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Trae Young emerging as elite clutch performer in rookie season

He may be a rookie but Trae Young is taking it to the NBA’s elite in the clutch.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

When Trae Young was selected with the No. 5 overall pick last summer and traded to the Atlanta Hawks, a lot of division was created both among the local fan base and the national fan base, with a lot of people thrilled that Luka Doncic fell to the Hawks’ laps with the third overall pick, only to see that delight turn to sadness and anger as Doncic headed instead to Dallas in a draft night trade with the Mavericks that brought Young and a first-round pick to Atlanta.

There were a lot of people who were unhappy with Atlanta’s decision for a few reasons, one being that there was a possibility — and this was certainly talked about often pre-draft as well as post-draft — that Young had more ‘bust potential’ than Doncic and that Young’s skill-set (at least, shooting the ball) at his size would not translate as well as perhaps Doncic’s would.

It was all a case of ‘if, buts and maybes’ but the conversations and fear of all of that was certainly real at the time, as distant as it all is now.

Summer League would provide Young an early opportunity to silence critics, and while Young did enjoy some solid performances, generally speaking, he struggled — shooting 23 percent from the field in Utah and 38 percent in Las Vegas — and this only increased the unhappiness for fans who were displeased with the Hawks’ draft-night deal.

Knee-jerk reactions were inevitable — and this will always be the case, good or bad, for highly-rated rookies — but there was certainly a sense (again, for some, not all) of ‘Have the Hawks screwed up here?’ for a considerable amount of time, the summer giving everyone a chance to ponder on the Hawks’ decision on that fateful night.

There was a lot of talking over the summer as the Hawks journeyed into the next phase of their rebuild with Young at the fore and as preseason arrived, it was time to end the talking and see what would actually happen on the court.

The question did arise, ‘Would the Hawks start Young ahead of Jeremy Lin to begin the season?’ (which, again, feels like a very long time ago now) but Young would go on to begin preseason as the Atlanta Hawks’ starting point guard.

Since that point, Young has featured — and started — in every game the Atlanta Hawks have played and, despite a slow November, has emerged as one of the NBA’s top rookies (this is a conversation for another day) and one of the NBA’s top playmakers, averaging 7.9 assists per game and ranking second in the league in total assists (only trailing Russell Westbrook) — that’s a big deal.

Young’s emergence as one of the NBA’s top playmakers in his rookie season has been a pleasant surprise, as has been his general ability to score, but what has also turned out to be a strong part of his game is his performances in the clutch.

‘Clutch’ is a term that pretty much every basketball fan knows but it is also, as you can imagine, a stat on, referring to the final five minutes of the game with the score between the two teams being separated by five or less points — ‘clutch stats’ measure a player’s performance in such situations.

There are many things you can say about this year’s Atlanta Hawks team but one of the things you can say with certainty is that they’ve been involved in a lot of close games. The Hawks have featured in 36 games in which the game has been within five or less points with five minutes to go and 16 occasions in which the game has been decided by five points or less.

This has given the Hawks and Young plenty of opportunities to test themselves in close games and while the Hawks are 18-18 in such instances, Young himself has excelled as a clutch performer.

Young is averaging 3.3 points in the clutch, and that may seem underwhelming if you’re unfamiliar with how clutch works, but I promise you it’s very impressive.

3.3 points in clutch situations ranks 15th in the entire NBA (of players who have played at least 15 ‘clutch’ games) and puts him right there with your Mike Conleys, your Damian Lillards, your Paul Georges...

These aren’t your standard players Young is keeping company with, these are the NBA’s elite, some of the NBA’s most clutch players and Young is mixing it up with these guys.

Sometimes seeing is believing.

When you look at Young’s field goal percentage in these instances, it’s higher than the likes of Devin Booker, Paul George and Damian Lillard. O.K., sure, 41 percent still isn’t amazing for an overall percentage, but it’s a great way to start as a clutch performer.

Where Young stands out a little more is with his three-point percentage, shooting 35% on his average of one three-point attempt in the clutch (which is the general amount others in the same bracket take; you’ll have to get used to the smaller figures) — a lot better, as you can see, than the likes of Lillard and George.

