Trae Young’s game doesn’t fit his body. Court vision is for tall players; he’s 6-foot-1. Driving inside is for strong players; he’s 180 pounds. Finishing around the rim is for vertically gifted players; Young has no hang time. His last name is appropriate, though—Young is young. He’s 21, and with the exception of a prominent bald spot, he will always look youthful next to his peers because of his size. He’s been called a young Curry, a young Harden, a young Nash, a young CP3. Young showed flashes of each during his rookie year. This season, those moments have come every game.
Young isn’t just succeeding in spite of his small frame, he’s using it to his advantage. Without wingspan, height, or much muscle, he’s learned to stretch his shot and his body. Taking unthinkably deep 3s means Young doesn’t have to attempt to shoot over defenders, and those 3s are powered by his low release. Young’s floaters fly above bigs. His preferred passes (behind-the-back, wraparound, handoffs, and bounce passes) are ones best thrown with both feet on the ground.
The Hawks aren’t very good, but Young’s averaging 26.8 points on 36.1 percent 3-point shooting, 8.6 assists, 3.8 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 7.9 free throw attempts, and … 4.8 turnovers. (We’ll get to that later.) Here are five plays that explain how an undersized guard like Young has become a sensation:
His Shot From the Logo Against Detroit
Young doesn’t have the hops or the length to pull up with a defender in his face. But he’s light and quick and can flit about like a hummingbird to lose his man. “Range” usually refers to the ability to shoot from anywhere, but Young shows range before the shot as well. He can scurry to the left or the right, use a teammate’s screen or ignore it, and shoot spotting up or off his own dribble, because his feet are fast and his release is instantaneous. Young often avoids the foreplay altogether by shooting so far out that his defender isn’t close enough to challenge the shot. In this example, that’s Thon Maker:
A shot from the logo shouldn’t be practical, but it’s the best way for Young to capitalize on his low gather. (This is where the Curry comparison fits.) The extra force from the deeper arc propels the ball, though it feels more like magic than physics each time Young sinks these shots from outer space. Statistically, too, he’s made an argument for taking deep 3s. Young is making 35.4 percent of his attempts from 25 to 29 feet.
His Drive Against Detroit
Zipping straight through the lane works only if the defender can’t keep up, and Young’s legs are much too short to beat anyone step for step. Instead, he often skips a beat and sticks one foot out ahead of his defender. It’s similar to the first motion of a Eurostep. Sometimes Young plants slightly in the defender’s path, cutting him off; other times, the change in tempo is enough to separate the two on its own. It’s Young’s way of using his strides to his advantage, stretching his step like salt water taffy in a confectioner’s window. Here he extends his left leg just as he’s entering the paint, losing Bruce Brown.
His Floater Against Los Angeles
Sometimes a teardrop is Young’s only option. But the shot is far from a last resort for Young, who has been practicing its mechanics since he was a kid by shooting over broomsticks with his dad. Young already has one of the best floaters in the NBA:
JaVale McGee anticipated this shot too late, but it’s not entirely his fault. Young is so perceptive, even at this age, of defenders and their movements. It wasn’t the case against McGee, but Young often capitalizes on this sixth sense by drawing fouls on floaters. Just like with his passing, Young recognizes the exact moment to let go on a runner, and just like with his ballhandling, he sometimes sells it with a slight head fake. So much of Young’s game relies on speed; this brief suspension in the air during floaters is an opportunity to enjoy him in slow motion.
His Nutmeg Against Denver
A nutmeg isn’t a trick Young can pull out every game—though he’s certainly trying this season—but it is symbolic of his creativity as a ball handler. It’s not an oversimplification to say that nutmegs come more easily to Young because he’s closer to the ground. He has a proclivity for finding openings, wherever they may be. Watch as he embarrasses Will Barton:
Young had to recover the ball post-nutmeg, but the move took him to a completely open spot on the floor. Defenders can sympathize with Barton (and Young’s many other nutmeg victims) because guarding Young means preparing for attacks from every angle. Young is confident enough in his handle to wait for passing lanes to clear, and he’s explosive enough to decide to go it alone. A flutter to the right, and he’ll pull up. A hesitation to the left, and he’ll skim to the hoop. It’s the threat of one of Young’s ultra-bendy passes that allows him to pull off bold moves like nutmegs and reverse-between the legs.
His Bounce Pass Against Detroit
It’s slightly disrespectful to include just one passing highlight on a list dedicated to Young’s greatest hits. It’s his most advanced and broad skill. Young excels at passing in so many forms: slingshot wraparounds, simple bounce passes, no-looks, behind-the-backs, and drop-offs to the teammate trailing him. It keeps Young’s roll men happy:
Young is generous off of pick-and-rolls because he’s patient. He’s willing to let multiple defenders collapse in, like in the clip above, to ensure that the timing is right for his recipient.
But there is a dark side to his dazzling passing. Young sometimes attempts to find his man in midair or to pass over defenders, neither of which is suited for his build. It’s the leading cause of his turnovers, an alarmingly present part of Young’s offense that has haunted him since college. By the end of last season, Young had committed the third-most turnovers in the league, and it’s gotten worse this season. He’s turning the ball over 4.8 times per game now—the second-highest average in the NBA—as opposed to 3.8 times a game during his rookie season. Young has lost the ball a total of 62 times this season, and by my count 29 of those came on bad passes—ones that were off-target, intercepted, overthrown, fumbled, etc. It’s an all-too-frequent reminder that his decision-making isn’t perfect yet, and that he’s still quite, well, young. Though one more deep 3 is all it takes to put his last turnover in the past.