PORTLAND, Ore. — Trae Young has had two things working against him from the beginning, two comparisons he’ll never be able to escape.
One comes from the Atlanta Hawks’ draft-night decision to trade back from No. 3 to No. 5 and choose him over Luka Doncic. The two will be linked for the rest of their careers, through no fault of Young’s own, and it isn't helping matters that Doncic is the runaway favorite to win Rookie of the Year and is already garnering All-Star buzz.
The other comparison has been around since before the draft. As a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, Young was fond of pulling up from 30 feet and draining three-pointers that quickly made him a House of Highlights staple. It was all too easy and convenient to wonder if Young would become the face of a new generation of ballers influenced by Stephen Curry, the way previous generations took inspiration from the likes of Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson.
It’s a lot of pressure to put on a 20-year-old, to have his game and skill set measured against one of the most dominant and transformational offensive players in the history of the sport. But Young doesn’t think the comparisons to Curry are unfair.
“No,” Young told Bleacher Report. “Because he’s not a shooter either.”
Wait. Did he just say Steph Curry isn’t a shooter?
“He’s a guy who makes plays,” Young explained. “Obviously, he’s the best shooter of all time. But he’s not just strictly a shooter. When I think of a shooter, I think of JJ Redick. I think of a guy who just runs off screens and strictly just shoots. That’s how I look at it. Steph’s the best shooter of all time, but I think he’s overall just a playmaker.”
It’s passing, not shooting, that has set Young apart in his rookie season. Young is shooting just 40.2 percent from the field and 29.0 percent from three-point range. But as a playmaker, he’s well ahead of most 20-year-olds.
The numbers are there (his 7.3 assists per game are tied for seventh-most in the NBA), and so is the style. Young’s highlight reel is full of fancy no-looks and between-the-legs dimes. In second-year big man John Collins, he’s found an ideal alley-oop partner.
Sometimes, he gets too ambitious. His 196 turnovers on the season are second only to James Harden’s 254. But as the season has progressed, the Hawks have begun to develop the one thing every rebuilding team wants: an identity. Informed heavily by general manager Travis Schlenk’s old job in the Golden State Warriors front office, this Atlanta team shoots a lot of threes (34.4 per game, tied for fifth-most in the NBA), moves the ball (it's in the top 10 in assists with 25.6 per game) and plays at the fastest pace in the league.
The mistakes are going to come playing that way, especially for a rookie point guard. Lloyd Pierce, in his first season as head coach of the Hawks, has no interest in tamping down Young’s flair for the highlight pass. When the team was considering drafting him in June, it was his eye-popping distributing ability that was highest on its checklist, not the shooting that made him famous in college.
“No pass is inconceivable for him,” Pierce told B/R. “He can deliver any pass with either hand. His playmaking is becoming smarter. He’s a great passer, and that’s just off of instinct and feel. He’s starting to make great scheme passes. Reading what the defense is giving us and taking advantage of it.”
As a child of the mid-2000s, Young idolized Steve Nash and Chris Paul. Growing up in Oklahoma, he got an up-close look at Paul during the two seasons the New Orleans Hornets played in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina. Later on, as his shooting range moved farther and farther back to upward of 30 feet, Curry was an obvious touchstone, but he’s never abandoned his first love as a passing savant.
“It’s something I definitely take pride in,” Young said. “I always tell people, my favorite stat is an assist because it’s multiple people doing work together to get a stat. So I definitely take pride in helping my teammates get to where they need to be.”
Young’s potential as a future star was on full display in the Hawks’ Saturday night 120-111 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers. He finished with 30 points on 11-of-15 shooting and racked up eight assists. He showed off his diverse offensive game, hitting floaters, getting to the foul line and knocking down three three-pointers.
He’s had a few nights like this—a 35-point explosion in his third NBA game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a 25-point, 17-assist performance against the Los Angeles Clippers in November—but also plenty of rough patches. He shot 19.8 percent from deep in the month of November, and the turnover problems have persisted.
“He’s playing the point guard position,” Vince Carter said. “It’s the toughest position. You have a lot of responsibility. To be thrown into the fire like that [as a rookie], his facilitating ability is needed even more. He has a lot of responsibility getting guys involved.”
As the Hawks look to rebuild with a new coach and front office, they view Young as the ideal lead guard to build around in the post-Warriors era.
“The more playmakers you have on the court, the better,” Pierce said. “And you look at Trae, the first thing you see is that kid makes plays. He can make plays for himself; he can make plays for others. I know everyone wants to talk about the shooting, but it wasn’t even close. How many playmakers are there in the draft? And really, I think it was two, maybe three pure playmakers.”
One of the beneficiaries of Young’s unselfish floor-general act has been Carter, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on Saturday, becoming just the fifth player ever to appear in a game at that age. In his 21st season, Carter has been in the NBA for Young’s entire life. Carter once had the level of rookie hype and expectations that Young faces. Now, as an elder statesman on a rebuilding team, he’s making it his mission to push Young to live up to that hype.
“I want him to average 16 or 17 points and 12 assists,” Carter said. “That’s my challenge to him, is to get double-digit assists. He has the ability. I wouldn’t challenge him if he didn’t have that in him. But he has it. He makes plays for himself, and he makes plays for others. Some people say he’s a score-first point guard, and some people say he’s a facilitator who can score. He has the ability to be on either side of the spectrum.”
Young can become as good as he wants to become. The shooting hasn’t come around yet, but the instincts are there. And so is the production that, everything else aside, is tough to ignore.
“The bottom line is, he’s averaging 16 [points], seven-and-a-half assists, and he’s started and played every game for us,” Pierce said. “He’s probably ahead of the curve in a lot of ways.”
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is currently based in Portland. Follow him on Twitter at @highkin.