Now, look, don’t hear what I’m not saying — I’m not saying Young is better than Lillard and George nor am I saying Young is more clutch than these players. It’s just to see where Young stacks in the league in this department, take it all with a grain of salt.

While some work themselves into post-ups and mid-range opportunities from pick-and-rolls, Young’s main point of attack in the clutch generally comes from either three-point territory or at the rim.

Now, that looks quite underwhelming but let’s work through it — the main aim is to identify that the majority of Young’s shots in the clutch come from either three or at the rim.

Young’s ability to shoot the three-pointer is obviously known — water is wet. The top of the key three has been a very efficient and effective spot for Young, shooting 47 percent on those top of the key threes.

We got to see a hint of this very early on, in the preseason, as Young hit a game-winning three-pointer from the top of the key against the San Antonio Spurs at Georgia Tech with 2.2 seconds to go:

It wouldn’t be the last time Young hit clutch shots from three-point range.

On a number of times, whether the game was on the line or the Hawks were trying to back into a game, Young — once in the situation — have proven his ability to take and make the big shots.

In a wild game against the Minnesota Timberwolves in overtime, a wild phase of play occurs where Robert Covington misses an alley-oop and the Hawks head the other way and Young, with his first three-point attempt of the game, drains the go-ahead three-pointer:

Young had been making shots in overtime to begin with but this shot put the Hawks back in front and they wouldn’t look back and would go on to win this game.

Of the more spectacular variety against the Chicago Bulls, Young puts the Hawks ahead with just over two minutes to go with a momentum swinging three-pointer after a steal from Dewayne Dedmon:

And Young looked like he had won the game with this astonishing shot to put the Hawks up by three with 2.2 seconds left on the clock:

They would, somehow, go on to lose that game in 4OT but an incredible, clutch shot nevertheless.

Against the Phoenix Suns on the road, Young hits two clutch three-pointers inside the final five minutes, one to put the Hawks ahead (and the foul):

And another shortly after to serve as the arguable dagger, Young’s three-pointer putting the Hawks up by seven points:

Against the Lakers, Young shows the extended range as he hits the three-pointer to put the Hawks up by four points with under five minutes to play in Los Angeles — that’s a big shot to make and take:

There have been times where Young has settled in the clutch and more than a few occasions where some of those shots have been airballs, but generally speaking, from behind the arc, Young has delivered in the clutch — 35 percent on threes is a number you could certainly work with.

While Young has taken a number of shots from behind the arc in the clutch, the majority of his shots have come at/around the rim, and the percentages don’t shine as brightly as the three-point shooting — Young is shooting 48% at the rim in the clutch which is below league average.

Let’s start with the positives first though...

One of the large question marks looming over Young heading into this season was ‘How would he fare around the rim with his lack of length and size at his position?’.

It was a legitimate question to ask but Young has proven — though the numbers and percentages aren’t fantastic on paper — that he can get into the paint and he can finish at the rim, and finish, I think, at a higher level than many expected him to in his rookie season.

And this has been the case both throughout the game and in the clutch, with Young producing clutch baskets on numerous occasions on his drives to the rim.

In the Hawks’ home opener against the Dallas Mavericks — recovering from a 26-point deficit — Young puts the Hawks back in front with beautiful spin and drive to the rim for the layup:

A wild game that the Hawks would go on to win, this layup playing a key role in that comeback.

Against the Timberwolves in overtime, Young drives inside after an offensive rebound to score the layup to tie the game and drawing the foul to give the Hawks the lead at the free throw line:

With just over a minute to go and the Hawks leading by three points, Young drives inside and successfully evades the defense to score the layup to put the Hawks by five points with a minute to go:

(Again, somehow, the Hawks lost that game).

Same game, in overtime with the game on the line, Young is able to drive almost full-court to the rim to send the game to a second overtime period:

And, of course, most recently, Young hits this game-winning floater to lift the Hawks to victory over the playoff-bound Philadelphia 76ers:

Young has taken and made big shots and he’s not afraid to do it — in fact, he lives for it.

