Trae Young made it clear back in June that he knows what to do when the show is over. But after a brilliant postseason debut that drew virulent boos from Broadway to Broad Street, and rave reviews just about everywhere else, it looked like the 23-year-old point guard wasn’t quite sure how to pull off an encore.
Atlanta was expected by many to continue soaring coming off an Eastern Conference finals berth, but instead stumbled out of the gates. During a brutal West Coast road trip that saw the Hawks go winless against the Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Nuggets, Young suggested to my Ringer colleague Seerat Sohi that part of their struggles might be stemming from a sort of withdrawal after learning what it feels like to compete at the highest level: “It’s the regular season. I’m not going to lie. It’s a lot more boring than the playoffs. You’ve got to find that motivation to play like the playoffs.”
Head coach Nate McMillan probably would’ve preferred his young charges find a different method of generating motivation than the team losing nine of its first 13 games to fall into 13th place in the East. But waking up at the bottom of the standings with the lowly Pistons and Magic seems to have been just the shock to the system they needed: Atlanta has won nine of its past 12 to get back over .500 and vault back into the Eastern playoff picture. The Hawks now sit just four games behind the conference-leading Nets, whom they’ll host in a marquee matchup on Friday night.
The Hawks have hammered opponents by 11.7 points per 100 possessions since coming back from that West Coast swing, according to Cleaning the Glass—the second-best efficiency differential in the NBA in that span, behind only Donovan Mitchell and the roaring Jazz. An uptick in play was to be expected from a team that boasts perhaps the best young core in the NBA, but Atlanta has kicked into high gear despite operating without three top-10 picks. De’Andre Hunter, arguably Atlanta’s second-best player before his promising sophomore season was derailed by right knee surgery, made just 11 appearances this season before suffering a right wrist injury that’ll keep him sidelined into January. Hunter’s fellow 2019 draftee, Cam Reddish, looked poised for a breakout campaign early in the season, but has missed the past four games after spraining his right wrist—in the same game the Hawks lost starting shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic to a sprained right ankle. And 2020 lottery selection Onyeka Okongwu, who showed tantalizing flashes as a backup center during Atlanta’s conference finals run, has yet to play this season as he works his way back from offseason shoulder surgery.
The silver lining to all those injuries: They’ve streamlined the Hawks’ rotation, alleviating the pressure that McMillan discussed early in the season of apportioning minutes across a roster teeming with legitimate NBA talent.
Fewer healthy bodies has meant fewer mouths to feed. McMillan’s mostly gone eight or nine deep recently, and the rotation could get even tighter with veteran Solomon Hill likely out for the season with a torn hamstring. Kevin Huerter, who’d been lost in the shuffle a bit after signing a big contract extension before the season, has thrived in Bogdanovic’s spot in the starting lineup, averaging 13.2 points per game on 52/45/89 shooting splits. Veteran shooter Danilo Gallinari has warmed up, too, chipping in 11.9 points in 25.3 minutes per game while knocking down just over 41 percent of his 3-point tries in more consistent sixth-man opportunities.
The additional opportunities also extend to Young, with whom everything in Atlanta starts, and who’s the only player in the NBA in the top five in both points and assists per game. He’s been taking about four more front-court touches per game during this recent run and making an awful lot out of them, averaging 28.3 points, 9.7 assists, and 4.6 rebounds in 33.8 minutes a night to pace Atlanta’s avalanche of an offense.
Already one of the highest-volume playmakers in the NBA, Young’s workload has skyrocketed amid all the absences. He’s finishing 36.1 percent of Atlanta’s offensive possessions with a shot attempt, foul drawn, or turnover over the past 12 games—a usage rate slightly higher than Luka Doncic’s league-leading mark—and thriving under the added burden, posting a .613 true shooting percentage in that stretch. Usage and efficiency typically have an inverse relationship, which stands to reason; the more you try to do, the harder it is to do it all just as well. Right now, though, Young’s silencing the statistical record like it’s a hostile road crowd, turning in a marriage of volume and production that only James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Joel Embiid have ever managed over the course of a full season.
To hear Young tell it, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about his hot shooting; he recently told reporters he’s chalking it up to “just taking my time and really focusing on every shot. ... I think it’s really just the mindset.” Young has adopted a superstar’s mentality—that it’s on him to provide whatever’s necessary to push the team over the finish line—with a subtle shift in his offensive approach that’s helped Atlanta put more pressure on defenses, even as the Hawks work without multiple complementary creators and finishers.
Just under 40 percent of Young’s field goal attempts have come from beyond the arc over the past dozen games, a significant jump from early in the season, and right around his 3-point attempt rate from the 2021 playoffs. That’s important for two reasons. First, when you can make 3-pointers at a high percentage, it’s a pretty good idea to take more of them, because you get an extra point every time you hit one. (Thank you for coming to my “Cliffs Notes to a Decade of Sloan Conferences” presentation.) Beyond that, though, the more you can make defenses fear you pulling up and cashing out from several counties away …
… the easier it is to exploit them by exposing the soft underbellies of their coverages, wielding the threat of that jumper as a weapon. Young knows that defenders don’t want to give him the airspace to launch, so he leverages their lunges and the way they chase him over screens to get downhill, using his handle, timing, and footwork to create clean midrange looks:
Or he’ll get all the way to the rim and use feints and pass fakes to get the defense off-balance before flicking a floater over the outstretched arm of a shot-blocker:
Or, if the defense tries to hem him up with blitzes and traps, he’ll take advantage of that attention to spoon-feed his rollers, cutters, and spot-up shooters (there’s a reason Young-to–John Collins is the no. 1 assist combination in the league, according to PBPStats.com, and that Young-to–Clint Capela ranks ninth):
This is the intoxicating cocktail of skills—the touch, the vision, the range, the audacity—with which Young stretched the Knicks’ and 76ers’ defenses past their breaking points in the playoffs, and pushed the eventual champion Bucks to six games in the Eastern Conference finals. (A series, for what it’s worth, that might have had a different outcome had Young not been limited in the final three games by a bone bruise in his right foot.) He’s employing them these days even more punishingly right now: Young’s shooting 64.1 percent in the restricted area, 52.3 percent from midrange, and 42.7 percent from 3-point land during this stretch, all of which would represent career highs over the course of a full season—not a bad way to combat a decline in free throw attempts due to the league’s “interpretive change in the officiating” of moves intended to draw fouls—while maintaining a 2.32-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio despite the spike in usage.
Young’s not the sole reason Atlanta’s fortunes have improved of late. Collins just continues to get better even after a career season that earned him a $125 million payday. Capela has looked more spry after working through an Achilles injury, helping to spark a defensive improvement that’s seen the Hawks rank in the top 10 in points allowed per possession over the past dozen games. Huerter’s surge has helped stabilize a wounded wing rotation. But while Trae’s had help in turning things around, he remains the rising tide that lifts all boats in Atlanta—the sort of bona fide superstar who can snap an underperforming club to attention and drag it out of the doldrums through sheer force of will.
Whether he and his teammates can ride this wave long enough to move back into the fight for home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference playoffs remains to be seen. For now, though, it appears that he’s figured out how to provide the sort of three-level scoring and better-than-ever production that should return him to the All-Star Game—and might even propel him to his first All-NBA berth. As encores go, that doesn’t sound half-bad; Young knows what to do when the show’s over, but if he keeps this up, his stay in the spotlight might just be getting started.