Why Trae Young's All-Star worthy numbers don't deserve to be labeled 'empty stats'


Trae Young was named an NBA All-Star starter in large part because he won the fan vote among Eastern Conference guards. But it's an interesting exercise to consider what would've happened with Young had he not gotten a starting role. Determining the All-Star reserves, after all, is a more simplified process. The league's head coaches vote. That's it. No ballots or janky player input or algebraic equations necessary. 

At first glance, you'd think Young would've been a lock to make it as a reserve. Through Thursday, Young is averaging 29.4 points on just under 45 percent shooting, including 37 percent from 3-point range. He's also adding 9.2 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals. No other player in the league can claim those numbers across the board. 

But in talking to a handful of people within the league as the various rounds All-Star fan votes rolled in, there was a legitimate question as to whether Young would make the team by the coaches vote if the fans didn't make him a starter. 

The first reason for this is Young's Hawks seriously stink. Coaches don't have the time, or really even the desire, to go through a nuanced voting process. Other than highlights and/or a bit of pregame prep work, most coaches have likely only watched Young play in full in the one or two games their teams have played against him, if they've even faced him at all. 

Absent this empirical evidence, it becomes very easy to look at Young and see a "great numbers on a bad team" guy, and we know coaches will always reward winning whenever possible. Hence why Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine missed the cut in the East and Devin Booker in the West. All three of those guys have out-of-sight numbers, but their teams are below .500. 

Booker, specifically, has been saddled with the "empty stats" label his whole career. It's not true this season. Booker has been fantastic, and overall the Suns have been better than expected and currently sit just three games out of a playoff spot despite DeAndre Ayton missing 25 games with a PED suspension. But reputations die hard. 

It makes you wonder about Young's reputation around the league, and whether it's growing in the wrong direction. One scout who spoke with CBS Sports said: "I have questions about how he would fare in a second-round playoff series. To me, that's where you really separate players. That's when you're facing the best defenses and the most prepared teams, and it gets a lot more physical, too."

It's not that these aren't legitimate concerns. Young isn't exactly a physical specimen, and his defense is a disaster by even the most lenient of standards. But I believe there's also a more crooked dynamic at play here, which is that the more dominant a player becomes, particularly a player of which we are naturally skeptical, to begin with, the more aggressively we attempt to explain away that player's dominance. 

We did this with Stephen Curry for years. At a certain point, his 3-point numbers became so unbelievable that there just had to be some kind of explanation other than this guy is actually just this great. First, it was the soft era in which he was lucky enough to be playing. Then it was Steve Kerr's system.

If Russell Westbrook averaged, say, 27 points, eight rebounds and seven assists during his MVP year, that's a fantastic season that's not quite fantastic enough to look any deeper. But he averages a triple-double, and we all go scorched earth in search of invalidation. He's stealing rebounds! He hunts assists to the detriment of his team! The simple truth is when something actually becomes unbelievable, it is, in fact, hard for people to believe. 

Ask yourself: If James Harden was averaging 28 points this season, rather than the 35.7 he's currently averaging and the 38 he's averaged for much of the season, would such a disproportionate percentage of the conversation surrounding him be centered on his shooting volume and so-called referee trickery? Personally, I don't think so. I think Harden's numbers have simply crossed the threshold of believability, at which point skepticism runs rampant. 

Trae Young's numbers are nearing that same threshold, if they haven't already crossed. In a win over Philadelphia on Thursday, Young put up 39 points and 18 assists. Only four other players in NBA history have ever done that. Over the past 10 days, Young has posted five consecutive double-doubles with at least 13 assists, making him just the third player to do so over the past decade. In two of those games he went for 42 points and 15 assists, and 45 points and 14 assists. 

And it's not like it was a one-off performance. Young has been putting up truly ridiculous stat lines all season. And the crazier they get, given our natural skepticism toward his size and playing style, the more it feels like there's a growing movement to explain the numbers away. It's a soft era. It's just the regular season. The Hawks don't have anybody else. 

That last part is true. The Hawks are a bad team, and they were even worse when John Collins was out. Luka Doncic is putting up his own absurd numbers in his second season, but they seem more valid -- that is, they're easier to believe in the context of true winning basketball -- because, well, his team is winning. We conveniently downplay the part about him having a better team. 

That's not to say Trae Young is better, or even as good, as Luka Doncic. He's not, at least in my opinion. But he's very clearly a no-brainer All-Star on the fast track to superstardom. There is no way you can watch this guy play and think otherwise. His stats are not just numbers. They are products of his otherworldly vision, ball-handling and creativity, and an absolutely lethal shot he was born with the ability to detonate from eye-popping ranges. Young is seeing blitzing and trapping defenses that guys like Curry and Damian Lillard didn't see for years into their careers, and he's shredding them almost effortlessly. 

Does he have to get better on defense? Yes. But defense is more a team thing than an individual one in today's game, and again, Young's team does almost nothing to cover for his one weakness. Steph Curry was a terrible defender for years, but he worked at it. And he also got Klay Thompson added to his backcourt. 

If you don't think Trae Young is already at least entering the realm of Steve Nash, you're crazy. And if you don't think Steve Nash was an elite, championship-caliber player, regardless of his defensive inadequacies, you're even crazier. Nash had a great team around him and a perfect system tailored specifically to his strengths. 

Young needs the same. Who knows if he'll ever get it, but if he does, you can forget about his defense, or his inability to perform in a playoff scenario, or any other questions you have about his game. This guy is every bit as phenomenal as his stats suggest. Just because what he's doing seems unbelievable, don't make the mistake of not believing it. 

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