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Trae Young Doesn’t Need to Be Luka Doncic to Win Rookie of the Year

The Hawks were panned for trading Doncic’s rights for Young and a future pick. But through four games, the Atlanta rookie has flashed the sort of offensive upside that should draw awards consideration by season’s end.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Trae Young’s career may forever be linked to Luka Doncic’s. While two other teams outright passed on Doncic to start the 2018 draft, the Atlanta Hawks traded Doncic’s rights to the Dallas Mavericks for a future first-round pick and the draft rights to Young, who was selected two picks later.

Atlanta was heavily criticized for the decision. Doncic won MVP of the EuroLeague as a teenager and looked like a future star; Young, meanwhile, had one of the greatest seasons in college history, but his production plummeted along with the Sooners’ record toward the end, and his tiny frame elicited questions about his ability to translate to the NBA. But the Hawks went with Young, sparking a debate the won’t end anytime soon; even though both teams are unlikely to make the playoffs, their first matchup drew so much intrigue that it earned a spot on national TV.

Young’s early returns have revealed the good and bad of his game, as well as new dimensions. We saw it all from him in the Hawks’ 111-104 win over the Mavs on Wednesday. Atlanta was down 20 after the first quarter and looked well on its way to a big loss. But it stormed back with Young on the bench in foul trouble, and then stole the lead as Young took control late. In the end, Young scored 17 points on 3-for-12 shooting, with five assists, five turnovers, and four fouls; Doncic had 21 points on 7-for-18 shooting, with two assists, three turnovers, and two fouls.

Though he got the win, Young’s night was largely forgettable. But he’s already had moments through his first four games that suggest there will be plenty of spectacular nights too.

In a 133-111 win over the Cavs on Sunday, Young became only the eighth rookie in league history to log at least 35 points and 11 assists in a game. Other point guards who have done that include Steph Curry, Oscar Robertson, and Allen Iverson.

Through four games, Young is averaging 21.5 points and 7.5 assists in 32.3 minutes per game. The only rookies to ever average more than at least 21 points and seven assists over a full season are Iverson and Robertson, per Basketball-Reference. Small sample sizes are misleading, sure. But Young also averaged 19.6 points and 7.1 assists per 32.2 minutes over five preseason games, and I account for all games when it comes to projecting a player’s role and usage.

Even if Young’s averages drop to something like 18 points and five assists, he’ll be in rare company. The 12 rookies who have reached that threshold won Rookie of the Year, except for Magic Johnson, who lost to Larry Bird in 1979-80. Young has stiff competition among his rookie class—Doncic, who is averaging 19 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists, plus Suns center Deandre Ayton and Grizzlies power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Nonetheless, given his fast start, Young should be a leading contender come awards season.

Young could always shoot. He drew comparisons to Steph Curry while torching nets as a freshman at Oklahoma. He’s a stellar spot-up shooter from deep range, and he’s a threat off the dribble. During preseason, much to the surprise of Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce, Young launched a game-winner from the logo.

Young’s shooting has translated, and now his handle is even tighter than it was in college, which helps him to create space against athletic defenders. His ballhandling is also helping him get to the rim. Young was an average interior finisher in college due to his lack of length and explosiveness. His floater game was always strong—Steve Nash even tweeted about it—but he still needs to hit layups and draw more fouls. It’s clear the work he put in this summer has helped. Now he invites and absorbs contact by angling his hip into defenders, which should help him keep opposing players behind him. Perhaps even more importantly, he’s using craft once he actually gets to the paint with either hand to lay up the ball with touch.

Elite scorers can’t rely solely on their perimeter jumper. Even the Ray Allen types were able to get to the basket and finish in their primes. Perimeter scoring likely won’t ever be an issue for Young, so it’s promising that he’s developing another dimension to his game. The Hawks drafted him to handle the load offensively, not just to be a spot-up shooter.

Young dominated the ball in college, and still does plenty in the NBA; he has shared the floor with backup point guard Jeremy Lin for only 10 minutes this season. But the manner in which he dominates possessions is different.

Half-court Play Type Distribution

Play Type Oklahoma Atlanta
Play Type Oklahoma Atlanta
Spot-up 7.4% 22.1%
Handoffs 6.2% 11.8%
Off Screen 4.6% 10.3%
Stats via Synergy Sports

The Sooners didn’t feature Young as an off-ball weapon on screens and handoffs because his teammates lacked playmaking skill. Young was all they had. Without proper personnel around them, even the best shooters can’t maximize their abilities. It wasn’t that Young didn’t have prowess off the catch, it was that he didn’t have the platform to show it. About 22.1 percent of his possessions have been finished using a screen or a handoff so far this season—compared with 10.8 percent in college. Now Pierce is utilizing his rookie point guard in ways that resemble the way the Warriors use Curry.

Golden State has run this play for years, getting Curry open by having him screen off the ball for a teammate. The object is to create driving lanes for a guard to get to the rim with ease (like both plays above for Young, one of which ended in a goaltend), or to dislodge a scrambling defense from Young for just long enough to free him up for an open 3. The latter is what happened following an after-timeout play to get the ball in Young’s hands against the Cavaliers.

