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Passing Tones: The Unusual, Unmissable Development of Trae Young

After a midseason slump, the Hawks guard is shooting the lights out again. And watch out, because he’s added another weapon to his arsenal.

Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Trae Young’s burden has been heavy since draft night. When the Atlanta Hawks traded down from their third spot to select Young instead of Luka Doncic, they put him in a nearly unwinnable position. Doncic has been so good that Rookie of the Year odds are overwhelmingly in his favor, if not off the board completely. But Young has already started to shed some of his baggage with his own impressive play.

On Monday against the Houston Rockets, Young had arguably the best game of his career—notching a career-high 36 points (including eight 3s) and eight assists. Steph Curry, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden are all familiar with the double-team, the ultimate sign of respect; Young is not. And yet, there he was late in the fourth quarter, being double-teamed and trapped as soon as he crossed half court. It was hard to blame Houston.

Young’s performance was a culmination of what has been a ridiculous month-long shooting stretch. After shooting below 35 percent from deep over the first four months of the season, Young has gone back to looking as deadly as he did at Oklahoma. In February, he’s shot 43.5 percent from deep on 7.5 attempts, the most of any month this season. His effective field goal percentage over the past two months has been 51.2 percent. Over his past 20 games, he’s averaged 22 points, 8.5 assists, and four rebounds per game. The Hawks, a team that was one the league’s worst for most of the first half of the season, have gone 8-12 during that time.

For a player like Bradley Beal, who once worked out in a gym with Young before he began his first and only college season, this recent stretch is no surprise. When I asked Beal about Young earlier this season, he called Young “Baby Steph,” recalling how during that summer, he had seen Young pull up and swish 3s from “the volleyball line.” Beal wanted it to be known that he had been in on the ground floor of who he thought was going to be the league’s next great shooter. But for most of Young’s rookie season, he had looked like something else first: a great passer.

Before the draft and through his first NBA summer, Young watched more tape of Steve Nash than he did of Curry. That was on purpose: Young’s trainer, Alex Bazzell, believed that passing, not shooting, was Young’s best skill and a resource just waiting to be tapped into. Early in the season, Young showed shades of Nash. Despite his poor shooting—he shot 29.5 percent from 3 through the first three months of the season—he dazzled with highlight passes. In some games, he looked in control of everything but his jump shot. In the past few months, however, it appears Young has put his two skills to work simultaneously (he’s averaging 9.2 assists per game in February) to show a glimpse of what he could be.

Young’s connection to Curry had never been clearer than it was during Monday’s game against Houston. The threat of a 30-foot 3 is basketball’s unparalleled gravity pull, and Young was using it to do what Curry does best: stretch the defense until it breaks. That Young can do this and pair it with more than seven assists a game in his rookie year is mind-blowing when you compare it with Nash’s and Curry’s rookie seasons. Per-36 minutes, Young is averaging more points than Curry did and more assists than Nash did in their respective first years. The heightened pace and evolution of offenses has certainly contributed to this—Young is also taking more than two more 3s a game per 36 minutes than Curry did during the 2009-10 season—but it’s impressive nonetheless.

Young is just 20 years old, and he’s on the right team. In Atlanta, he has a roster that caters to his style and a franchise that is in no rush to rise to the top of the standings. Organizational patience will go a long way for a developing player, and the Hawks seem to have found the balance between letting Young work out his flaws and slowly growing as a team. They’re already winning more games than they were expected to, and that’s in large part due to how quickly Young has evolved.

“He understands how to play. He gets anywhere he wants on the court already,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce told me in November. “Now, it’s just the ongoing procedure of what decisions you make when you’re in the paint, when to score, when to facilitate, how to collapse defenses, how to see what defenses are going to be throwing at him. That’s going to be ongoing.”

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@traeyoung... need to watch that a few times!

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The Hawks have been dubbed future Warriors East, in part because they have Travis Schlenk, a former Golden State front-office executive, as their general manager. On the basketball court, Atlanta is heading in that direction too. “You look at the evolution of the game, and everyone wants to mimic what Golden State does,” Pierce said. “It’s easy to talk about the shooting but it’s the assisting. They always lead the league in assists. The fact that they have multiple guys that do that—you want to find one and then you want to get a second, get a third, and we’ve got one that we know we’re going to track to be a guy that leads the league in assists at some point.”

This season, Atlanta is 10th in the league in assist percentage (the Warriors are no. 1), and, among players who average at least 30 minutes a game and have played 40 games or more this season, only Harden and Russell Westbrook have a higher assist percentage than Young. When I asked Pierce whether he thought Young’s passing had been undervalued, he laughed. “I hope so,” he said. “Because that means a lot of people weren’t aware and weren’t valuing it as much, whereas I was. That was priority no. 1 for us.” The shooting was never a worry; that Young was already showing so much growth as a playmaker seemed like the best-case scenario for a player who was not going to shoot poorly for long.

There may always be a Luka Doncic–branded chip on Young’s shoulder, but that could just be the motivator that drives him to more success. “Trae gets motivated when you talk shit to him,” Bazzell told me in the offseason. “Me being like, ‘Oh, no wonder you’re the no. 5 pick when you wanted the no. 1 pick,’ shit like that. Literally, that’ll be the only thing I’ll say, and it’ll piss him off.”