This man needs no introduction.
Trae Young has long established himself as the face of the franchise as well as the centerpiece for everything the Hawks aim to accomplish in every season of the NBA.
In his short four year career thus far, he has become a two-time NBA All-Star starter, and he made his first All-NBA Team just a season ago, which helped him earn a full supermax rookie extension contract that kicks in this very season. I wrote a season ago that “you can practically pen in another 25 point and 9 assist per game average,” and he merely went out and averaged 28.4 points and 9.7 assists per game in last season as the only player to eclipse both 28 and 9.
I could sit here and talk about his flashy passing and facilitating, unending range, shifty handle, or teardrop floater, but it’s likely that you, the reader, know these abilities he consistently displays every time he steps out onto the basketball court.
Instead, I am going to pinpoint one aspect of his game that has been a talking point all offseason, especially since the acquisition of Dejounte Murray. We all know Young is a masterful on-ball navigator, with an outrageous volume of the offense running through him game in and game out. But the arrival of Murray — a similarly talented show runner — may complicate that formula in way the ultimately makes the team better. And so, the elephant in the room:
Can Trae Young play an off-ball role on offense?
And there’s really no argument to the contrary.
Trae Young is an excellent per possession catch-and-shoot target, he obviously knows how to get downhill against a tilted defense, and he can quickly pivot to being a premier ball mover even when not involved in the initiation of a play.
Young logged a sky high 1.43 PPP — points per possession — off catch-and-shoot opportunities in 2021-22, 1.09 in 2020-21 and 1.39 in 2019-20 according to the NBA’s tracking stats. Coming off off-ball screens, he has sported a 1.42 PPP, 1.00 PPP and 0.92 PPP in the last three seasons respectively. And finally, while admittedly a very infrequent play type for him, Young recorded a 1.39 PPP off cuts last season — his only qualifying season of at least 10 possessions.
There have been some flashes this preseason of off-ball action as well, especially during the Hawks’ two game tilt against the Milwaukee Bucks in Abu Dhabi.
Here, a simple screen by Trae Young as part of a stagger to free De’Andre Hunter to climb draws the attention of Serge Ibaka protecting the paint and allows Murray to get all the way to the rim. This won’t show up on the box score, but it will open up future opportunities.
This second one is a very similar play, except Young is the one coming off of staggered screens, receiving the ball off a dribble-handoff from Onyeka Okongwu, and finishing the long mid range attempt.
Little wrinkles like this mixed into a game plan will go a long way toward diversifying the offense for the better. Time will tell to see if these things will be incorporated into the regular season game plans.
Will Trae Young play an off-ball role on offense?
Well...eh. Erm. I don’t kno–I mean, like, hopefully some I guess?
Frankly, there’s just no real track record of Trae playing a ton of meaningful minutes moving off the ball and finding shooting space. He is among the most ball dominant players in recent NBA history to be very sure. In the past three seasons, Trae has posted usage rates north of 33% in each of the past three seasons, a mark that only Luka Doncic has equaled.
It’s not news that Young tends to dawdle in no man’s land way beyond the arc once he gives up the ball. Certainly, no one is asking him to be Steph Curry off the ball, but there has been an emphasis toward presenting himself as more of a threat in that area.
This is even a top-down endeavor, with buy-in from every level. Head coach Nate McMillan explained this offseason his motivation for Young’s evolution, saying “As I told [Trae Young], ‘We’re bringing in another guard, and an All-Star guard. Do you know what that means for you? You’ll be playing without the ball more than you probably ever have. He was really excited about the opportunity to play off the ball, learn to play off the ball, and play with Murray.”
So far in the preseason, the Young-Murray connection on the court has looked somewhat clunky, with each guy tending toward isolation play while the other idles. The connection will take time, and each one’s individual talent should be enough to overwhelm lesser opponents as is, but patience will need to be practiced for a true mesh to take hold.
Again, this is an ongoing prerogative for Young to achieve, and he has the support of those in his basketball circle to try and eventually master. On some level, a tiger doesn’t change its stripes. Young arrived to this point in his career having only known offenses built around his skillset at every level of his basketball development. But discounting his ability to grow and excel in a new environment is something that should have stopped long ago.
Trae Young was told he was both too small and too one-dimensional a player entering all of the high school, college, and the professional levels to succeed. And yet he’s done that and much more every step of the way. Young is someone who endlessly feeds off doubters to motivate himself towards accomplishing new objectives on the basketball court. There’s no reason to believe he can’t adapt to more off-ball play and take his game, and that of the Atlanta Hawks, to an even higher level in 2022-23.