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Atlanta Hawks 2019-20 Player Preview: Trae Young

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The former No. 5 overall pick may be in for a sophomore leap.

Atlanta Hawks v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

The storylines surrounding Trae Young this fall are a lot different than they were this same time a year ago.

“I still can’t believe they chose this guy over Luka.” “The Hawks will never live down this decision.” “He’s just a wannabe Steph Curry.”

When the Atlanta Hawks made the move to grab Young in last June’s NBA Draft, Young (and Hawks fans) were immediately tasked with defending his name.

Young didn’t complain, though. He strapped up and went to war. And when Doncic lived up to the hype, Young complimented him and returned to working on himself.

The rookie guard didn’t have it easy early on. He was given all the opportunity to fail and, at least in part, did so. In the month of November, Young averaged 14 points per game on .355/.198/.860 shooting splits. He averaged 8.1 assists but 4.2 turnovers. The Hawks won three of 16 games and at one point lost ten in a row.

This, of course, didn’t matter. The Hawks struggled and they were generally OK with that. Lloyd Pierce was giving Young a long leash to iron out as many flaws as possible in a year Atlanta didn’t care to compete.

Many overreacted to Young’s November stretch, but it ended up being his worst month of the season — by far. From then on, Young shot 41 percent from the field or better in each month. No, that is not some sort of excellent achievement. But for a young volume shooter on a bad team, expecting much more would be a fool’s errand.

The Trae Young we saw in college didn’t show himself often in his rookie campaign with the Hawks. Of Young’s 32 games at Oklahoma, he attempted ten or more 3s 20 times. In his 81 games with the Hawks last season, Young attempted ten or more 3s just nine times.

In those games, Young’s three-point percentage was 47.1.

Now, this is an unfair way to look at it. Young did not shoot better because he shot more; he shot more because he shot better. Why stop when you’re hitting?

But still, with his range, he should be getting up more than six attempts per game as he did last season.

We will not visit the Steph Curry conversation, because it has been overplayed at this point. But it’s hard to doubt Young’s potential as an elite deep-heaver.

Young was actually better (by percentage) from beyond 27 feet last season than he was from closer. The number isn’t great either way, but it’s still an impressive tidbit from last season and one that should be monitored throughout this season.

While Young’s shooting numbers weren’t dazzling, his passing stats were. Young had an assist percentage of 39.1 percent last season, which was fourth in the league among players with over 2,400 minutes played (via Cleaning The Glass).

Young’s shooting is what grabs everyone’s attention, but his passing is his best NBA skill. Of players with 55 or more games played last season, Young was one of three to average more than 19 points and eight assists per game alongside LeBron James and Russell Westbrook.

Only two other rookies have put up these numbers: Oscar Robertson and Damon Stoudamire. Both of these players were two years older than Young was last season.

Plugging numbers into Basketball-Reference’s Season Finder can often bring up misleading results, but those two for Young just seem to offer more support of what we already know. From Young’s two years in the national spotlight — at Oklahoma and Atlanta — it’s clear that he has an immensely high ceiling as an offensive talent. In the NBA, he has already established himself as an elite passer and converted floaters at a high rate (87th percentile in shots 4-to-14 feet from the rim).

It’s hard to overestimate how little his shooting percentages mattered; he was the offensive focal point as a rookie for a bad team. As the rest of the Hawks, namely John Collins, Kevin Huerter, and DeAndre Hunter, grow into more reliable and consistent producers, Young will get better looks and see his percentages ascend. The Hawks’ record will rise alongside that.

It’s true: the defense is very bad. While Young was 17th in offensive real plus-minus among point guards last season, he was last in the defensive metric. Rookie guards being low on this list is common; Collin Sexton was just a spot higher. But Young is 6’2, 180 pounds with a 6’2 wingspan. He could theoretically improve at certain things defensively, but doesn’t possess any tools to suggest that he could drastically shoot up the list.

At point guard, offense is weighted much more heavily than defense. He can’t get away with giving away points on every possession, but he doesn’t need to be a full-out stopper either.

For the Hawks, a jump in Young’s efficiency — both with shooting and turnovers — could be the difference between another season as a sub-30-win club and an ambitious run at the playoffs. It’s not out of the question for Young to make a De’Aaron Fox-like leap that, along with the talented-but-young supporting cast, helps Atlanta shoot up the standings.

More deep attempts and makes for Young will create a tough decision for defenders: closeout from 24-plus-feet out or fill in the passing lanes. Young will kill you either way, dropping three-pointers or dimes on your head. Once he finds a consistent groove creating for himself and others, the Atlanta Hawks are going to be a problem.