When Trae Young was coming out of college, the most low-hanging NBA comp to make was Golden State Warriors MVP Stephen Curry. To be sure the similarities were, and are, striking. Slight build. Globetrotter ball skills. Limited defense and athleticism counteracted by unlimited shooting range. Curry, as the theory goes, paved the way for guys like Young.
That said, Young has always stated that he aimed to emulate Steve Nash's game, and the similarities there are perhaps even more striking. World-class pick-and-roll initiators. Sixth-sense passers. Of course, deadly shooters. Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce will often invoke the term "Nashing" when describing Young's penchant for keeping his dribble alive as he probes the paint and waits, for what can feel like a basketball eternity, for an open teammate to emerge.
For his part, Curry has also said he patterned his game after Nash as a young player, but his ambitions didn't stop there. Curry aimed to "combine" Nash's on-ball wizardry -- shooting off the dribble, passing with both hands, probing the lane, etc. -- with Reggie Miller's off-ball prowess, navigating screens and generally running his defender into the ground in search of catch-and-shoot opportunities.
A few weeks back, Young, with some firm nudging from Shaquille O'Neal, stated that he would surpass Curry as the NBA's best shooter within a year., but the larger point is that if Young intends to move in the direction of probably the greatest shooter to ever live, he has to start embracing the off-ball aspect of the craft, because he already has the Nash part down.
"We've been telling Trae that since the first day he got here," Hawks president and GM Travis Schlenk told CBS Sports. "I tell him all the time, and he looks at me like I'm crazy, but the hardest time to score in the NBA is when you have the ball. When you have the ball, you've got 10 defenders' eyes on you. When you don't have the ball, you might have two eyes on you, your defender, but there's a good chance even he's not totally looking at you because he's, what, looking at the ball.
"So just trying to get [Trae] to realize that if you get off the ball, and then start moving, you're going to get wide open and get great looks," Schlenk continued. "But that's also about having other guys on the floor who can handle and make plays to take some of that responsibility off Trae and allow him to move more."
This is the principle that has framed Schlenk's roster building. He wants multiple guys who can all "shoot, pass and dribble, as obvious as that sounds," so that Atlanta's offense can start to mirror the movement-oriented versatility of a team like Golden State, for which Schlenk worked for 13 years. He saw Curry evolve first hand. He's trying to put the pieces in place for Young to travel a similar route.
But Young has to take the challenge, too, and fully commit to not just continued movement once he gives the ball up, which takes incredible stamina and mental discipline, but movement with a purpose, sniffing out space with the same one-step-ahead instincts that guide his on-ball prowess. So far this season, just 8.8 percent of Young's shots have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, per Synergy. In 2018-19, that number was 38.8 percent for Curry.
Yes, the Warriors use Curry a lot differently than the Hawks use Young, and they have had far more capable supporting playmakers during the Steve Kerr era than Young is working with in Atlanta. But even if you go back to 2013-14, when Curry was playing under Mark Jackson in a pick-and-roll-heavy system similar to the one in which Young plays without guys like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston to assume regular on-ball duties, 16 percent of Curry's shots were catch-and-shoots, which is twice the number Young is taking.
This all comes down to Curry's commitment to movement, and frankly, his talent for it. Moving without the ball isn't just about effort. For the great ones it's an art. Curry came up playing that way. He was an off-ball player his first two seasons in college. When he got into the NBA, he shared the backcourt with Monta Ellis. Young has always had the ball in his hands. All the more reason he needs to start evolving without it, so those instincts can grow.
But it starts with a first step, literally, and for players like Young, that first step is the one you take immediately after giving the ball up. Watch below as Young gives the ball up and immediately has a split-second opening to sprint out to the wing for a return pass, but instead he just kind of lazily floats out to the 3-point line, so by the time he receives a pass, the defender is already there.
Players like Young don't get long to find space. You give up the ball, your defender relaxes for a heartbeat, if that, and in that one beat you relocate. Watch below how quickly Curry sprints to the corner immediately after giving the ball up.
There are plenty more Curry clips where that came from:
Curry is already seeing space and moving toward it before he even gives the ball up. Young doesn't have that instinct yet. Like a lot of young players who've grown up with the ball in their hands, when he gives it up, he has a moment of relaxation same as the defender, like his work is done, but it's in that moment that a shooter has to pounce.
Watch below how lazily Young moves to this wide-open space in the corner after giving the ball up. (Pay no attention to the fact that Young, in this instance, actually still managed to get a clean look, as the only thing lazier in this clip than Young's movement is the defense, and he can't rely on that).
Nobody just forgets about Stephen Curry and allows him to lazily saunter into a wide-open 3 like that. If and when Young gets to Curry's level, he won't have that luxury, either. He rarely has it now, and that's with the Hawks playing in a lot of blowout games that aren't exactly approached with a postseason defensive intensity.
For the Hawks to become a playoff team, and certainly for Young to be at his most dangerous once he gets there, his off-ball movement has to be much more aggressive. It has to have a shot-hunting urgency to it. You can only do so much damage on the ball when teams are going to do everything they can to take it out of your hands once you start playing in meaningful games.
To that point, Young is already seeing aggressive, advanced blitzing schemes to force the ball out of his hands. Most times when he passes out of the double, he hardly moves afterward. Again, it's like his work is done. Watch Curry in the clip below, passing out of a double and continuing to move without a second of lapse until he eventually finds an opening.
That is world-class off-ball movement. Meanwhile, watch Young in the clip below. He's the guy who barely enters the screen at the top and lingers 40 feet from the basket the entire possession without once threatening the defense in any way.
Here again Young finds himself off the ball, and after Kevin Huerter runs a pick-and-roll that brings the ball toward Young, instead of cutting through the lane and at least taking his defender with him, if not finding a shot for himself on a ball reversal, Young just stands there and forces the action to go back away from him. (Again, pay no mind to the fact that John Collins actually made this shot).
For great shooters, moving isn't just about finishing shots for yourself. It's about dragging the defense's attention all over the court with you, a wild goose chase of sorts, which opens up all kinds of cracks and shots for your teammates who are now afforded the luxury of playing against a distracted opponent. That's why Curry is usually the most impactful player on the court even when he's not making shots, or even taking them. His movement alone is a killer.
"One of Steph's greatest strengths that a lot of people ... some people, but a lot of people don't [realize] because they talk about all the 3s and ball-handling, is Steph never stops moving off the ball," Dwyane Wade said recently on an Instagram live chat in which he was fielding questions from fans. "You guys see when Steph gives the ball up, that's when he's his most dangerous. And that's crazy to think, right? Because when he has the ball, he's unguardable.
"But when he does not have the ball, forget about it," Wade continued. "He's like Rip Hamilton and Ray Allen, those guys when it comes to conditioning and shape that he's in and the way he's able to run. That's when he gets scary, when he gives the ball up."
Once Trae Young figures this part of the equation out, that's when we can at least start talking about him in the same breath as Curry, or any other great shooter for that matter. He'll get there. The Hawks are committed to putting the right kind of team around him to bring that part of his game to bloom, and he's a known hard worker. Young's talent is undeniable. Most people could run around all day and they still don't have the shooting ability to take advantage of the space they find. Young does. And it'll be scary when he puts that all together.