The draft night decision to bring Trae Young to the Atlanta Hawks (at the expense of Luka Doncic) was not necessarily a popular one among quite a number of Hawks fans, NBA fans and analysts — countrywide and internationally.
Young’s struggles from the field shooting the ball in summer league did little to allay fears that the Hawks had ‘messed it up’ and there were those who were left with a nervous wait from July to October — to see how Young would truly get on at the next level.
There was a legitimate question heading into the season whether or not Young would begin the season as the starting point guard, with Jeremy Lin also bearing some recognition for the role.
Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce elected to ride with the rookie as his starting point guard, who didn’t take long to produce a memorable moment in his NBA career, draining a game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs in preseason at Georgia Tech:
As the regular season rolled into view, Young was set to make his NBA debut at one of the most famous arenas in the world — Madison Square Garden. In his debut, Young scored 14 points but struggled shooting from the field — 5-of-14, attempting many floaters that did not sink.
Still, although the Hawks lost the game and Young struggled from the field, it was a night he wouldn’t forget.
“...I’ll never forget my first game in the NBA,” reflected Young during the Hawks’ exit interviews. “Playing in Madison Square Garden, I think that’s an unreal moment. You just dream of those type of things. Obviously the buzzer-beaters and things are cool and highlights for days and years, but when I put my jersey on for the first time and I walk out and I’m in the Garden — that’s something that’s unmatched.”
Young, in just his third NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, announced himself onto the NBA scene with a 35 point-11 assist performance.
As you could imagine, at the time, this was obviously a very big deal:
Rookies with at least 35p/11a in a game:— Jeff Siegel (@jgsiegel) October 22, 2018
Michael Jordan (twice)
Young is the second-youngest to do it behind LeBron.
There are worse ways to propel your team to a first win of the season.
Sadly, things didn’t get better for Young after that point — at least immediately.
November was, by far, Young’s toughest month of the season, averaging 14 points per game on 35% shooting from the field and 19% from three-point territory — his month was just littered with very tough nights, including three consecutive games where Young shot 2-of-12, 2-of-11, 3-of-11 as the Hawks went 3-13 in November.
While Young struggled through November, Doncic thrived as he averaged 17.7 points per game on 43% shooting from the field, 36% from three as the Mavs went 8-4 in November.
During the Hawks’ exit interview, Young was asked if he had any regrets on the season. Now, this is generally a question many NBA players dodge in one way or another but with Young, he admitted that his shooting numbers from November left a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Shooting 19% from three in November (was the biggest regret of the season),” said Young.
Young believed that his eagerness to come into the NBA and make an instant splash — as well as rushing his play — as reasons for his November struggles.
“Just rushing things,” said Young on what caused his November drought. “I think coming into the league, I wanted everything so fast and I wanted all my shots to go in, wanted everything to go really good from the jump. I was going so fast early on and I think that’s what caused me to not shoot the ball well from three and that’s really what it was. After that month I slowed down a little bit and from then on it was good.”
That’s part of the reason Young shot poorly in November but another reason for his poor numbers in November was that Young saw many different defensive looks to mitigate his impact on the offensive end.
Double-teams and blitzed pick-and-rolls were a regular occurrence for Young in his early NBA career, and this also played its part in Young’s poor shooting from outside.
“He gets so much attention, he gets the blitzes, he gets guys picking him up full court,” said Lloyd Pierce in November. “I look at the West Virginia game last year and [Jevon Carter] was just all over him full court. When you get that pressure release, that screen, if the guy goes under the screen, that’s where you see a lot of his deep threes. He’s a guy that shot a lot of threes off the dribble and he does so this year. I think what he’s learning is we’re asking him to play defense for 48 minutes against elite offensive players and he’s averaging 31 minutes and he’s playing in a faster game with elite athletes. It’s a learning curve to try to figure out how to get that shot off in the first month and a half. 24 percent is a tough number. It’ll go up, I’m not concerned one bit. It’ll go up, but I think it’s just part of his learning curve.”
Young struggled at times with these situations, such as this instance against the Miami Heat:
But he often made quality and correct passes out of such traps:
Young’s passing in general was a thing of beauty to watch all season long, dropping, at times, jaw-dropping dimes, such as this beyond mid-court alley-oop to John Collins:
As the season progressed, Young and Collins established themselves more and more as a legitimate NBA duo, as the pair linked up time after time after time, in total Young assisted Collins on 163 buckets and 20% of all of Young’s passes went to Collins.
