After a difficult conclusion to the 2021-22 season ending in a five-game series defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat that saw him limited, the Atlanta Hawks sought help for their star point guard Trae Young, leading to the acquisition of Dejounte Murray.
The arrival of Murray was a welcome boost for Young (who spoke of his excitement of playing with Murray on many occasions), but it would also mean an adjustment on the floor. Never before in the NBA has Young shared the backcourt with as high profile or ball-dependent as Murray, another point guard in his own right.
Young’s usage decreased slightly (from 33% to 31%) as well as his scoring average (28.4 to 26.2 points per game), but despite that Young only attempted 1.3 fewer field goals per game (19 field goal attempts) compared to life before Dejounte Murray (20.3 FGA). We’ll speak to this more later but you can even account Young’s slight drop in points when looking at his three-point shooting numbers: shooting a worse percentage on fewer attempts and making one less make from three (2.1) compared to last year (3.1) — there’s your difference ultimately.
In short, life was similar in quite a number of ways for Young, it was Murray who had far more of an adjustment. Both were able to run the offense on their own, with Nate McMillan staggering Young and Murray’s playing time: Young playing all of the first and third quarters, Murray playing all of the second and fourth quarters.
McMillan eventually edged away from this rotation as he sought to find a solution to the Hawks’ struggling record, and Snyder wouldn’t go to this rotation either in the end. Still, there was a solid balance between Young and Murray when it mattered in the fourth quarter: both were equally capable of hitting huge shots and winning games but also capable of shooting their team out of games with hero shots that were poor shots.
The dynamic naturally looks its worst in its first season as both players adjust, and the highs and lows of that adjustment was something that the Hawks understood and acknowledged at the end of its first season.
“It was great,” said Dejounte Murray of his first year with Young. “You take the good, the bad and just the journey and you enjoy it. Great stories don’t happen overnight, success doesn’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of downs and a lot of days you’ve got to grind it out, you’ve got to figure it out. It takes getting to know each other off the floor, to having a bunch of practice time together. You don’t just go out there and play in the games and have chemistry. It starts with off the floor, to practices and it translates to the game. We had a lot of great moments, there’s always room to improve.
“We had a bunch of games where we showed where it could work and obviously a bunch of games the other way. You want to be a consistent team, you want to be consistent as players. I think the way we both love the game, study the game. We showed times where it’s worth it or ‘they can really do it.’ It comes down to us as individuals wanting to continue to learn each other, get to know each other and just wanting the best for each other because it only helps the team. At the end of the day it’s a team sport and you need a team but you’ve got to start somewhere. I feel that’s where we can start at.”
GM Landry Fields also spoke to the ‘up-down’ nature at times of the partnership.
“I was on record by saying, at first, it’s to be expected that it might look a little clunky,” said Fields of Young and Murray during the Hawks’ exit interviews. “You’re asking two primary ball handlers to now share a backcourt with each other, but two very talented playmaking ball handlers. It’s had its ups and it’s had its downs to be honest. I think we’ve all seen that where it looks a little clunky but also times where it’s been beautiful to watch.
“They play for each other, they play within the game flow, and you just see how talented they are as a group where it’s like ‘If that guy is not doing it tonight then that other guy sure is,’ and it becomes a nightmare for the defense. It’s still working in a complimentary sense but I think we’ve got a great taste of it in the last month. I think Quin has been able to figure out a great way for those two to co-exist in a way that is going to enhance our group. Trae Young and Dejounte Murray as your backcourt, that’s a fun backcourt.”
Young and Murray combined to hit some big shots this season, and Young had a few notable winners himself once again this season, including a buzzer-beater against the Brooklyn Nets:
At the time — on his last game as interim head coach prior to the arrival of Snyder — Joe Prunty praised Young’s ability to remain calm in the moment despite the difficulty of the task at hand against, in this case, an excellent defender in Mikal Bridges.
“I think one of the things that’s important to notice in a situation like that is the level of calm Trae has to drive the ball hard against arguably their best defender, pump-fake, step-through, do all of the things and keep his composure to make a shot like that,” said Prunty. “That’s a great player making a great play.”
Of course most notably of Young’s clutch shots was Game 5 of the Celtics series — a game where the Celtics were very much expected to take care of business at home and conclude the series in five games after winning Game 4 in Atlanta to take the 3-1 series lead.
Young would drain a deep three on Jaylen Brown to give the Hawks the lead and eventually the victory in Game 5:
It was a perfect way to silence the Boston crowd, who had been chanting, ‘Overrated’ in reference to a player survey that found NBA players felt Young was the most overrated player in the NBA.
The game-winner capped off 14 straight for Young in the fourth quarter as his heroics forced a Game 6 back in Atlanta to give the Hawks at least the opportunity to extend the series to a decisive Game 7.
While Young hit that three-pointer to extend the series, three-point shooting was a large storyline when it came to Young’s season.
