Trae Young and the Art of Drawing Fouls

The Hawks' star's knack for drawing fouls is haunting and annoying defenders around the NBA.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

The NBA’s young, exciting faces have been perhaps the best thing to come out of this unusual postseason.

With Stephen Curry and the Warriors falling short in the play-in, and LeBron James and the Lakers taken down in the first round, there’s been more room to appreciate Ja Morant and Devin Booker, who’ve had dominant moments their first time on the big stage. Atlanta’s Trae Young has made the most of his star turn, too, and hit a game-winner to silence the Madison Square Garden crowd to cap his first playoff victory.

It was a hell of a way for Young to say hello to NBA fans who might’ve been unfamiliar with his game. But as they get more acquainted with Young, a star who has seemingly embraced being a villain of sorts outside of his home market, some will undoubtedly find themselves annoyed with one element of his playing style. Because depending on how you look at it, Young is either the best at drawing shooting fouls, the player who goes farthest out of his way to draw shooting fouls or a combination of the two.

In the most general sense, the 22-year-old floor general is a wizard. A player who manipulates defenses with his galactic range, prompting stoppers to go over screens set 40 feet from glory. One who has the boost of Sonic the Hedgehog as he speeds into the lane and the split-second deception of James Harden, leaving rim protectors unsure of whether he’s shooting a floater or throwing a lob for center Clint Capela.

Young’s offensive attack is incredibly balanced. He ranked in the top five leaguewide in both points and assists per game last year. And while his scoring numbers were down a bit this season—with more talent surrounding him, he took fewer shots—Young still averaged a Harden-like 25.3 points and 9.4 assists.

The guard’s commonalities with Harden extend to the foul-drawing tendencies. At his call-inducing peak, Harden broke defenses by capitalizing on defenders who had their arms out in front of him, locking arms with them intentionally as he began his shooting motion. In 2017 he singlehandedly drew more three-point shooting fouls than any NBA team with his tactics, which attacked a loophole within the league’s rules.

With Young, things are a little bit different. But only a little. The Hawks star isn’t lapping the field with three-point shooting fouls the way Harden did. (He ranked second, well behind Stephen Curry, with 25 such fouls this season, according to Stats Perform.) An 88.6% foul shooter, Young made more free throws than anyone this past season. Many of them stemmed from sequences where he initiated contact by pressing his shoulder into the defender trying to keep him out of the paint, or abruptly hit the brakes after dribbling past a wing stopper, causing that man to crash into him as a result. It’s a one-sided game of bumper cars.

Already in the Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Sixers, we’ve seen instances when Young has utilized such attacks—including one that Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers unsuccessfully challenged after Matisse Thybulle got whistled for a foul, even though Young was the one pushing off on the play. (Thybulle got called for fouls on a very similar play in Game 2 as well, despite not initiating contact with Young.)

The complaints about Young, which came up against the Knicks when New York City mayor Bill de Blasio called out the guard’s tactics, certainly aren’t new. It wasn’t even the first time they’ve come up in relation to New York. About one week into the season, Nets coach Steve Nash appeared to tell a referee, “That’s not basketball” after Young slammed on the brakes to draw a call on Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot. It was just one of four or five plays that night where Young drew a foul using the same strategy.

Even Young’s coach to start the season, Lloyd Pierce, reportedly wasn’t big on the guard’s foul-drawing ways. According to a report that came out in The Athletic shortly after Pierce’s midseason ouster, Pierce spoke on a conference call with the league’s Competition Committee just before the new year, saying he hated some of the shots Young took and the way he baited officials into making foul calls. The comment reportedly came about in the midst of a larger conversation about foul drawing throughout the association.

Nate McMillan, whose installment as Atlanta’s coach coincided with the club’s turnaround to close the regular season, suggests the conversations about Young’s foul-drawing ways are overblown and that he’s simply good at one of the more important aspects of the game. “It’s just a skill that some guys have,” McMillan says. “When you have Trae’s scoring ability, or Harden’s, guys have to get closer to defend you. They do a good job taking advantage of the pressure applied to them. It’s like a jumper, where if you get too close, you put pressure on officials to call [fouls] for closing out too aggressively. It’s a weapon.”

McMillan added that foul drawing has “been a part of the game forever,” but there are clear statistical indications that Young is perhaps the best player in the league at it right now. Of the players who finished among the NBA’s top 10 in shooting fouls drawn this season, the undersized Young got to the basket less than them all. In some cases, he got all the way to the bucket far less often than his star counterparts.

Stats Perform, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com

PlayerShooting Fouls Drawn% Shots Within 3FTFoul % On DrivesGMS

Giannis Antetokounmpo

295

45.1

12.9

61

Zion Williamson

278

69.6

11.8

61

Joel Embiid

225

21.9

14

51

DeMar DeRozan

219

19.1

9.7

61

De'Aaron Fox

216

23.3

11.4

58

Luka Doncic

210

18

7.3

66

Bradley Beal

205

17.7

9.1

60

Russell Westbrook

198

19.4

7.3

65

Jimmy Butler

182

32.7

8.8

52

Rudy Gobert

182

77

14.7

71

Trae Young

182

16.2

6.5

63

What that means, in layman’s terms, is that Young draws a much higher share of his shooting fouls from farther out, either from midrange or the outer parts of the paint. It also means that he’s generally timing things perfectly to force defenders to crash into his back before he even gets to the hoop.

While his tendencies get under the opponent’s (and the opposing fans’) skin, it’s worth noting that he’s merely taking advantage of something that a handful of other future Hall of Famers capitalize on. Aside from Harden, Chris Paul has utilized a similar strategy when his team is in the bonus to get free throws.

For all the criticism Young’s foul seeking may come under with certain people, he doesn’t lack die-hard supporters, especially in Atlanta, where the club had gone decades without a star of Young’s stature. Hawks officials have seen youth jersey sales exploding by 1200% with Young, and a number of recent season-ticket holders cite his presence as the driving force behind their deepened interest in the club.

But even if his swagger and playing style are enough to make him a villain in other markets—particularly in some of the NBA’s most hostile environments, in New York and Philly—he seems to embrace that, too.

Whatever it takes to win, until the league legislates out the loophole he keeps threading to perfection.

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