“...He has an ‘it’ factor,” said Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce after that Sixers game. “He loves those moments, loves taking those shots and he always seems to come up pretty big. He’s been in a lot of games where he’s had opportunities (to take big shots)...”

“Those are the type of plays you live for,” said Young after hitting that shot. “Shot clock, game-clock going down ... I love living in those type of moments, being in those situations...”

“He’s dying for that moment,” said Pierce of Young after the Hawks’ overtime victory in Minnesota in December. “He’s a home-run hitter, he’s always looking for the big shot. It’s a testament to him, his confidence, his ability. He didn’t take a lot of shots but his ability to get into the game and he sees an opening and step up and take that play...”

Young averages just under 31 minutes of action a night and his ability to continue to perform at a high level down the stretch and have the legs and energy to hit his outside shots and get inside is a testament to the physical condition he has already built in his rookie season, to keep on performing at a high level at the highest level..

“Some guys—I’ve gone through this enough with different guys—and some guys it takes a while for them to get their regular season legs and conditioning,” said Pierce of Young after an overtime victory against the Minnesota Timberwolves at home, where Young played 43 minutes and made some big plays down the stretch. “Trae (Young’s) shooting, it requires that. You have to be in shape - especially the type of shots he shoots. He’s getting hounded defensively, and coming off multiple screens, and now he’s shooting 26, 27-foot threes. You need your legs, you need conditioning...

“He’s refreshed coming off All-Star break, but he’s also got his NBA legs. His durability all year has been great...”

It isn’t all perfect, and Young does have issues at times in these situations, sometimes driving into the lane and his shot — sometimes left wanting a little more — is snuffed out by the help defense.

Here, Young elects to use his right-hand as he gets into the paint but is snuffed out by Serge Ibaka but the Hawks catch a break as Dedmon follows the loose-ball:

If Young uses his left hand, he may have eluded the shot blocker...

Rather than electing to pass out of this situation where the defender is right there, Young attempts to finish the layup but Karl-Anthony Towns emphatically blocks the shot:

Young has had — and has taken — opportunities to win games but has been thwarted too.

Unluckily for Young on this play, Tyson Chandler prevents him from — more than likely — hitting a game-winner in Los Angeles as he comes over with this block:

Against the Raptors, the Hawks were surprised as Kawhi Leonard guarded Young coming out of a timeout and Young’s layup to win the game is very well contested from Leonard and the Raptors win the game:

These are but a few foibles for Young in the clutch — generally speaking, he has risen to the occasion and has made big plays to lift his team in the clutch, not just with his scoring but his playmaking too.

Young averages 0.7 assists in the clutch and that may seem insignificant but that ranks fifth in the NBA (again, of players who have played at least 15 ‘clutch’ games), trailing just Nikola Jokic, Bradley Beal, Kyrie Irving and Kyle Lowry (who averages one assist to lead the NBA in clutch assists).

Here against the Lakers, Young is faced with a trap but has the ability to pass out of it and does a great job finding Vince Carter, who dunks with authority:

Faced with an extra body off of the pick-and-roll, Young finds John Collins for the slam dunk with just under 1:30 remaining:

As you could probably imagine, Young’s main running partner in the clutch is Collins, and the two have connected for more than a few big baskets.

Young loves to drive and we’ve seen him do damage in the clutch with his drives but he can create for his teammates in the same fashion, as he finds Collins here on the drive underneath the basket:

Young does take a risk when he leaves his feet but what it also does is forces the commitment from the help, and once the help is out of the picture, Young just has to find the open man:

If you scroll back up and look at that image where Young ranks among the league in points scored in the clutch, you’ll see the ‘age’ column — and this is sometimes easy to forget — and remember that Young is only 20 years old.

For Young to be doing what he is doing in general but let alone in the clutch, to be mixing it up with the NBA’s elite players is truly remarkable — no one could’ve seen this coming in Year 1.

The Hawks left many fans scratching their heads and left many others worried after their draft-night decision to trade away Doncic, but the play of Trae Young has made it what was a night to forget, a night to remember.

Whatever comes of the Rookie of the Year award between himself and Doncic, no one can deny Trae Young hasn’t shown clutch moments this season.

And there’s more to come...

(Stats via and are correct as of March 26th)