For much of the season Young’s three-point shooting was lacking. Young’s been through periods in his career where sometimes the shot isn’t there and his response — as it was this year — is usually the same when he’s asked about a cold patch (and I’ll paraphrase): ‘The shots are the same they’re just not going down.’
And he’s correct: so many of these shots from Young this season were the same as he’s always taken (good and bad), and it’s not as though he was chucking every single game — his three-point attempts decreased from eight a game to 6.3. That’s a pretty notable decrease for Young but less did not equal more when it came to Young’s percentage, shooting just 33% from three having shot 38% on eight attempts last season. Young did find his shot again somewhat after the All-Star break, shooting 36% from three after the break but on a lower 5.4 attempts per game — an All-Star break Young was not apart of this season.
Young did see his assist numbers increase this season, averaging a double-double for the first time in his career with 26.2 points and 10.2 assists, finishing 3rd in the league behind Tyrese Haliburton and James Harden.
As usual, Young delivered some sweet dimes in the 2022-23 season with his passing I think still an underrated part of his game, which is crazy to say but I think people around the league/fans of other teams do forget how good of a passer Young is.
Young posted a career-high 20 assists in a game for the first time in his career as part of a 27 point, 20 assist double-double in a loss against the Philadelphia 76ers in April, becoming the first Hawk in franchise history to post such a line:
Young’s season-high when it came to scoring was 44 points came in a loss to the Houston Rockets in November. In fact, all three of Young’s 40 point games all came in losses (42 points against the Milwaukee Bucks in October and 41 in a loss against the Minnesota Timberwolves).
Young, as ever, proved to be a solid at the free throw line, shooting 88% on 8.8 attempts per game — sixth most in the league in attempts per game. Of all the players who attempted more free throws per game Young played the most games out of any of them, playing 73 games in total for the 2022-23 season, continuing to build a strong track-record of being healthy and/or available for the Hawks.
It was a solid season for Young on the court but it wasn’t without its drama off the court too. You can’t talk about Young’s 2022-23 season without mentioning the Nate McMillan dynamic.
Young’s relationship with McMillan seemed to deteriorate as the season progressed (including a weird situation in December when Young and McMillan disagreed when it came to Young’s shoulder treatment, and the subsequently resulted in Young missing a game against the Nuggets for disciplinary reasons, with the Hawks listing the shoulder injury as the reason for the absence) and with McMillan being fired over the break, the label of ‘coach killer,’ began to rear its head again, McMillan is now the second coach Young has been at odd with somewhat and has been dismissed.
It wasn’t the sole reason of course — both dismissals came at points of underwhelming seasons respectively — but it’s impossible to deny that the frosty relationships between head coach and Young certainly didn’t help his now former coaches.
To the ‘coach killer’ notion, Young said, “People are going to say what they’ve got to say,” before adding that he ‘had love and respect’ for McMillan.
With a new coach came a new dynamic and a new relationship to observe, and it was fascinating to watch Young and Snyder interact during a game. One of the repeating characteristics players discuss when it comes to Snyder is his dialogue with players, and even in his first game in charge against the Washington Wizards, Snyder was often pulling Young and Murray over to talk — something that we continued to see with Young and Snyder all the way through the season.
“He was talking to us constantly and getting our thoughts on what’s going on in the game and trying to read things,” said Young after Snyder’s first game in charge. “We were talking throughout the game about how we’re going to finish the game. It sucks because it’s going to take time, it’s a process like a lot of people say. We’re going to get it right. He’s a smart guy you can already tell with some of the plays that we run. We’ve just got to continue to get better and we’ll learn more from each other each and every game.”
Snyder was happy to let Young and Murray play their way, saying that it “accelerates (the process) if I know what they’re thinking.”
Young’s defensive effort saw a marked improvement with Quin Snyder at the helm for the last stretch of the season. Young is unlikely to ever become a good defensive player but all he can do is try, and he did a lot more of this under Snyder:
“He’s got a lot of pride,” said Snyder when asked about Young’s defense after a loss against the Miami Heat. “The thing he and I have talked about is using his quickness. If you don’t want to switch him onto Jimmy Butler — you don’t want to switch a lot of people onto Jimmy Butler — but in Trae’s case using his quickness to his advantage. They’re a hard team to play against, there’s constant movement and all the handoffs. DJ too. There were a couple of possessions we were working like crazy, one in particular where we got a couple of stops, a couple of long rebounds and ended in a made three. We didn’t quit, not that I would expect that. In Trae’s case — and it’s been more of a focal point for our whole team — to have more of a presence on the ball, to not be passive. For him in particular, it’s something I know he’s focused on, and I thought you saw that tonight.”
Though the Hawks were eliminated in the first round, Young had a great postseason, especially when compared to last season.