Young’s offensive versatility guarantees that he’ll attract a lot of defensive attention, so it’s critical that Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk surround him with shooting threats. Schlenk also drafted Maryland wing Kevin Huerter, who drew comparisons to Klay Thompson during the pre-draft process. Comparing two rookies to the two best shooters in NBA history is a futile endeavor, but after the first week of play, it’s clear what the Hawks had envisioned with their new perimeter weapons. The Young-Huerter backcourt is intriguing offensively:

In the clip above, Cleveland’s defense steers all its attention Young’s way once he sprints through the screen, which leaves Huerter open for an easy feed. Huerter’s effortless release from distance will make him a threat whenever defenses focus too much on Young, a necessary release valve to their offensive attack. Conversely, Huerter, a capable ball handler in his own right, can generate looks for Young.

But in the current NBA landscape, the ball belongs in the hands of a team’s best playmaker. For the Hawks, it belongs in the hands of Young. Because for all the talk about his ability to pull up from anywhere inside the half court, Young’s best skill isn’t his shooting. It’s his passing.

This pass is art. Young manipulates the defender by pausing his dribble, then reaches his arm around to bounce a perfect pass to Omari Spellman.

It was a Nashesque moment. Rookie point guards usually play out of control by moving at one speed, but Young changes gears about as seamlessly as a pro racer. Young lacks the quick first step of a John Wall, but he makes up for it by using hesitations, herky-jerky movements, and advanced dribble moves to carve out pockets of space between him and his defenders. He also has excellent body control, even when under pressure. Young moves like he’s been in the league for years, and it shows when he runs the pick-and-roll.

The Hawks are devoid of playoff-caliber talent. But Young is an enhancer. Notice above how he circles the wagons underneath the rim—another nod to Nash—before finding Miles Plumlee for a dunk. And how while floating in midair he throws a dart to Alex Len. Young can already make all the passes from difficult angles, including the crosscourt look to corner 3-point shooters.

This pass isn’t perfectly accurate, but it was timely and on target. The same is true for Young in transition:

Young took a lot of careless risks in high school and college by passing the ball into traffic. But so far in the NBA, he’s minimized those avoidable errors. Young is taking a more calculated approach, and he’s finding shooters in analytically sound positions on the floor. Of Young’s 30 assists this season, all have resulted in layups or 3-pointers—with 20 in the restricted area and 10 from downtown—according to NBA.com/Stats. Here’s how that looks, via Positive Residual:

But even though he’s flashed so much upside already, the concerns that existed before the draft remain. At 6-foot-0.5 without shoes and 178 pounds with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, Young is about the same size as Kemba Walker, Darren Collison, and Shabazz Napier. The Mavs opened Wednesday’s game by targeting Young on post switches. On one possession, Young stripped the ball from Doncic, but that was his only bright spot on defense. Teams will find him, no matter where he is on the court. Young fell into foul trouble against the Mavs, who exploited his size again late in the game by posting Doncic and then Dennis Smith Jr. for two consecutive possessions early in the fourth quarter.

There’s also a question of his upside: If he’s not a superstar offensive presence, he doesn’t make up for it in other ways. He doesn’t make an impact on the boards, and his size limits him elsewhere on defense. Fighting through screens and containing dribble penetration is a tough task for players of his stature:

For a physically limited player, you’d hope the effort and awareness would be there. But it’s often not with Young. At Oklahoma, Young would regularly fall out of his stance and lose track of players off the ball. The same issue has manifested in the NBA. In the play below, Young offers little resistance containing Mike Conley Jr., then fails to recognize the open shooter.

The Hawks defense collectively deserves blame for letting Chandler Parsons get so open. No defense can operate effectively without effort and communication from all five players. This will happen a lot to the Hawks, a team built for a tanking campaign. But Young will always be the weakest man on a defensive unit, and there’s no hiding negative defenders in today’s positionless league.

Even if the Hawks’ own process leads to riches through the draft and they tank their way into contention, the defensive questions that apply to All-Star point guards like Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving will apply to Young. Young could become a stellar scorer like Lillard, but Lillard’s negative defensive impact has limited Portland’s playoff potential.

The league’s reemphasis on freedom of movement could render perimeter defense a futile effort, which would diminish the impact of Young’s limitations. But no matter how perimeter-oriented the league becomes, and no matter what the rules are, Young will almost always be the smallest player on the floor. That will make him a relative liability, and raise concerns about his durability.

Following a blistering start to his freshman season at Oklahoma, Young’s offensive production hit a wall. It could have been the result of increased defensive attention, regression to the mean, fatigue, or a combination of all three factors. Many NBA executives believe Young simply got tired. The same could end up happening now with the Hawks either this season, or at some point during his career.

A heavy offensive workload can wear down any player to the point that their production declines, never mind one of Young’s size. Scouts and executives around the league have long said Young is a hard worker, so if he continues making strides like he did this summer, he should stay on track to reach his upside—no matter what that is. For now, Young is still at the beginning. The game is stretching out to the perimeter and being played at a faster pace. If Young is to someday become one of the NBA’s top point guards, he was drafted into the perfect environment for it.