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The Element of Surprise Will Shape Trae Young’s Path to Stardom

Trae Young's ability to shoot from outside attracts all the eyeballs, but it's his passing that truly makes him special. The Hawks rookie, who is more daring than most, uses surprise as his primary trade when handling the ball.

With Trae Young, the passing was always the point. It was eclipsed in the public imagination by his game-breaking 30-footers, the kind that invoke Stephen Curry when Young might really be the space-age Chris Paul. By now we know better; Young may be a good and daring shooter, but he’s also the most proficient rookie playmaker the NBA has seen in a decade. Exceptionally few first-year guards actually carry the full weight of an offense. Young has done so with a flourish, leading one of the youngest teams in the league to impressive scoring competence.

Surprise is his primary trade. So much of basketball is built on programmatic reads—learned orders that take many possessions down a familiar, efficient path. If a defense traps on the pick-and-roll, the ball will skip back to the roll man to make a momentum play from the middle of the floor. When a ball-handler blows by his man and forces a rotation, he creates a clear passing lane into a layup or dunk. It’s drive-and-kick, give-and-go, trigger-and-response. The course work of a young point guard is to internalize these processes at the speed of the NBA game. Young is the kid who has already lapped the class by a few chapters.

Where Young could have thrown a pocket pass to John Collins, he instead uses a hesitation move to throw off the defense. Once he leaves his feet, the obvious play is to the corner; most defensive schemes would ask the defender in the far corner to sink down to help stop Collins on the roll, just as Rockets guard Eric Gordon does here. The path to the corner is gone, Collins is covered, and Young—not exactly a vertical athlete—has precious little time in the air. Hangtime turns out to be irrelevant. In retrospect, it plays as if Young knew all along that he might be going to his fourth option on the play: Omari Spellman, cutting straight down the middle of an exposed defense.

Reads like this one have made Atlanta the most watchable losing team in the league. Professional-grade defenses effectively run on the assumption that most opponents will stick to the script. It’s all many guards can handle, after all, to make a move against an experienced, athletic defender, and quickly parse the better of a few simple options before they disappear. Expecting the next-level pass wouldn’t just be overkill, but counterproductive. Young is making a living off that concession. After tripping alarms and sending an entire defense into rotation, the precocious guard will pick an entire system apart for its only exposed flaw. This is a rare gift—for a player this young, for a player this size, for any player at all. Even on plays where Young seems to be walled off from the best option, he can peek over the shoulder of some larger defender, and pivot back into a no-look, left-handed, cross-body pass that arrives right on target:

What elevates Young as a prospect is that knack for logistics. It’s one thing for a guard to see the play they should make. Many in the small-guard set will pull back an intended pass at the last moment, for fear that a court full of long, reactive defenders might get in its way. Even in basketball discretion is the better part of valor. Young may do the same, only to then pivot through to an alternative angle that allows for a bounce pass as opposed to a lob. Some matchups and coverages are bound to get the better of him, but it’s been remarkable to watch Young problem solve without ever thinking out loud. Away from the ball, veteran defenders will lunge at the passes they thought he might make. Every player who has found success in the league will defy expectations on some level, but Young works against the grain even by NBA standards. It takes a unique interpretation of the game to see a mismatch against a shot-eating seven-footer as a call to dribble through to the opposite post, kill your dribble, and reverse the ball for to a sealed Vince Carter.

One can see, in Young’s exploits, a tendency to work backwards. Start with the shot the defense will have to allow, back to the one it might, down to the attempts it hopes to take away. The best plays that Young makes seem to fall somewhere between instant recognition and clever planning:

All of which reflects a rather sophisticated understanding of the way coverage actually works—particularly for a player who encountered his fair share of junk defense in the college game. Mistakes are inevitable and, for Young, many; only James Harden and Russell Westbrook have turned the ball over more times this season. But if Young can see the future, even in glimpses, why not try to skip ahead?