LAS VEGAS -- It's the sixth day of the NBA Las Vegas Summer League and the Atlanta Hawks are playing the Indiana Pacers. Hawks rookie guard Trae Young is dribbling up the court. Walking along the sideline at the base of the stands, I pass a couple former NBA players in the crowd. Plain as day, I hear one of them lean over and say: "He ain't no Steph Curry."
One can only assume he's talking about Young, and I can't help but wonder if this former player -- and anyone else who agrees with his assessment -- has it backwards. What if Steph Curry ain't no Trae Young?
Before you lose your mind behind the absurdity of that question, understand, this is clearly not to suggest that Young is anywhere near the player Curry is, or even that he one day could be. It is merely a reminder that Young is a 19-year-old kid. When Curry was that age, he was playing mid-major college basketball in a uniform that looked like a blouse. This should go without saying, but don't let what Curry has become distract you from where he started. If we're not going to make this comparison, or any comparison for that matter, at parallel career points, it's a waste of everyone's time.
With that said, let's start with what we know about Young: He can shoot, dribble and pass like crazy. These things are indisputable, and at one point or another, they were all on display during the summer league. After a rocky start in Salt Lake City, where he air-balled his first two 3-pointers as a pro, Young was arguably the most impressive point guard in Vegas, where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collin Sexton and Aaron Holiday all turned heads.
Young's first breakout showing was a 24-point, five-assist effort against the Bulls. He shot 7 of 13 from deep in that one, routinely displaying his range with the ease of a fly fisherman. For most of the second half, I had a chance to chat with Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk as he watched Young make play after play. If we insist on making the Curry comparison, Schlenk has some select insight.
Before coming to Atlanta in 2017, Schlenk spent 13 years in the Warriors' front office, the last five as the assistant GM to Bob Myers. He saw, and had a major hand in, building Golden State into what the franchise is today. He saw Curry go from a promising young player out of Davidson to an exploding star in 2013, four years into his career, when former Warriors coach Mark Jackson made the franchise-altering decision to turn him loose, freeing him to bomb away from 3-point range, to make mistakes of aggression, and to tap into the showmanship and artistry that was essential in his becoming the player he was meant to be.
"Remember, Mark was saying Curry and [Klay] Thompson were the best shooting backcourt in history before anyone else was even thinking that, and he coached them that way -- he let them go," Schlenk told CBS Sports. "When a coach has that kind of confidence in a player, especially a young player, it is so powerful."
Young will have the same green light in Atlanta, both Schlenk and new Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told me. It'll no doubt lead to some wild shots that'll have Pierce cringing on the sideline, as Young heaves 28-footers off the dribble before anyone else has touched the ball, but the hope is the freedom will expedite the growth. He'll learn when and where to pull the trigger. He'll develop a better understanding of how to leverage the threat of his shot to open up other parts of his game, and ultimately to create offensive flow for his teammates, rather than command too much of it for himself.
But at the end of the day, the Hawks aren't really concerned with Young's shooting. Believe it or not, they don't even think it's his best skill, which is saying something for a guy who can chuck it like this:
"He blew up and got national recognition because of the shooting, but to us, his best asset today is his passing," Schlenk said. "You just don't see kids his age who can run pick and roll so naturally, who can make plays and find guys on the move with both their left and right hand. He's got a great feel for the court, and summer league can only show so much of that. When he has NBA players all around him, its going to open up the court so much more for him."
Indeed, the most impressive stretch Young put together in Vegas didn't include a single 3-pointer. It was the aforementioned game vs. the Pacers, who at one point led the Hawks by 27. When Young re-entered the game midway through the fourth quarter, it was winning time. And he flat took over with a dizzying array of passes that added up to five assists in less than three minutes. To top it off, Young sealed the comeback with a sweet floater, another part of his arsenal that gets lost in all the talk about his range.
Coming out of Oklahoma, when Young's upside wasn't being compared to Curry, he was often associated with the cautionary tale of Jimmer Fredette, who had free reign to bomb away in college and became a cult icon at BYU in doing so, but never amounted to anything in the pros. Watch that clip above again, and you'll understand why that comparison was always dumb. Young is more than a shooter. He is clearly capable of leading an offense, which is why the Hawks just traded their starting point guard, Dennis Schroder, to the Thunder, and before that, is why they had the confidence to give up Luka Doncic on draft night.
It was a risky move, sending Doncic to the Mavericks in exchange for Young and a protected 2019 first-round pick. A lot of smart people think Doncic, who went No. 3 overall to the Hawks before getting moved minutes later, will end up being the best player from this draft, if not something even better than that. The dude can really play. But Schlenk and the Hawks had Young and the Slovenian star graded as virtual equals, making the additional first-round pick Dallas threw in the deal the effective tiebreaker.
"My philosophy has always been, and will continue to be, that the draft isn't an exact science," Schlenk said. "The more swings you have to take, the more chances you have to get a few right."
Did the Hawks get it right with Young? Only time will tell. The concerns about his defense are real. There are no guarantees he'll ever fully harness the power of his shot to be something more than a gunner. Flashy passing can be overrated, and Summer League can only tell you so much. But as first tests go, Young passed with flying colors. The kid can play, even if he ain't no Steph Curry.