young to get "bored" with making the simple play. Young has plenty of talent, and that can make it easy to fall into the trap of always going for the spectacular instead of the functional. Young is aware of that tendency, though, and believes decision-making will only get easier for him as the game slows down.
An array of other challenges face Young. He'll need to figure out the delicate balance of looking for his own shot while getting others involved. And with that, his shooting itself will need to improve. He's trending in the right direction lately, shooting 50 percent from 3 in his last 10 games, but his efficiency has been an issue in the first half of the season. Plus, as much as the coaching staff downplays the issue, cutting down on his turnovers a bit would help as well.
Vince Carter, who first watched Young while calling his games during Las Vegas Summer League, believes the rookie has a bright future ahead of him. "It's tough to impress me when I've played with Mark Jackson, Steve Nash and Jason Kidd," Carter told CBS Sports. "I've played with three of the best point guards in terms of facilitating the ball that there's ever been. I look at him like he's got that potential and he's along the lines of those guys at an early age."
That potential is obvious every time Young does something eye-catching. It is his willingness to get everyone involved, though, that has endeared him to his teammates. The Hawks are no longer surprised by the audacity of some of his passes, and they know they need to keep their hands ready. That night in Detroit, for example, Anderson knew he couldn't let Young down.
"Once I saw it go through his legs, I was like 'are you serious?'" Anderson said. "I knew I had to go up and try to finish it."