Trae Young is off to an electric start for the 3-1 Atlanta Hawks, who made a series of aggressive offseason acquisitions and are, as a result, looking like a legit playoff contender in the East. Through those four games, Young is averaging 33 points (good for second in the league to James Harden) on better than 50-percent shooting.
Most surprising, and perhaps most importantly, is the fact that Young has already shot 62 free throws this season -- 10 better than the next most frequent charity striper (Bradley Beal) and a translation of 15.5 per game, which leads the league by a mile. For a guy who shoots over 90 percent from the line, that's a gold mine, and this season Young is tapping into it over and over by way of a particularly crafty maneuver.
Behold, the short stop.
Young is a wizard with his handle and one of the league's most slithery pick-and-roll negotiators, and as such he's almost always able to get into the lane with his defender trailing him. With an almost sixth-sense feel for when, exactly, that trailing defender is on the verge of making contact from behind, Young has mastered the art of hitting the brakes and going into his shooting motion at precisely the right moment to draw the foul.
This isn't a tactic entirely unique to Young, but he's one of the most effective at deploying it for two reasons. First, he's one of the best lob passers in the league with an equally adept lob partner in John Collins, and second, he's got a deadly floater.
It goes something like this: The threat of the lob deters the rim-protector from abandoning his post and pushing up too far, if at all, because he knows the second he leaves the rim Young will simply hoist a pass over the top to Collins or Clint Capela for an easy dunk. This, in effect, leaves the trailing defender as the only viable deterrent to Young's floater, putting him in a rush to get back in the play and contest from behind.
Like a driver wanting to teach an aggressive tailgater a lesson, Young stops short, and the next thing you know your bumper is smashed and your insurance rates are doubling; the rear-ender is always at fault. Young even does this when he's not going up for a shot and just knows the opposition is in the bonus. No difference for him. It's two free throws either way.
Getting to the free-throw line isn't anything new to Young. Last season, he got there over nine times a game, good enough for the third-highest mark in the league. He does it in a variety of ways, but the common denominator, even when his defender is in front of him, is that it's almost always a product of his sensing a hand or body that's about to make even the slightest bit of contact with him and springing into a shot like a mouse trap.
So far, the Hawks are plus-11.8 during Young's minutes, per NBA.com. That's a huge turnaround from last season when they were a significant net negative in Young's minutes. Obviously, Young is playing with better players this season, and the defense isn't quite as bad with him on the floor. But it's mostly that the offense has just been extraordinary -- a through-the-roof 126.3 rating in Young's minutes, to be exact.
Young is a brilliant passer with deep shooting range and the shiftiness and handles to create leverage off the dribble against almost any defender. If somehow you thwart all that, he just baits you into contact and, at a 66-percent higher clip that last season, waltzes to the free throw line, where he cashes in free money. The league is quickly running out of ways to stop this guy.