Despite impressive numbers and increased team success, Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young found himself on the outside looking in with regard to the 2021 NBA All-Star Game. His omission was certainly controversial, especially when compared to a player or two that made the cut, but Young does have an All-Star appearance (as a starter) under his belt and many more years to leave his mark at the highest level. With that as the backdrop, ESPN released its annual rankings of the 25 best NBA players under the age of 25 — based on what ESPN describes as “future potential” — on Tuesday, and both Young and John Collins made the cut.
However, there was no question that Young would be included, and he actually ended up falling significantly from No. 8 in the version released in March 2020 to No. 16 in 2021.
Young’s career will be an interesting case study in the importance of defensive limitations. Because of his small stature, Young will always have a difficult time matching up with the league’s best guards or playing a switch-heavy defense, forcing his coaches to get creative defensively.
Those concerns helped bump Young behind point guards who haven’t been nearly as productive offensively at the same age. He has willingly taken a step back in the Hawks’ offense this season with more weapons around him but remains nearly as indispensable to the team’s ability to score as nearly any player in the league.
Even with Young battling some (relative) struggles with his individual shooting efficiency, his numbers speak for themselves. His scoring is down from 29.6 points per game last season to 25.2 points per game as of early April, but that can be attributed as much to his improved supporting cast as anything else. From there, he maintains a notably solid 58.7 percent true shooting mark (on 32.7 percent usage) and, even when accounting for a minor drop in shooting numbers from 2019-20, Young’s defensive uptick and consistently elite passing should make up the difference.
Still, Young ranked ahead of players like Jaylen Brown, Michael Porter Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox and Brandon Ingram in the 2019-20 edition, only to slide below them this time around. That is, at the very least, curious, and it seems safe to assume that Hawks fans won’t take kindly to Young’s placement on this particular list.
Elsewhere, Collins finished a similar range to last season, coming in at No. 22 in 2021 after a No. 24 placement in 2020.
Collins’ production on the court has flatlined since taking a significant jump in his second year. As a result, the top power forward in the 2021 free-agent class falls back three spots from last year.
Collins has still averaged 18.1 points and 7.7 rebounds despite having nine games in which he attempted fewer than nine field goals. Before injuring his ankle in late March, Collins was coming off a career-high 38 points in a win against Golden State.
Like Young, it would be quite easy to quibble with the placement of Collins and, personally, he seems at least a little bit low here. For one thing, Collins’ decrease in box-score production is offset by impressive gains defensively, which should be noted.