The key to the mutual understanding on the court blossoms from a strong relationship off of the court.
“Me and John are like brothers,” said Young. “We’re continuing to learn more and more about each other. The way we play on the court just shows how we are off the court -- the connection and the things we do on the court are a mirror image of how we are off the court. It’s pretty cool to see and it’s only going to get better, so that’s a scary sight.”
“I think me and Trae have a great chemistry naturally and I feel like that helps more than working on it could ever or possibly just having experience,” said Collins on the chemistry between himself and Young in March. “Obviously we’re going to have a lot of time this summer to get extra reps into the gym and make sure our chemistry is crystal clear going forward on the court.”
In his rookie season, Young ended up emerging as one of the NBA’s premier assist-men, finishing with an average of 8.1 assists per game (7th in the league) and second in total assists for the season with 653 assists, only trailing Russell Westbrook (784).
“On court, he can make every pass,” said Pierce of Young’s passing. “You see some of the stuff, the wraparounds, the left hand skips, you see him throw it between a defender’s legs for a pocket pass. He sees and knows how to deliver the basketball. He sees it before it happens. He knows how to deliver it. He’s 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is really good for a young player that’s playing 31 minutes a game. Clearly, that’s his biggest skill set.”
Though November was tough for Young, things did improve and his shooting percentages rose across December and January. From the turn of the calendar, improvements fully materialized for Young.
From Jan. 1 to the end of the season (45 games), Young averaged 21.9 points per game on 43% shooting from the field, 35% from three, 85% from the line on nearly six attempts per game and 8.6 assists per game.
Some weren’t convinced, initially, about Young turning things around but the more and more as time went on, it became clear the percentages weren’t really shifting massively — 35% from three is about right for Young on the season after November, and 45 games is a large enough sample size for a turnaround from the 19% he shot in November and the sub 30% percentages for three for the early season.
Young found his way in the NBA, and his scoring certainly picked up at the turn of the calendar.
The rookie guard’s ability to shoot the three from long distance (sometimes, very long distance) is well documented, but Young — as the season progressed — found more and more ways to find success inside the arc.
Now, Young’s numbers at the rim aren’t fantastic (we’ll look at a shot-chart in a minute) but he was more successful at the rim than I think many would’ve expected in his rookie season, given his lack of size and length. Even his own coach was surprised at his ability to finish at the rim.
“What’s surprised me is his ability to get to the rim,” said Pierce in November. “He’s getting there, he’s attacking, he’s attacking bigs, he’s getting by. When we’re playing the Clippers the other night, he’s got Avery Bradley and Patrick Beverley ... He’s getting to the rim, just going by. I walked into the game like ‘we’re gonna need to help this kid tonight.’ He’s got two people that are guarding him and he made it look easy. You get surprised by some things. You look at the shooting and you’re wondering how to help him there, but I think his confidence off the court, he knows he belongs here. He knows he can impact the game. He knows he can do some special things. That’s pretty good for a young player going into the NBA.”
Even after the season, this was one of Pierce’s main takeaways for Young’s season.
“Trae got to the rim at a much higher rate than I was expecting,” said Pierce during the exit interviews. “I thought that was going to be an issue. I thought going by NBA defenders was going to be an issue and it’s just not an issue.”
Young’s floater is something he went to often, and he often used this coming off of pick-and-rolls getting to his preferred spot — the free throw line area.
More and more as the season went on, Young stepped up his game on the offensive end, taking, making and creating the big shots for the Hawks and when it counted. He wowed the NBA at times with clutch shooting, few bigger than in the Hawks’ 4OT game against the Chicago Bulls, where it looked as though Young had won the game with a ludicrous three-pointer:
Somehow, the Hawks would go on to lose that game, but it was a game where Young turned more heads around the NBA with his 49 points-16 assists performance in a 168-161 loss.
As the season wound down, Young continued to hit big, big shots and game-winners.
Against the Sixers:
And at the buzzer against the NBA-leading Milwaukee Bucks:
“...What can I say? He’s clutch,” said John Collins after that game.
