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Julius Randle and Joel Embiid are going to miss the All-Star game with injuries, leaving two Eastern Conference spots available for replacement players. Trae Young seemingly had an inside track on locking down one of them. 

Young was already having a terrific statistical season, and since the coaches left him out of their reserve pool he has been humming over a two-game span in which he has recorded 72 points and 21 assists on 63% shooting. He has made 14 of his last 22 3-pointers in victories over the Suns and Warriors, and prior to the snub he made 6 of 9 from deep in a win over the Lakers

All told, the Hawks have won four straight. Young is doing all he can to will this disappointing season in the direction of some hope. It's going to take more than a hot week. Atlanta is 22-27, clinging to the East's last Play-In Tournament spot, one game up in the loss column on No. 11 Brooklyn. 

Presumably, that's the reason Young was left off the All-Star roster in the first place. Coaches are obviously partial to winning, and Young hasn't provided much of that since Atlanta's surprise run to the 2021 Eastern Conference Finals, which looks increasingly like a matchup-friendly fluke the further removed we get from it. 

Coaches are also partial to defense, but it's worth mentioning that Young has improved in this area. During a recent appearance on The Old Man and the Three podcast, Orlando Magic All-Star Paolo Banchero said that he "kind of stopped going after [Young]," who has long been successfully hunted by opposing scorers like wounded prey, after Redick noted Young's increased attention to defensive detail. 

"I'm watching his show angles, and the urgency to recover, and to close out under control," Redick said. "I thought [Young's] defense down the stretch of that game [vs. Orlando] was the best I've seen [from him]."

The clip below illustrates what Redick is talking about: Young first shows out hard on Banchero, who is forced to retreat and give the ball up, at which point Young recovers back to still disrupt Caleb Houston from behind. This stalls out the possession, and it ends in an Atlanta stop. 

"He made some big [defensive] plays against us," Banchero said. "Like you said with his shows, it was kind of getting me stuck in the mud, and then I'm just right back to where I was."

Here's what Banchero is talking about, as Young jumps out hard on two different ball screens, each time rerouting Banchero back to where he started from before he eventually ends up missing a pull-up jumper. 

Here Young gets over a screen and fights hard to stay in front of Markelle Fultz, who is forced into an offensive foul. 

Here Young savvily sniffs out Fultz setting up a switch to get the ball to Banchero at the high post to close the third quarter. Young plays possum until the last second, when he breaks for a blind-side steal for what should have been a breakaway layup (instead, Young tried to get fancy with a behind-the-head pass that Jalen Johnson wasn't ready for, but that has nothing to do with the defensive play). 

Young is averaging a career-high 1.5 steals per game, which ranks 11th league-wide. He has more steals than notable defenders like Alex Caruso, Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby -- and just two fewer than Jalen Suggs, who makes his living as a thief. Young is playing the passing lanes more aggressively, and he can use his hands to rip ball handlers. 

He did Jonathan Kuminga and Kevin Durant dirty on back-to-back nights. 

Now, let's not get this twisted: At 6-foot-1, Young is still a relatively vulnerable defender. There are still plenty of times every game where he is exploited for his lack of size, or off-ball awareness, or willingness to fight around screens. But they are fewer and farther between. 

The consistent willingness to make multiple efforts rather than just conceding red-carpet buckets is about all you can ask of Young, who can't change his size and has to carry a massive offensive load, which, yet again, he is doing at an elite level.

Young is averaging 27 points while shooting a career-best 38% from 3. He leads the league in assist points created, according to PBP stats, as well as total assists with 478, and he's second on a per-game basis at 10.9 dimes per night, also a career high. 

So yeah, as I said above, Young has been statistically great all season, and the defense is much improved. Given the tear Young's been on since he was left off the All-Star team, his case to be one of the two injury replacements is pretty strong. 

For my money, his main competition is going to be Boston's Derrick White, who, I would argue, is equally worthy. His numbers don't come close to Young's, but his impact on winning is undeniable and Boston is the best team in the league. 

My guess is only one guard will be a replacement, with the other being a big man given that both Randle and Embiid are frontcourt players and the East reserves already feature Donovan Mitchell, Jalen Brunson and Tyrese Maxey

We'll see if Young or White gets the nod, but one thing is for sure: Young is making the strongest case he can with the way he has played not just since the snubbing, but for the most part all season.