In January of 2021, I wrote a story with the Trae Young's ill-advised 3-pointer tells larger tale: An average shooter who thinks he's Steph Curry." I got skewered for it. Told I know nothing about basketball. Next thing I know I'm defending my words on an Atlanta radio show as though they were based on something other than indisputable facts.: "
Trae Young wasn't an elite shooter then.
And he's still not an elite shooter now.
Understand, I'm not talking about Young's shooting talent, which clearly isn't cut from average fabric. I'm capable, believe it or not, of accounting for the difficulty of Young's shot diet, just as I understand that the shots he takes are his decision. Yes, we lend some statistical leeway to those tasked with conjuring up offense for themselves and everyone around them, and yes, a guy like Young is valuable beyond his actual shooting percentages for the sheer spacing the threat of his shot provides.
That said, here's a bit of breaking news: Shooting, ultimately, is a make-or-miss deal. You can't qualify away misses forever, and you cannot, in good conscience, call a guy who is shooting 31 percent from 3 this season and 35 percent for his career a great shooter. The league average is 36 percent. Young has topped that number once in five NBA seasons. He shot 36 percent for his one season in college.
When I wrote that article in 2021, Young had started the season at 26 percent from 3 and was still pulling up for transition bombs with the game in the balance. It was hardly the first example of Young's confidence superseding his consistency. In my estimation, Young hadn't earned that kind of shooting equity. I used Stephen Curry, the guy who made it acceptable for these lesser shooters to logo launch with relative impunity, as a reference point.
Consider that in 2015-16, Curry, the greatest shooter in history who had the single greatest shooting season ever in hitting 402 3-pointers at a 45-percent clip, attempted just 26 shots from 30-34 feet, per NBA.com. Curry made 57 percent of those shots, and despite that kind of success, he has still showed restraint in never attempting more than 47 such shots during any season of his historic career.
Meanwhile, Young fired 81 shots from 30-34 feet last season, making 33 percent of them. He fired 64 as a rookie, making 35 percent. I'm not making the Curry comparison. I'm in fact doing the exact opposite. I'm saying there is no comparison.
Tell me, in what world has Young, a 33-percent career 3-point shooter, earned the right to take three times as many 30-34 footers as the greatest shooter in history took during the greatest shooting season in history? The bottom line is Young shot 32 percent from 3 in his rookie season. He shot 36 percent last season, the same mark he tallied in his lone college campaign. He has never been a great shooter. He's just taken a lot of shots you would assume only a great shooter would take, and a false correlation was drawn.
In 2023, tell me, where was I wrong? The headline I wrote back then was probably a bit inflammatory, and I want to be clear, as I said back then as well, that Young is a fantastic player. You can't teach what he can do with the ball in his hands. I wish he would commit to doing more when it isn't in his hands, but that's another story. When Young is making shots, he's one of the best offensive players in the world. Even when he isn't, he is an elite scorer who gets to the free-throw line, has embraced the midrange, and his greatest skill is his sublime passing and genius-level court sense.
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Acknowledging the fallacy of Young's shooting reputation isn't akin to denying the actual elite parts of his game. Is he a 31-percent 3-point shooter? No. That number will likely rise as the season goes on. The flip side to that is Young also might not be a 38-percent guy, which was his number last season. Even that number isn't some great mark, volume notwithstanding, but besides that, outliers work both ways.
The truth is, there remains more evidence that Young is simply an average shooter with the confidence and freedom of a great one. He's shot under 44 percent overall in three of his first four seasons and he's on track to do so again. He's been regarded as a lethal marksman off the dribble, but in fact, he's only shot better than 39 percent on pull-up jumpers once, per NBA.com tracking.
Like this year's Hawks team as a whole, Young's production, from a shooting standpoint, simply hasn't added up to his considerable talent. At some point, that is what it is. It doesn't mean it won't change. He has the ability. He has, to his credit, trimmed the number of impulsive bombs he lets fly, early in the clock especially, and as mentioned above, he has really weaponized the midrange, where he's pretty lights out. But shooting encompasses all shots, and ultimately Young misses too many of them to be considered anything other than an average shooter being packaged as a great one. That was true in 2021, and it's still true today.