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Breaking down the pick-and-roll coverage the NBA is throwing at Trae Young

Atlanta Hawks v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The foundation of the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks offense, as with most offenses throughout the league, is the pick-and-roll. Trae Young was drafted because of his playmaking skills, which are best showcased in the action, and Atlanta traded for Jeremy Lin during the offseason to ensure they had a veteran who also excels in pick-and-roll to support their rookie point guard as he adjusts to the league and to provide continuity when Young is resting or should he miss time with an injury.

Young’s prowess in pick-and-roll means that he has faced an evolving set of coverages throughout the season. He faced a lot of pressure early in the season, likely because team felt they could use it to create turnovers...which has proven to be consistently effective. It’s a team-wide issue but the rookie does have highest turnover percentage on the team.

As Young struggled mightily with his perimeter shot early in the season, some teams began to go away from applying pressure at the point of the screen, seemingly wanting to entice him into trying to prove he could hit open attempts from the three-point line. This made perfect sense given the results he was posting from distance at the time.

But the league has had to adjust, as of about the middle of December, given that Young has the second best three-point percentage among rookies since that point.

The Hawks are a surprising 9-9 in their last 18 games, a run which includes unlikely wins over the Philadelphia 76ers and the Oklahoma City Thunder. 18 games against a variety of different opponents is a significant enough sample from which to draw real conclusions about how teams have chosen to defend Young in pick-and-roll that we can take a look at how he and the team perform against the various coverages teams throw at the Hawks.

I charted the 312 pick-and-rolls executed by Young over this latest 18-game run. Keep in mind that charting can, at times. be as much of an art as a science, but the results of the types and frequency of coverage can be seen in the chart below.

The numbers are not all about Young. They are also a factor of the defensive philosophies of Atlanta’s opponents during the stretch of play, as teams do not regularly change their defensive principles in the regular season. There are too many games and too few days of practice to adequately install so many coverages.

Before we get into the results, let’s take a moment to clarify the terminology.

“Drop” coverage is much what it sounds like and is the most common coverage in pick-and-roll throughout the NBA. The defensive big man in the coverage typically sags into the lane with the primary objective of dissuading the ball handler from getting a clean look at the rim. While three-point shooting has seen a massive increase in usage over the last decade, the restricted area is still the most valuable real estate on the court, due to both the high-efficiency shots and the higher foul rate on those attempts.

An example can be seen in the clip below. Jared Dudley of the Brooklyn Nets does it twice on this possession, dropping to the free throw line or below as Young comes around the screen.

“Show” coverage calls for the defensive big man to offer brief support at the point of the screen to give the ball handler’s primary defender time to work over or under the screen and regain the responsibility of keeping the ball handler in front of him. It is known by many other terms such “push”, “hedge”, and “blitz”. Show coverage can be deployed to varying levels of aggressiveness (thus the varying terminology) of the defensive big man.

An example can be seen here. New York Knicks’ center Enes Kanter flashes toward Young but works to recover to account for Dewayne Dedmon, while Emmanual Mudiay pursues Young as he drives toward the rim.

An aggressive or “hard” show can sometimes look like a trap at first appearance. If you are surprised that more traps didn’t show up in the data, that could be the reason. A poorly executed show technique can really look like a trap, especially if the defensive big man does not demonstrate much urgency in getting back to the opposing player for whom he is responsible.

A switch is pretty easy to identify. But here’s an example that demonstrates why the Hawks probably don’t see a lot of them.

As mentioned, identifying actual traps can be tricky, but the second defender executing the trap is allowed to lose track of the player with whom he was originally matched up. A dead giveaway is when he chases the ball after it is passed out of the trap, because he does not know where his man ends up in the offensive half court.

“Straight” coverage is not really in the NBA vocabulary. It may be used in generic terms when one describes a defensive scheme preferring to stay away from switching. But some possessions are played with both defenders opting to stay focused on the player they are responsible for defending. It could be because an actual screen was never set or because the offense attacked before the defense was able to get set, etc. We will set those aside.

But understanding the coverage of “weaking” pick-and-roll action might be important, because the Hawks, and Young specifically, could see an increased use of it as the season continues.

It’s the technique that is most often confused for “bad defense”. On the play below, Zaza Pachulia offers no pressure at the point of the screen. His only responsibility on the play is to make sure Young has to attack to his left, his non-dominant hand, thus the term “weak”.

Young is a strong enough passer with both hands that he can execute one-handed skip passes to the weak side corner with either one. He delivers a strike to Justin Anderson in the right corner on this play, who moves the ball to Kent Bazemore, who is able to beat a rotating defensive unit and earn a trip to the free throw line.

