Trae Young Making History for the Wrong Reasons, but That Shouldn't Scare Hawks

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 11, 2018

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 28: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks handles the ball against the Charlotte Hornets on November 28, 2018 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kent Smith/Getty Images

No matter how many times his shots clang off the iron, Trae Young won't stop shooting. Nor will the Atlanta Hawks ask him to stop firing away from all over the hardwood. 

Even as the misses accumulate, he's displaying the proper mentality during his rookie season. Selected out of the University of Oklahoma with the No. 5 pick of the 2018 NBA draft, he was supposed to bring offensive firepower to the Peach State, elongating defenses with his sharpshooting acumen while picking them apart with his preternatural passing vision. 

Suffocating defense? That might come at a later date. Victories? Those will arrive in Atlanta with time, only after the team endures the bottoming-out portion of the long-term rebuild that allowed the Hawks to land Young as a centerpiece. Records? Well, he may provide some of those.

They're just not of the desired variety. 

Basketball Reference @bball_ref

Trae Young has -1.0 win shares this year and is roughly on pace for -2.5 in the season. If he did that, it would be the second worst season in NBA history by WS https://t.co/36ZK28tGND https://t.co/2VwsNL2cyQ

That's less than ideal, as well as a far cry from the statistical benchmarks established during his lone season with the Sooners, during which he paced the entire NCAA in both per-game points and assists. It's also not the only ignominious mark Young has earned in 2018-19's opening quarter. 

On the surface level, his numbers seem fine, even—somewhat inexplicably—earning him Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month over Wendell Carter Jr., Mitchell Robinson, Mo Bamba and a host of first-year contributors who provided more raw value to their organizations. They mask the inefficiency well and provide the appearance of grandeur to those unwilling to look beyond per-game lines. 

Who could complain about a 20-year-old point guard averaging 15.4 points, 2.8 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game during his inaugural campaign at the sport's highest level? Allen Iverson, Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, Oscar Robertson, Ben Simmons, Damon Stoudamire, Isiah Thomas and John Wall are the only qualified rookies to match those marks in all of NBA history. Hell, just 81 other players ever have, regardless of experience level. 

Of course, those stats are misleading as can be.

Young is one of four players averaging at least four turnovers per contest, and he's shooting miserably after slashing a respectable 42.2/36.0/86.1 in Norman. Struggling to create space on the perimeter, he's knocking down a paltry 37.3 percent of his field-goal attempts, 24.3 percent of his three-point hoists and 78.1 percent of his looks at the stripe.

That all adds up to an eye-gouging 46.9 true shooting percentage, which would be one of the 10 worst marks recorded by a qualified scorer reaching the 15-points-per-game threshold in the three-point era: 

  1. 1982-83 Ray Williams: 45.7 true shooting percentage
  2. 2013-14 Josh Smith: 46.3 true shooting percentage
  3. 1988-89 Rex Chapman: 46.7 true shooting percentage
  4. 2002-03 Antoine Walker: 46.7 true shooting percentage
  5. 1995-96 Jason Kidd: 46.8 true shooting percentage
  6. 2018-19 Trae Young: 46.9 true shooting percentage
  7. 2015-16 Kobe Bryant: 46.9 true shooting percentage
  8. 2017-18 Dennis Smith Jr.: 47.3 true shooting percentage
  9. 1996-97 Antoine Walker: 47.4 true shooting percentage
  10. 1997-98 Donyell Marshall: 47.4 true shooting percentage

It actually gets worse, though you should note that a handful of recognizable figures do populate that unfortunate countdown.

Whereas some of those men submitted low percentages during relatively inefficient portions of league history, Young is doing so during a season in which the Association is nearly shooting better than ever. Let's reshuffle the 10 aforementioned names, this time looking at how many percentage points they fell below the league-average true shooting percentage during the years in question: 

  1. 2018-19 Trae Young: 8.7 below
  2. 2017-18 Dennis Smith Jr.: 8.3 below
  3. 2013-14 Josh Smith: 7.8 below
  4. 1982-83 Ray Williams: 7.4 below
  5. 1995-96 Jason Kidd: 7.4 below
  6. 2015-16 Kobe Bryant: 7.2 below
  7. 1988-89 Rex Chapman: 7.0 below
  8. 1996-97 Antoine Walker: 6.2 below
  9. 2002-03 Antoine Walker: 5.2 below
  10. 1997-98 Donyell Marshall: 5.0 below

The unpalatable numbers don't stop there either. 

Young, driven down both by his porous defense and inefficient, high-volume offense, sits dead last in NBA Math's TPA. No player in the league has submitted a lower mark in ESPN.com's Real Plus-Minus, and the gap between him and everyone else grows larger when accounting for playing time with RPM Wins. The Hawks have even seen their net rating plummet by a rotation-worst 12.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, nosediving from minus-0.5 to minus-13.3. 

And that's all fine. 

It's less than ideal, sure. But the Hawks should be able to stomach the horrific numbers, if only because the first-year starter is learning while navigating the fires into which he's been thrown. Playing point guard at this level is a remarkably tough task with a perilous learning curve, and Young is attempting to do so while undergoing constant scrutiny as the focal point of the offense. This would be hard enough if he were a complementary figure, but he's instead striving to improve while subjected to constant pressure from defenses that don't have to shy away from him in order to cover other Hawks. 

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 30: Trae Young #11 of the Atlanta Hawks jokes with Jordan Clarkson #8 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agr
Jason Miller/Getty Images

Maybe Young's numbers would be more acceptable if he were on a roster brimming over with NBA talent. He's not. Per PBPStats.com, he's spent more time operating alongside Kent Bazemore (minus-1.0), Taurean Prince (minus-2.09), Alex Len (minus-0.71), Kevin Huerter (minus-1.02) and Dewayne Dedmon (minus-1.17) than any other members of the Atlanta roster, and Len, though still in the red, is the only listed name with a top-200 RPM.

