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The Rookie Curve: Trae Young’s Success Will Depend on Perpetual Motion

Atlanta’s newest star-in-the-making won’t be able to avoid the Steph Curry comparisons, so he might as well lean into it. That means learning how to dominate opponents off the ball. That’s no easy task.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The summer is a time to dream big with newly drafted rookies. But paths to stardom in the NBA are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will be examining some of the 2018 draft’s top talents and how the reality of their team’s situation will affect their freshman season. Welcome to the Rookie Curve.

No player at summer league was under a bigger microscope than no. 5 overall pick Trae Young. Young became a household name in his freshman season at Oklahoma, when he shattered NCAA records and played like a younger version of Steph Curry. He eventually regressed to the mean, tailing off in Big 12 play before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. His roller-coaster season continued in seven games in Utah and Las Vegas, where he averaged 15.1 points on 30.3 percent shooting and 5.7 assists a game. Young had the ultimate green light, with the freedom to shoot from any part of the floor at any point in the clock. He has not had a teammate who will push him off the ball the way that Jeremy Lin will this season in Atlanta.

The Hawks added Lin in a three-team trade with Denver and Brooklyn a week before they traded Dennis Schröder to Oklahoma City, ensuring they would still have a veteran point guard with starting experience. Young had an incredibly high usage rate of 37.1, which would have led the NBA last season; what he didn’t have was another playmaker on his team. Oklahoma gave its freshman point guard complete control of the offense, a role which allowed him to lead the nation in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.7). Young’s responsibility will have to decrease at least somewhat at the next level, if only to keep him healthy. A 20-year-old who weighed 177 pounds at the combine would have a hard time handling the same offensive workload as guys like James Harden and Russell Westbrook.

A lot will depend on Lin’s health. The 29-year-old played only 34 games over his past two seasons in Brooklyn, sitting out almost the entirety of last year after suffering a ruptured patella tendon on opening night last season. He has one season left on his contract, and playing for a rebuilding team like Atlanta could give him the opportunity to rebuild his value. Lin, when healthy, has shown the ability to run an NBA offense. He has career per-36-minute averages of 16.2 points on 43.3 percent shooting and 6.0 assists per game in eight seasons in the league. While Linsanity has come and gone, he could make Young’s life easier next season by getting into the lane and kicking the ball out to him for open shots.

A huge part of Curry’s game in the NBA is playing off the ball, something Young rarely did in college. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, 23.1 percent of Curry’s offensive possessions in Golden State last season came when he ran around screens off the ball or got to the rim on a cut. Young, in contrast, used only 3.7 percent of his possessions on those plays in college and 4.9 percent in summer league. He took a lot of difficult shots at Oklahoma, which is one reason he shot only 36 percent from 3, despite his reputation as a knockdown shooter. Just compare his shot distribution to Steph’s:

Shot Distribution: Trae Young vs. Steph Curry

Player Catch-and-Shoot Shot % Leaguewide Percentile Off-Dribble Shots % Leaguewide Percentile
Player Catch-and-Shoot Shot % Leaguewide Percentile Off-Dribble Shots % Leaguewide Percentile
Trae Young 11.7 96th 35.6 88th
Steph Curry 34.5 92nd 36.4 98th

One story line to track in Atlanta next season is how much Young and Lin play together. New Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce will have several different options for his starting lineup. He could start Lin and Young in a small backcourt or start a more traditional lineup and bring one of them off the bench. Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and John Collins are near locks to start, but they could play at the 3 through 5 positions with both point guards or at the 2 through 4 with another big man—either Dewayne Dedmon or free-agent signee Alex Len—at the 5. No matter who starts, the two point guards will likely stagger minutes so that one is always in, the same way Houston does with James Harden and Chris Paul.