Last season the Hawks’ and Young’s season ended with a whimper as they were dominated by the Miami Heat (despite Young’s Game 3 winner). This year, not only did the Hawks best the Heat to get into the playoffs (with Young having a strong game which have been somewhat in short supply in recent history against Miami) but they put up a spirited and unexpected fight against the Boston Celtics and took them to six games, with Young excelling in the series — a stark contrast to how last season ended, and I think that can be looked upon positively.
Heading into the summer there is a clear emphasis on relationship/chemistry building between Young and Murray and Snyder: from Young to Murray, Young to Snyder, Snyder to Young and Snyder to both Young and Murray.
“We’re going to continue to put in work,” said Young of working with Murray in the off-season. “We know what the season is going to be like next year, we know what to expect and how we’re going to play with each other. Getting a full summer with Quin is going to help us even more too. We’re going to see each other, we’re going to be with the team, be around each other and be able implement some things going into next year too. It’s going to be a fun summer that we’re able to connect and be even more close together going into next season. When you’re close off the court it makes playing that much more fun and easier for everyone.”
Snyder gave quite a philosophical insight to relationship building, how the process can take years, how you can measure the results of such a thing, and how the evolution of that process looks and affects the rest of the team as well as the relationship with each other.
“I think we can all quickly think of a relationship we have had in our lives and understand the growth that it takes over years sometimes,” said Snyder when asked about both Young and Murray. “So that process has begun and it will continue to evolve. There’s lots of ways to evaluate that connectivity. Sometimes we look at it on the court, sometimes you look at it off the court, sometimes you look at it personally, socially—there’s so many different things we point to and say and try to evaluate something. I think the biggest thing is you let that stuff breath. You learn. There’s a willingness that’s present that is fertile soil and gets back to some of the stuff we talked about before. I think you probably heard from both of them some excitement about what that can be.
“Even how we play, guys getting used to playing together, what that looks like, especially as they’re both growing. You have two players, in my mind, that can get better. How do they get better individually, how do they get better in tandem and how does our team get better? I think that’s the thing we can identify those two guys but it’s really about the group. How does Trae make our team better? How does DJ make our team better? How does DJ make Trae better? How does Trae make De’Andre (Hunter) better? You go down the list, that’s the crucial part. Those two guys — in part because they have the ball — they’re easy to identify their partnership, so to speak. That’s different every game too, it’s hard to take a singular moment or game or even series and evaluate where that is. I think the important thing is the vision for how it works. That’ll continue to evolve too.”
It’s going to be a fascinating summer for those three (Young, Murray and Snyder) and how they further connect on and off the court and deepen their understanding on and off the court is going to be integral to the future success of this team — it ultimately starts with them, especially Young and Murray as they are the ones who will have the ball in their hands for the majority of the time. What they set will trickle down through to the rest of the roster.
Year 6 at the helm of the franchise will see Young in his first full season under Snyder, someone who Young has spoken of his admiration for as the season has gone on and again at the end of the season as he prepares to work with Snyder over the summer, optimistic of the improvements that he can make with Snyder.
“My game can get a lot better, especially with Quin,” said Young. “A lot of things I can get better at. I don’t want to get into specifics and things like that and what we’re going to work on but I’m excited for this summer. Quin is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in my whole life so being able to have him, being able to listen to him and be coached by him, it’s going to be a fun summer and fun transition going into next year.”
“We’re constantly talking,” added Young of Snyder. “He’s very cerebral. As a point guard, you want to get everyone involved, you want to get everybody touches and sometimes it’s tough when everybody doesn’t know where to go or you know where everybody is at, and he does a great job of making sure I know where everybody needs to be at and making sure everybody else knows where they need to be at — it goes both ways. You need to have somebody to lead you on the court and a coach that can lead the team and lead everybody else too. I can be coached and I love playing for coaches like him, not any disrespect to any of my other coaches — I’ve had great coaches my whole career — but everybody is different and he brings something special to our team and I really enjoy playing for him.”
This sense of belief of what Snyder can unlock in Young extends throughout in the organization and GM Landry Fields spoke to that during the Hawks’ exit interviews.
“For Trae, Trae has such a high IQ himself so to be able to have that connection with somebody else he greatly respects,” said Fields. “I think it’s showing him some new things and how it can enhance his game. It’s great because look at Trae and you’re like ‘Wow, he’s really good.’ Everyone is like ‘OK, well he can better here and here’ but what about these nuances that not a lot of people can achieve but, oh, Quin can see that and he can speak that into his life and into his development and for Trae to have those ‘ah-ha!’ moments is great. From my standpoint you’re always learning and that’s what always want to do and to have a mind like Quin to be able to share the same space when talking about basketball you’re going to learn a few things, for sure.”
The first full of year of Quin Snyder and Trae Young together is certainly going to be an interesting one: how far can the partnership carry the Atlanta Hawks?
Only time will tell...