At this time last year down in Norman, Oklahoma, a star was born: Rayford Trae Young. You probably know him as the scrawny, scruffy-haired kid drilling threes over anyone who could muster the gall to step in his way. Captivating the hearts of basketball fans around the nation, Young ascended to true phenom status.
Trae Young’s ocean-deep shooting range harkened to that of a young Steph Curry, a similarly sized deadeye shooter who dominated college basketball a decade ago.
As every fledgling superstar does, people didn’t refrain from criticizing Young. They attacked his small stature, excessive turnovers, bullish shot selection and late-season slump. While some of these criticisms were valid, many bordered on empty nitpicking. Young saw his draft stock slide in the eyes of the mainstream. On June 21st, 2018, a monkey hopped onto Young’s back by no doing of his own.
The Atlanta Hawks drafted Luka Doncic and traded him to the Dallas Mavericks, who sent back Young. Viewed by many as one of the best prospects of the last two decades, Doncic’s career would be forever linked with Young’s. And through the first six months or so of his professional career, the planetary weight of Luka’s all-time brilliance would suffocate Young.
High highs and low lows characterized Trae’s Summer League debut. And his first month in the NBA was no different. Except for this time, the fans scrutinized his damning flaws and sold Trae stock as other rookies excelled. After 20 games, Young slashed a paltry 38.3/24.1/83.1 and his detractors were out in full force, claiming sweet victory. The fears that Young was nothing more than a few hot shooting months looked more feasible than ever.
However, people are quick to forget how difficult acclimating to the NBA is for 99% of rookies. Take D’Angelo Russell, who is in the midst of his breakout season, a whole three and a half years after he entered the league. Many gave up on Russell early, including his own team, forgetting the magical concept of development curves. Trae Young’s first 20 games were not astronomically bad: they were what people should have expected.
But after being hyped up by the mainstream as the next Steph Curry, Young’s unfairly lofty expectations weighed him down. Being forever enchained with Luka Doncic, who happens to be one of the best young players of all time, shifts public opinion lower and lower on Young. He was never going to compete with Doncic, a wunderkind who took a whopping one game to transcend the rookie plane.
Slowly, Trae Young is figuring it out. Over his last 15 games, Young’s splits have leaped up to 45.1/36.6/82.7, more akin to the player who lit the NCAA on fire. He has discovered a rhythm in Atlanta’s offense, harmonizing with his teammates and his coach to create an offensive symphony with Young as the conductor. Not his shooting but Young’s savant-level passing is the V8 engine that powers Atlanta’s offense. His decision making is much improved already, making his passing all the more deadly.
Trae Young is a surgeon, slicing openings in the defense, fitting passes in holes most players could not. Dishing 8.3 assists in the month of February Young warps the defense to his behest. If a pass is physically possible, you can bet Trae has it in his back pocket. No-look dimes on the baseline, in midair and under pressure?
Pinpoint lefty harpoons driving along the baseline?
He can do that too.
What about this alley-oop pass which is so incredible that there aren’t enough words in the English language or any other language for that matter, to adequately describe it?
Returning to the previous play, not many NBA players possess the vision and accuracy required to make this pass consistently. Most players wouldn’t even think of attempting this moving midair lob into a window the size of a toothpick but Young does it like it’s his day job (which it is, by the way).
Beyond the crowd-pleasing assists, Young has a knack for making the right pass and finding the open man. He is so skilled at this, in fact, I have created Trae’s Law, which states: “If a teammate of Trae Young’s is open, he will receive the basketball.” His spatial awareness is elite and Young processes defenses like prime Peyton Manning. As soon as young sense a miscommunication and catches Jeremy Lamb in no man’s land, he passes the ball to the open Taurean Prince:
Despite what any analytic says, Young’s shooting threat opens up the rest of his offense. Remember when we talked about the hype that so damaged Young’s reputation? Well, that hype has a benefit for Trae. NBA players too experienced the legend of Trae Young just as the fans and knew of his limitless range. Young is already climbing towards the upper echelon of off-dribble shooters, the most important shot in basketball. Probing the defense, Young patiently waits for the perfect moment to pull the trigger:
Trying to guard Young on the perimeter is a futile endeavor for almost any big man. If a big man is not in the stratosphere of Clint Capela-Draymond Green level defenders, they have little chance against the frenetic Young. Young strings together dribble combos, taking Cody Zeller ballroom dancing with this stepback three:
One of the most crucial aspects of Young’s game is his sound introspection. A simple sounding concept, a player who understands his strengths and weakness can exploit them to his advantage. Steph Curry is one of the best at understanding the extent of his own gravity and breaking defenses with nothing but the idea of Curry’s destructive power.