Young will get the opportunity to dominate the ball when he’s playing without Lin. His performance in those minutes could end up looking similar to what happened in summer league, when he struggled at times to create good looks off the dribble and settled for almost impossible shots against longer and more athletic defenders with a hand in his face. The biggest positive Young showed over the past month was his passing, which has always been the most underrated part of his game. He told the media in Las Vegas that he was more Steve Nash than Steph Curry, and he displayed the ability to pick apart a double-team, make passes with either hand and find cutters on the move.

No matter how well Young plays as a rookie, though, he’s likely to take a backseat to Lin when the two are in together, if for no other reason than that he needs experience in that type of role. It’s not as simple as just spotting up and waiting for the ball. Moving without the ball in the NBA, where bigger and stronger defenders grab and hold as much as they can get away with, isn’t easy. When Young didn’t have the ball this summer, he mostly stood in one spot and caught his breath. When he did try to move, he had trouble getting open.

That learning process is what Dennis Smith Jr., the no. 9 overall pick in last year’s draft, went through as a rookie in Dallas. J.J. Barea, a 12-year NBA veteran, had the same role next to Smith that Lin could have next to Young. Smith started all 69 games he played in last season, but fewer than 450 minutes separated his minutes total from Barea’s. Each player ran the offense when the other wasn’t in. Dallas was more effective with Barea in charge (net rating of minus-1.3 in 1,603 minutes) than Smith (net rating of minus-8.1 in 2,049 minutes), which shouldn’t be surprising considering Barea’s experience. Smith, not Barea, moved off the ball in the 395 minutes when they were both on the floor. The rookie’s usage rate went from 30.3 without Barea to 22.2 with him.

Smith dominated the ball in his only season at NC State, and Mavs head coach Rick Carlisle spent a lot of his rookie season trying to eliminate bad habits. “Playing off the ball with Barea really helps Dennis understand another position on the floor, too, kind of the thinking part of the [shooting guard] position,” Carlisle told “Those kinds of things are always a big bonus because the reality is, over time, he’s gonna have the ball an awful lot. He’s gonna have to be on the same wavelength as every single guy that he’s playing with because he has the ball so much. That just helps him understand better.” Smith went from getting 3.9 percent of his offensive possessions from coming off screens and cuts in college to 6.5 percent in the NBA.

Young’s elite shooting ability should make him a better secondary option than Smith, who shot only 31.3 percent from 3 on 4.9 attempts per game as a rookie. He would also be deadly when attacking closeouts, since opposing defenses won’t want to leave him open beyond the 3-point line. They clearly respected his shooting ability in summer league, often doubling him when he came off ball screens and forcing him to give up the ball. Young, like Curry, generates a lot of defensive attention, and setting back screens and cutting off the ball could open things up for his teammates. He will need to get stronger and spend a lot of time in the weight room over the next few seasons to be successful in that role, but the Hawks can start that process by teaching him the right habits now.

Atlanta can afford to take the long view next season, emphasizing player development at the cost of wins and losses. General manager Travis Schlenk, in his second season with the franchise since coming from Golden State, is trying to build a team from the ground up. There’s not much experience on their roster. Collins and Prince are two of their best players, and they are in their second and third seasons, respectively. The Hawks may not have a single rotation player in their 30s. Young likely won’t be the only rookie who receives a lot of playing time. Schlenk took Kevin Huerter, a shooting guard from Maryland, with the no. 19 pick in this year’s draft, and Omari Spellman, a stretch big man from Villanova, with the no. 30 overall pick.

The youth movement is just beginning in Atlanta. They could have as many as three lottery picks next season: their own, one from Dallas (protected 1–5), and one from Cleveland (protected 1–10). If the team ends up taking someone like Duke freshman R.J. Barrett, a 6-foot-7 point forward, Young won’t be able to dominate the ball the same way he did in either college or summer league. Playing with a guy like Barrett, who can initiate the offense and guard a wing on defense, could be the best thing to happen to Young. They would have all the offensive benefits of a two-point-guard lineup without the normal defensive downsides. All the attention next season will be on what Trae Young does with the ball, but the more important question is how much he grows off of it.