So how are we reasonably supposed to judge Young when he's not surrounded by starting-caliber talents? Of course the numbers are putrid. They would be for plenty of first-year contributors thrust into this situation, which doesn't feature many youngsters who will be a part of the long-term nucleus when Atlanta is again ready to compete for playoff berths and trips beyond the opening round of the postseason.

Instead, the Hawks should be focused on Young's clear-cut ability to excel in a number of different areas, even if those strengths aren't enough to elevate his overall profile out of the proverbial toilet. As SB Nation's Brady Klopfer indicated, a rookie can work toward justifying draft-day expenditures even without providing tangible on-court value:

Brady Klopfer @BradyKlopferNBA

Trae Young’s rookie of the month award is a prime example. Has Young provided the most value for an east rookie? Hell no. Not even close. Has he given his franchise the most promise/justified their selection? Quite arguably.

That justification comes in two primary areas: passing and finishing around the hoop. 

Young's 6'2", 180-pound frame belies his skill in the latter area, as he's consistently displayed close-range touch and a nice floater game that complements his ability to kick the ball to the perimeter from the teeth of a defense. Keeping adversaries guessing is key to his effectiveness, forcing the opposition to remain honest by guarding both his distributing and finishing. 

Only DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday, James Harden and John Wall are embarking upon more drives per game this season, and Young is shooting 51.9 percent on those bursts to the hoop. Though he doesn't yet know how to leverage his limbs into earning extra free-throw attempts, he's still among the league's top 20 in points off drives per game, thanks to plays like this one against the Miami Heat


Or this one against the Toronto Raptors after Jonas Valanciunas doesn't step up and compels him into pulling the floater back out of his arsenal: 


But Young isn't just showing off his touch game when driving.

He's also demonstrated an ability to finish through contact by getting creative in the restricted area. That's the primary reason he's able to shoot 53.7 percent from within three feet, and maintaining a figure that lofty will be of paramount importance as he attempts to keep defenses from closing out against his three-point attempts with ferocity. 

If he can knock down floaters but also pull off the other Tony Parker special with a wrong-footed layup while drawing contact from Juancho Hernangomez, he becomes all the more dangerous: 


Defenders still aren't quite respecting his deep shot, which could change with time as he finds some semblance of shooting rhythm. But that's also forcing Young to shore up this make-or-break part of his game in expeditious fashion, and that development could have positive long-term consequences when the treys start ripping through nylon and forcing more aggressive contests. 

Take a gander at how Jeremy Lamb treats the rookie as he comes off a ball screen set by Vince Carter at the top of the key: 


That's not the treatment Lamb might give to Stephen Curry.

He doesn't make any attempt to step up toward the rainbow but instead remains sagged back, daring Young to launch an off-the-dribble triple or drive into his proper defensive positioning. The point guard opts for the latter route and shows off his quickness by attacking the exposed hip as soon as Lamb pushes his right foot forward, and then he completes a tight spin for the layup and concurrent foul. 

Imagine what might happen if Young can blend together respectable three-point marksmanship and these developing skills while crashing toward the paint. Better still, imagine what happens when he can efficiently generate his own offense and make on-target feeds to perimeter-dwelling teammates.

Adam Fromal @fromal09

The @ATLHawks' rookie point guard Trae Young has been one of the NBA's most effective dual-threats off drives in 2018-19: https://t.co/GzXTRwAnJ9

Young doesn't just score when he drives to the basket. He also averages 1.8 assists off those plays, which leaves him trailing just Harden, Holiday and Kyle Lowry.

The Oklahoma product possesses the presence of mind to find open Hawks even when surrounded by foes, as well as the raw skill necessary to hit them right in the shooting pocket. This isn't a particularly easy feed against the Denver Nuggets, especially because he has to look off a surrounding quintet of defenders before rifling this feed into Huerter's mitts:


But that's not the only trick in his growing bag.

Young is already a master of the bounce pass, particularly when reaching around defenders and leading his man toward the hoop. He has an understanding of both spacing and timing, allowing him to create something out of nothing even while operating in a crowd. Pocket passes aren't supposed to look quite so easy when the man throwing them won't turn 21 until next September. 

And while the pocket passes and alley-oops thrown to John Collins and other rim-runners are effective, feeds like this one to Alex Len serve as even better indications of his skill level, displaying the subtleties of his game like the quick up-fake that gets Bam Adebayo into the air and clears the 5-hole for a tough dime: 


At his current pace, Young will join Stephon Marbury, Chris Paul and Wall as one of four qualified players to average at least seven assists and post an assist percentage north of 35 during or before an age-20 season. The dimes may have too many turnovers intermixed, but they're still coming with remarkable frequency for a player who's just two years removed from playing high school hoops. Plus, Atlanta doesn't exactly boast a horde of offensive weapons alongside him, waiting to boost his numbers by generating buckets off lackluster dishes. 

That, along with his success attacking the hoop, is what should provide the Hawks with the necessary encouragement as Young fights through some shoddy overall numbers.

Even if he keeps posting metrics that make him look like one of the NBA's least-valuable contributors, he can continue to justify the franchise's investment in him by showing growth and success in certain facets of the game indicative of long-term gains. The process may be rough at times, but it's already leading to some reassuring results. 

Now, they have to hope those results become more obvious and require a little less unearthing as time marches on. 


Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats accurate heading into games Dec. 10 and courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com, PBPStats.com, NBA Math or ESPN.com.


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