Early in his career, Trae Young seems to have this ability as well. Defenders rightfully fear Young’s passing. In transition, all Young needs is a quick head fake to generate a wide open layup. Dreading the mere idea of Young finding an open teammate, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tobias Harris both stick to their men, conceding a shot at the rim with no resistance:
Conversely, the threat of the deep pull-up three opens up driving lanes for Young to wiggle through. Simply moving the ball towards his shooting hand and nodding his head has Charlotte laying out a red carpet for Young to penetrate:
Check out this freeze frame from the above clip. Young executes his fake a good eight feet behind the line yet Walker still bites. Watch the rest of the Hornets’ defenders: four sets of eyes fixated on Young.
Trae Young’s game inside the arc relies on his rare ability to change speeds and directions. He knows when to play fast and when to play slow, trotting along before leaving defenders in the dust. His synergy with John Collins and the pick and roll further opens up the floor for Young to operate. Snaking his dribble, Young keeps Rubio on his back before lofting a floater over the trees:
Shooting 47.9% on floaters, the runner is Young’s favorite weapon inside the painted area. Without size and strength to finish over bigs, Young relies on his preternatural touch to put the ball in the basket. Trae schools another plodding big man, floating the ball into the hoop:
On defense, Young is nothing short of an absolute disaster. His lack of size, elite athleticism and overall IQ on defense makes him one of the worst defenders in the league. His Defensive Player Impact Plus Minus of -3.2 ranks second worst in the NBA, only topped by Devin Booker. The Hawks’ lackluster defensive personnel exacerbate Young’s defensive woes but he is certainly a primary culprit on that end:
New head coach Lloyd Piece has built his offense around Young. The purpose of Atlanta’s scheme is to maximize Trae Young, getting the most out of his passing, driving and shooting. Atlanta loves this double drag screen in early offense, which allows Young to attack downhill and crack open the defense:
Rookie wing Kevin Hurter is an underrated creator and so is rookie big man Omari Spellman. If Pierce wanted to lower Young’s 26.3% usage rate, he potentially has the creators to do so. Young’s shooting gravity would translate well off of the ball and having capable playmakers is key to maximizing his offensive value:
Pierce should increase Young’s usage as a screener, as his intense shooting gravity holds defenders in place. Nic Batum is reluctant to take his hands off of Young which opens up the lane for Collins to power in:
Trae Young, despite all of his goodness, is not Steph Curry and likely never will be. He still has plenty of kinks in his game to iron out and needs to improve on defense somehow. Steve Nash is a reasonable ceiling outcome for Young, a passing maestro who led one of the most potent offenses of the 2000s.
Trae Young is already one of the 10 best passers in the NBA. It doesn’t matter how good a player’s vision if he can’t get to spots on the floor where his vision becomes useful. That’s where a player like Lonzo Ball falls short, unable to get to his spots at will like Young.
From January 26th to February 2nd, Trae Young put up at least 23 points and eight assists in five consecutive games. He’s the first rookie to accomplish a five-game stretch like that since Oscar Robertson in the 1960-61 season. Trae Young has arrived. No, he is not Luka Doncic but he does not need to be. Trae Young can be great independent of anything Luka Doncic has done or will ever do in his own right.
Expect Young to keep improving over the coming months until season’s end. With a promising young core and plenty of draft capital, the Hawks are in a good a position as any to be a future NBA dynasty. However, reaching that zenith on the development of that scrawny kid from Norman. I would recommend you buy all in on the Hawks right now. Because when they are hoisting the Larry O’Brien at some point in the future, you’ll want to say you’ve been there from the very beginning.