Given Young’s ability to pass with both hands, why might there be a possible increase in this coverage in the future? He is much more effective finishing at the rim attacking from his right as opposed to his left. Take a look at how much more green there is in his shot chart inside the restricted on the right side as compared to the left.

Now that we have the terminology and concepts covered, let’s take a look at some ways Young works to attack drop coverage, show coverage, switch coverage and trap coverage.

His ability to convert a good percentage of his runners and floaters is an important aspect of how he attacks an especially conservative drop. This is the type of shot that teams running drop coverage typically want to see. However, according to Synergy, Young is in the 79th percentile on runners, producing 1.0 points per possession with this shot type. 1.0 points per possession, in terms of how Synergy tracks things, is quite good, but the Hawks would rather not rely so heavily on his runners in pick-and-roll situations, as it’s a volatile shot that doesn’t have a history of elongated success for most players. Additionally, generating runners against drop coverage doesn’t force the defense into rotations, which is where Young is at his best.

The central objective of drop coverage to prevent a high-percentage shot at the rim by either the ball handler or the rolling big man, but Young’s passing skills are so ridiculously good, especially in tight spaces, that he can attack and create open shots for teammates.

Very few players would have the vision to pass Alex Len open, as Young does on the above play. He delivers the ball such that Len pivots to collect it and ends up with an uncontested dunk.

The Indiana Pacers might run the best defensive coverage of the pick-and-roll predicated on using the show technique. It’s one of the reasons they are one of the best defensive teams in the league.

In the above clip, Bojan Bogdanovic briefly confronts Young, then recovers to Anderson in the corner. The scheme calls for Myles Turner to flash to the front of the rim, so as to route Anderson away from the paint and toward the corner. Young’s ability to deliver a one-handed skip pass to John Collins in the left corner allows for an uncontested three-point attempt before Turner can get back to the shooter. In general, using a third player, especially a rim-protecting big man like Turner, to wall off the paint is a great idea for a defense, but Young’s passing ability gives Atlanta an advantage in these situations.

An offensive technique that can be used to attack defensive teams that are good using the show technique in pick-and-roll coverage is “staggered screen” action, which is also called “double drag” in some circles.

On the above play, notice that Len and Collins are facing in the same direction and Young dribbles into successive screens set by each of them. This can cause two defenders to react with the show technique and offer an opportunity for one of the big men to quickly dive toward the rim before the defense diagnoses the action. In this case, it was Turner who misdiagnosed the play and jumped out between Len and Collins, rather than dropping back into the paint with the knowledge the Collins’ defender, Thaddeus Young, would be able to pick up Trae Young on the show. Trae Young’s ability to deliver lengthy bounces passes with accuracy works well here; the result is a dunk and and-one opportunity for Len.

One of the most important aspects of defeating the switch technique is to understand that the simple play is often the right choice. On this play, Collins ends up with a mismatch at the rim with a smaller defender. Young realizes that DeAndre’ Bembry in the right corner has a better passing angle and just moves the ball to him. Using a third player in switch or trap situations is often called “shorting” a pick-and-roll.

Another impressive aspect of how Young attacks a switching defense is his ability to notice the little things his teammates do to create opportunities. On the above possession, take a look at how Anderson leans into Pistons’ swingman Stanley Johnson, which allows him to get full separation as he dives toward the rim. Young delivers the ball on time and on target, which results in another easy dunk.

Earlier in the season, Young would very often pass out of traps. At times, that is the right play, but it’s also important to recognize that getting the ball out of his hands is typically the purpose of the trap.

Of recent, he has been looking to punish the trap when possible. In the above clip, he gets a step on Chicago Bulls’ power forward Bobby Portis and gets downhill toward the rim. A helpful seal from Collins on a would-be rim protector helps him pick up a defensive foul and a chance for easy points at the free throw line.

Splitting the trap before it’s set can also create leverage on a play. Young does so here which opens up a skip pass to Taurean Prince in the left corner. The shot doesn’t fall but the Bulls are not able to get matched up for the rebound, leading to Collins getting the easy points on the put back.

The league continues to adjust to the play of the Hawks’ young point guard and Atlanta’s coaching staff deploys adjustments to those adjustments. Young has seen quite a few different coverages through the first half of his rookie season and it will likely only get more complex as he earns his reputation as one of the most fearsome pick-and-roll operators in the league.

It will be fascinating to follow over the second half of the season and throughout his career. Hopefully this analysis will help you track it along with us.