Trae Young has been a walking Stephen Curry comparison since college. With his size, ball-handling skill and long-range shooting, it's always made sense.
Young, however, needs to mimic Curry's play on the defensive end to take his game—and the Atlanta Hawks—to the next level.
When people discuss the Golden State Warriors' defense, Curry's name is often left out. At least at first. After all, there's no arguing he's had an advantage playing with several great defensive teammates: Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and others.
But Curry is surprisingly a plus-defender despite teams targeting him on that end, and he manages to disrupt offenses more frequently than he's credited. Last season, the Warriors' defensive rating was better when he was on the floor. They went from 105.8 with him to 110.6 when he was off the court.
Curry's physical attributes (6'3", 190 lbs) limit his defensive ceiling, but he makes up for them with his understanding of the scheme and, most importantly, the outstanding effort he puts in.
This is where Young has to improve. He is not going to change his physical limitations (6'2", 180 lbs), but he can put in more effort to fight on that end. It was just his rookie year, but he has to put up a better defensive rating than 114.8 the rest of the way.
Teams make it a point to attack the weakest link defensively. On the Hawks, that is Young.
In this contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he was on Josh Okogie, who set a ball screen for Andrew Wiggins. Young was forced to switch, but he put up little resistance as Wiggins posted him up and spun right to the rim:
It was just too easy.
Young was targeted again in crunch time against the Philadelphia 76ers. JJ Redick set a ball screen to get the Atlanta point guard onto Jimmy Butler. Young put up little to no fight, failing to avoid the switch as Butler easily blew by him to tie the game:
Opponents will target Young throughout his entire career, but he needs to accept the challenge, just as Curry has when teams attack him.
At the end of the half in a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, Landry Shamet set a screen to force Curry, rather than Kevin Durant, onto Lou Williams. The Clippers got the switch, and Curry stepped up to the challenge. He stayed with Williams on the drive, gave a good contest and battled with Ivica Zubac for the rebound:
This ability grew even more pronounced in the playoffs, especially whenever the Warriors matched up with the Houston Rockets. Golden State went to great lengths to hide Curry, but Houston was diligent in making sure he was involved in as many pick-and-rolls as possible.
He started this play on PJ Tucker, switched to Chris Paul and then finally moved onto Harden. He stayed on Harden and was ready for the step-back three, which the Houston guard missed:
Fight or Die on Screens
Defenders do not always navigate around screens cleanly, but they must continue to fight through them.
Young has a terrible habit of running right into screens and never recovering, also known as dying on screens. This puts the Hawks in a tough spot defensively, so he needs to be much better at either avoiding or fighting through them.
Here, the San Antonio Spurs set a double screen on Young to free up Derrick White. He did a good job dodging the first screener but ran right into LaMarcus Aldridge. White never felt any pressure and was already taking an elbow jumper once Young got clear of the Aldridge screen:
When the Charlotte Hornets' Cody Zeller set a pick for Kemba Walker, Young flat-out died on the screen, giving his mark a clean look at the three-pointer:
Regardless of the coverage, Young needed to continue pursuing Walker. He cannot let his man get that good a look.
Watch how Curry reacted to almost the same set from the Hornets:
He went over the ball screen, and as Walker hit Zeller to get it right back in a dribble handoff, he chased him by again going over the Zeller screen and providing a good rear contest to affect Walker's shot.
For the record, DeMarcus Cousins was in the same drop coverage as Omari Spellman was in the Young play, but Curry kept coming. The Warriors point guard does not die on screens even when he gets clipped.
In this next play, Clint Capela set a ball screen on him to free up Chris Paul. Curry didn't stop on the play but instead continued his pursuit and, at the right time, tied up Paul to force a jump ball:
One way Curry disrupts offenses is by using active hands, which constantly hang in passing lanes to force deflections. Last season, he averaged 2.4 deflections per game; Young posted 1.3 deflections per contest.
Curry's active hands are a big help in his pick-and-roll defense.
As Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox rejected this screen, Curry's left hand was tracking the ball and denying the pass to the roller. He did the same thing against the Indiana Pacers, again getting his hand in the passing lane:
Unfair as it may be to compare Young to Curry, the former should take notes on how the latter defends. Teams will attack him on that end the same way they've targeted the veteran guard.
Curry has still found a way to be an effective defender, and that's the next step in Young's growth.
The Oklahoma product had a good first year, finishing second to Luka Doncic in Rookie of the Year voting based largely on what he did offensively. The Hawks have done a solid job building a young core led by him, John Collins and Kevin Huerter, but a big part of their development will hinge upon Young improving how much he fights on the defensive end.