The discourse surrounding Trae Young during his first three regular seasons have been focused on what he can’t do. His defense lies somewhere between abysmal and bad, and is someone who dies on screens at the point of attack in a league dominated by ball screens. He’s a good shooter whose 30 foot bombs showed Steph Curry’s impact on the next generation of guards, but has never shot 40 percent from three or 90 percent from the line like the truly elite gunners. Atlanta’s point guards has gained a reputation for drawing fouls and free throws in unsubtle but effective ways, a practice many found grating. Young had accumulated statistics but not wins, and so the whispers of being a dreaded “empty stats” player had grown from a murmur to a common refrain.
Trae Young has silenced those voices and criticisms this postseason with a fantastic first playoff run through the Eastern Conference. Young and the Hawks made short work of the social media darling New York Knicks in five games. While Young zipped around the court, hit shot after shot, and crafted his image as the Big Apple’s next arch-nemesis, he did even more than that. For years, Hawks faithful had to listen to other teams’ fans sneer at their star guard. ‘Trae Young will get shut down against real playoff defenses,’ they said.
Their critiques were proven to be undeniably unsubstantiated against the Knicks, as he averaged 29 and 10 assists on 44/34/92 shooting splits. These numbers would be gaudy against any team but were especially impressive against the best New York team since Melo’s heyday in 2014. The Knicks gave up the fewest points in the league (104.7), played at the slowest pace (95.9) and ranked third in defensive rating (108.2). While the Hawks haven’t exactly played at a blazing-fast speed under Nate McMillan once he took over for the floundering Lloyd Pierce, the Hawks still thrived off spacing the floor and hitting their multitude of shooters.
In theory, Tom Thibodeau’s Knicks should have been the perfect foil for a finesse team like Atlanta. New York boasted several physical guards to hound Young around an endless parade of picks, and a 6-9, 260 pound tornado in the paint named Julius Randle who could pound out possessions in a glacially slow game. Atlanta had been a fun team for the last few months, rising from 11th in the East to start the month of March to a mid-tier playoff team. But now it was time to face the realities of rough and tumble playoff basketball.
Apparently nobody told Trae Young about the rigors of postseason hoops, because he spent 20 quarters toying with New York’s favorite team. The physicality of June basketball was no match for his 28 foot triples, his floaters from just inside the free throw line, and his pinpoint passes to the corners and to the diving Clint Capela. And just in case anyone was wondering, Trae Young still got to the line seven times a night and shot over 90 percent from there.
And now, against the vaunted Philadelphia 76ers and their MVP finalist Joel Embiid and DPoY candidate Ben Simmons, Trae Young has once again defied expectations and is flying back to Philadelphia with the series tied at 2-2 after four games. Monday was one of Young’s worst shooting games (8-26 from the field), but he still found a way to make an impact in the series-tying 103-100 win at State Farm Arena.
Young did his best Russell Westbrook impression and handed out more dimes than the US Treasury, because even if his shot wasn’t falling, his teammates’ sure were. His 18 assists were a playoff high (so far) and came with only two turnovers. Lasers to the corners, lobs to a rolling Clint Capela, and kickouts to shooters on the wings—Trae Young made all of those passes and more in the biggest game of his short career.
Of course, it would be misleading to call Trae Young a one-man band for the Hawks or the sole reason or their success. Clint Capela has been a borderline all-star and easily the most impactful seven-footer to grace a Hawk roster since Dikembe Mutombo some 20 years ago. He and John Collins feast in the pick and roll with Young and their gravity as the roller opens up the floor for their shooters. And what shooters the Hawks have. Bogdan Bogdanovic and Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari and Tony Snell and Kevin Huerter: you can’t leave any of them open for too long.
Then there is the Hawks defense, where Clint Capela and top pick Onyeka Okongwu have done just enough to stop Joel Embiid from putting up the gaudy numbers he did in the regular season. While the Atlanta Hawks will probably still lose the series to a more experienced and athletic 76ers team, Atlanta’s fans should be proud of their team.
They should also be pleased with their third year point guard, who is taking the next step from “good young prospect” to “superstar and face of the franchise” right in front of them.
(You can reach the author at Joseph.A.Dycus@gmail.com or on Twitter at @joseph_dycus).