Young put up some very strong numbers after the All-Star Break — 24.7 points per game on 44% shooting from the field, 34.8% from three, 87% from the line on nearly seven attempts per game and 9.2 assists — and while he certainly closed the gap between himself and Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year, it’s still unlikely he’ll win the award, with his very poor November being too much to recover from for the award and Doncic not falling off enough.
What was extra impressive about this run after the break was that Young hadn’t missed a game and despite the heavy minutes toll and the sheer number of games played, he continued to perform and perform more effectively. However, Young’s pursuit for 82 games in his rookie season fell one short, as he was rested for the Hawks’ penultimate game against the Bucks on the road.
Still, Young enjoyed a great rookie season and has almost single-handedly sparked hope to fans about the franchise’s future — showing improvements across his game from the season’s dawn to the season’s dusk.
“I think my rookie year went really well,” reflected Young. “From the beginning to end, all you can hope for is seeing progress and getting better and I think that’s what I’ve been able to accomplish, what this team was able to accomplish. That’s all you can ask for. I think this season went really well.”
While Young’s season was a successful one, there’s plenty for him to work on over the summer, with his focus on his body and conditioning.
“There’s a lot of things I want to improve on,” said Young. “For me, I want to continue to maintain my strength and get stronger. I want everyone to see the transformation in my body from now until next season. I want to continue to work on my conditioning, focus a lot on that, and then a lot of things on the court.”
Lloyd Pierce is hoping for improvements in other areas too, including his outside shooting and his defense.
“...Trae (shot) 33% from three. Great year, (but) we know he can be more efficient. Defensively, we have a long way to go.” said Pierce, before going on to say that while Young improved defensively throughout the year, he was still aways from where Pierce needs/wants him to be.
“...I thought Trae got better defensively as the season went on, but it’s still relative to where we want him to be...”
Pierce then expanded on the defensive issue.
“I always tell our guys, they’ve heard me say it a million times: they tell on themselves. All I need is one possession where you lock someone up,” said Pierce. “Now I know you’re capable, but are you willing? Are you willing to do it consistently? They all tell on themselves. Do you run the floor hard enough? Do you hit a guy on the defensive rebound? Do you get into the ball when you’re pressuring defensively? If you do it once, you can do it often. If you do it often, we’ll be better. It’s the mentality and commitment to doing it that we’re working on. We’re consistently working on it.
“For Trae, he’s got to find his advantage. A lot of people put bigger guys on Trae because they want to make it tough for him to shoot over, well then he uses his speed. His advantage is his size and his speed. If can go by guys, he should be able to keep them in front as well, and that’s because he’s quick enough. We’ve seen him do it offensively, use his quickness to gain an advantage, change directions to get an advantage. He can do the same thing defensively and that’s what we have to rely on. Just be pesky, just be pretty good at containment, and then we’ve got to provide a trust and a system behind him where if he gets in trouble, when he gets in trouble, we all get in trouble, we have the support. The next guy needs to do his job.”
Look, let’s not beat around the bush — Young was not good defensively in his rookie season. He was legitimately brutal, and brutal enough where I think everyone got used to it and were numbed to it by the end of the season.
Young’s defensive rating of 113.6 was one of the worst defensive ratings in the league, essentially, for any rotation player and while his offense was great, it wasn’t enough to make up for his defense — his net rating, -6. As for his defensive real plus/minus, I would say ‘the less said the better’ but the for sake of expanding on this, Young ranked dead last in the entire NBA in defensive plus/minus. Now, real plus/minus is a subjective stat and the context of its usage is important, but when Young is dead last out of every single other NBA player, that’s something you can’t really run away from.
It’s hard to say how good of an NBA defender Young can become but I think it’s fair to say he can’t (or, at least, shouldn’t) be this bad defensively next year — it, surely, cannot be possible.
But people don’t love Young for his defense, they love him for his shooting, his passing and his ability to get the crowd on their feet — on even an average night, he is worth the price of admission anywhere. He has injected hope and life into the Atlanta Hawks, who now, with Young leading the way, have a reason to look forward to the future.
“It was super fun this year,” said Young. “One of my favorite years playing basketball, period. I think what we went through this year is ultimately setting us up for better things ahead. I’m super excited about the future we have here just because of how we played this year.”
For a rookie, that’s not a bad way to begin your NBA career...