Why Hawks feel rookie Trae Young is ahead of schedule, and how he's measuring up to Luka Doncic
Young has struggled to shoot, but he was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for a reason
Trae Young is shooting 23.9 percent from 3-point range. ESPN's recently released Real Plus-Minus metric put him as the second-least impactful player in the league. Yet Young was just named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month to start his career. So plenty of people like what they're seeing from Young. That would include Hawks GM Travis Schlenk.
"He's actually further ahead that I thought he'd be at this point," Schlenk told CBS Sports.
There are two reasons to buy tickets on the Young express right now. First, he's a next-level passer. Entering Thursday, Young's 7.3 assists per game rank 10th league-wide, and as Schlenk points out, the Hawks don't exactly make a lot of shots. Plenty of Young's dimes go un-cashed by the second-worst 3-point shooting team and the sixth-worst shooting team overall. Pocket passes. Cross-court flings with either hand. Pick-and-rolls. Lobs. The kid's got every dish in the cupboard.
Atlanta saw this coming. Both Schlenk and Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce told me that as they went through their draft evaluations, they viewed Young's passing as his best asset. His teammates agree. "We appreciate his eyes," Hawks forward Taurean Prince told CBS Sports. "I don't know if people realize how good of a passer he is or not, but we appreciate it here. I can tell you that."
What the Hawks didn't see coming, and what probably nobody saw coming, was the ability Young has shown to finish shots at and near the rim despite his physical deficits. He's listed at 6-foot 2, he's not particularly athletic in terms of explosion or finishing power, and to call him skinny would be an understatement in an NBA locker room. But he's creative and super skilled.
His pace, angles and handles gain him leverage, and he uses that leverage to keep defenders locked on his hip as he lofts in a variety of push shots and floaters at a 42-percent clip in the paint, a better mark than the likes of Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Ben Simmons, Damian Lillard, John Wall and Russell Westbrook.
Young's efficiency dips as he gets closer to the rim -- 50.7 percent in the restricted area, a number that sits well below the marks of elite finishing point guards like Westbrook and Stephen Curry. But the kid is 20. Curry, though he was a better finisher than people realized from the jump, didn't become an elite finisher until well into his career. Entering Thursday, in fact, Young's 52.1-percent clip from five feet and in is the exact same mark Curry put up in his fourth season, when he was 24 years old. As he develops physically, Young is going to be a bigger and bigger problem finishing over, under and around the trees.
Young has been forced to do much of his damage on these types of shots, not only because his 3-pointers aren't dropping, but also because he's being guarded as if they are. "He's seeing a lot of things that aren't thrown at other guys until later in their career," Vince Carter, who is constantly in Young's ear, told CBS Sports.
It's true. Guys like Curry and Lillard got a grace period before they started getting blitzed off pick and rolls and double-teamed out to 30 and 35 feet, and even they didn't react perfectly to start. Who doesn't remember all those one-handed hook passes Curry used to throw away trying to pass over traps? As recently as last year's playoffs, Lillard was clearly affected by New Orleans' blitzing defense as the Blazers got swept in the first round. This is not easy. Young, on reputation alone, is getting a baptism by fire.
"I thought when I left college that would be the last time I would see [this type of defense]," Young joked after Atlanta's win in Miami on Nov. 27. "...It's crazy, I'm not even making shots right now."
In talking to Schlenk, the Hawks, back in action on Saturday against the Nuggets (7:30 p.m. ET -- watch on fuboTV with the NBA League Pass extension), are constantly trying to drill patience into Young, who, understandably, can get a little antsy when he hasn't gotten a shot for a while and force a few bad ones up. Young says passing is his favorite part of the game and assists are his favorite stat, but shooting is in his blood. He can turn an efficient game into a 2-for-9 showing from 3-point range in an overzealous five-minute span.
"That's something I've grown and matured at," Young told CBS Sports. "I don't stress over shot attempts. If teams are trapping me and blitzing me, I've done my job."
The Hawks stress this to Young every day. Do your job. If they blitz you, if they trap you, give it up and let your teammates play 4 on 3. You want to make Curry comparisons, this is a page out of the master's book. Draymond Green became one of the top assist men in the league benefiting from Curry passing out of these traps. Do the Hawks have players capable of punishing defenses for putting too much attention on Young?
"That's my job," Schlenk said. "We tell Trae, make the right play. It's my job to make sure we have guys who can make the next play."
All the while, Young isn't only being measured against himself and his own expectations. Let's face it: He's being measured against Luka Doncic, whom the Hawks traded for the rights to Young and Dallas' 2019 first-round pick on draft night. Doncic has arguably been even better than expected. We knew about the ball skills, but the 3-point shooting was a question. Doncic had a lot of viral clips of hitting big shots in Europe, but from a consistency standpoint, he was only a 30-percent 3-point shooter. He's been at or near 40 percent in the NBA, despite the deeper line. That's a huge jump.
Through Thursday, Doncic is averaging 18.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists. There are only eight other players in the league averaging those numbers. Seven of them -- LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Victor Oladipo, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant and Paul George -- were All-NBA players last season. The other is Blake Griffin. Not bad company for a guy who won't even turn 20 years old until the end of February.
Largely because of Doncic, the Mavericks are one of the true early season surprises at 12-11, good enough for the No. 8 spot out West entering Thursday. For the Hawks, who saw Doncic and Young as roughly equal players coming out, the swing factor in the trade was that extra first-round pick Dallas threw in. The better Doncic plays, the higher the Mavs rise, and the higher the Mavs rise, the lower that pick potentially falls.
Schlenk is keeping his eye on the Mavs, to be sure. Schlenk basically wants them to be as bad as possible without falling into the top five, because if the pick is top five, it stays with Dallas. Anything No. 6 or lower, Atlanta gets it. If Doncic and the Mavericks keep trending up, and somehow crack the playoffs, man, what a gut punch that might be to have given up Doncic and ended up with a pick in the teens.
Young can change the narrative on all that. If he's good enough to measure up to Doncic in the long run, that pick won't hold as much importance. The Hawks love him. They think he's truly special with the ball in his hands, which he is. They trust the shooting will come around, which it almost certainly will. They stress defense to him nonstop. We'll see about that.
In the end, he's learning. He's been given the keys to a franchise that's going to lose a ton of games and asked to learn to play winning basketball. It's all part of a patient approach in an impatient league. And Young is soaking up the knowledge from wherever he can get it.
"It's all about awareness," Carter told CBS Sports. "It's a lot being thrown at him. We just try to communicate [with him], on the bench, during timeouts, even when he doesn't want to hear it. Our goal is to help him turn into a great player, which he is on his way to becoming."
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