When a player improves as rapidly and significantly as Trae Young did this season, the individual components of the leap can get lost in the mere spectacle of it all. Typically, a young player gradually builds out his game, adding or sharpening a piece or two every season until he hits his prime. Young fast-tracked that development, bringing nearly every element of his game to an All-Star level and blossoming into one of the NBA’s most potent offensive weapons in the course of one offseason. He added more than 10 points to his scoring average as his efficiency climbed from below-average to elite, and still found room to hand out an additional assist per game.
Atlanta’s system has been built around Young from the moment he entered the NBA. As a rookie, that was often a burden he struggled to bear as he learned the NBA ropes on the fly. This year, it became a source of freedom. Young’s feel and command became noticeably better with a year of experience under his belt. He now had the acumen and the leeway to do nearly anything he wanted on offense, and he took full advantage.
Arguably no NBA team relied on a single player to create offense than did the Hawks. Young posted the third-highest usage and assist rates in the NBA, all while scoring more points per shot attempt than LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, and Luka Dončić. He focused on his conditioning over the offseason to prepare for the physical toll of an increased workload and the inherent challenge of being the smallest player on the floor most nights.
Atlanta posted a respectable 111.4 offensive rating with Young on the floor, but fell off a cliff when he went to the bench. While that was partly a product of a poorly-constructed roster, it also reflected the Hawks’ dependence on Young, who was the focal point of every opponent’s defensive gameplan, drew near-constant traps, and had few other offensive weapons around him.
And yet, he still had one of the best individual offensive seasons in the NBA. Young never looked sped up or uncomfortable, no matter what kind of defense he worked against. He manipulated opponents into doing what he wanted, rather than the other way around, and nearly always seemed sure of how a defense would react to his every move. That heightened level of control allowed Young to innovate and experiment, turning ostentatious moves into practical ones:
That level of mastery is a result of several different skills coming together. Young sharpened nearly every part of his offensive arsenal -- most notably the ability to score from anywhere on the floor. As a rookie, he struggled to convert around the rim, but used improved speed and an expanded array of deceptive moves to finish at a league-average rate this season. He leaned on his floater even more than he did in 2019 and canned a significantly higher percentage of his long 2-pointers.
After shooting just 32 percent from deep as a rookie, Young’s 3-point percentage hovered over 36 percent for most of the season on an even more difficult diet of attempts than he did in his first season. He attempted 42 percent of his shots from beyond the arc, 70 percent of which came off of at least two dribbles and 70 percent of which were unassisted (obviously, there is much overlap between the latter two categories).
Only Damian Lillard made more shots from at least 30 feet, which gave Young immense gravity and helped open up an otherwise congested Atlanta offense. He used a tighter and quicker handle to create separation, and honed his stepback jumper into a devastating weapon:
If Young has a signature move, it’s his right-to-left crossover -- most often unleashed when rejecting ball screens on the left side of the floor:
Young ran the most pick-and-rolls of any player in the NBA, and developed into a lethal force in those situations. He worked with patience and foresight, putting defenders on his back, sealing off lanes to the rim, and collapsing defenses. While capable of kicking the ball to shooters, Young prefers to deliver it closer to the rim. He’ll probe into and around the lane, biding his time until a help defender commits and a teammate springs free:
He uses his eyes to pull help defenders to the perimeter in order to loop passes toward the rim:
Without the wide frame or high sightline that taller playmakers like James or Dončić have, Young uses quickness and guile to create the advantages. “It’s all different for me because I’m not 6-7, 6-8. I’m not the tallest guy in the world,” Young said. “I have to figure out different ways of trying to use my height to my advantage and zig-zag through defenses and things like that.”
Young has always been an ingenious passer, but refining his touch, anticipation, and decision-making has made him even more dangerous with the ball in his hands. He processes the game quicker than most, making complex reads naturally and instantaneously. “I’ve gotten to that point,” Young said. “Sometimes it’s God-given, but a lot of it’s work, and I’m past that point now. Now it’s just more natural.”
Young also became one of the league’s preeminent foul-drawers this season. He shot 86 percent at the line and got fouled on nearly 15 percent of his shot attempts -- two key factors in his overall efficiency spike. He led the NBA in contact drawn on the floor, which helped put opponents in foul trouble and get Atlanta into the bonus. Young is a master at baiting his defenders into making contact on his shot attempts, and drew 37 three-shot fouls this season (up from 11 his rookie year). Defenders frantically chase him over the top of screens, lest he walk into an open pull-up 3, and Young uses that momentum against them:
That’s a nightmare to defend, but Young doesn’t leave opponents with many easy options. “It’s tough playing against a guy like that who can just shoot the ball so well and kind of dictate how he scores the ball,” said Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe. “So you’ve got to give up something. You can’t stop everything.”
Young necessarily walks a fine line between audacity and recklessness. The passes that create the greatest advantages often come with the most risk, and Young’s ability to drain comically deep 3-pointers will lead to the occasional ill-advised attempt. In both situations, the Hawks can’t benefit from the former without some of the latter, but Young is still finding the delicate balance between ambition and restraint. A well-timed 30-foot pull-up in transition to punctuate a run can galvanize the team, but the same shot in the middle of a drought tends to have the opposite effect:
Young shot just 32 percent on 3s with more than 18 seconds on the shot clock, and settled for poor shots too often. Sometimes, those shots aren’t so much about the result of each attempt as the team’s larger offensive dynamic. One of the many considerations a point guard must make is how to keep every player involved and invested. Sometimes, simply allowing teammates to feel the ball and contribute to the offense can help maintain -- or restore -- equilibrium.
He could also be quicker getting rid of the ball against double-teams, allowing teammates to keep possessions moving and exploit numbers advantages. As potent as Young is with the ball in his hands, both he and the Hawks might stand to improve by deploying him more often away from the ball. He scored an elite 1.33 points per possession on spot-up plays this season, but had fewer than two such opportunities per game. Adding and developing secondary playmakers should allow Young to incorporate more off-ball movement into his game and help diversify Atlanta’s offense.
Criticisms of his defense will likely follow Young his entire career. After staking a claim as the worst defensive guard in the NBA as a rookie, Young did little to change his standing this year as opponents routinely went past, around, and through him. He may be the least physical defender in the league, which prevents him from offering any resistance on drives, even when he bothers to move his feet. He might stay in front of his man, but that alone doesn’t prevent the ball-handler from getting where he wants. Young’s activity level waxed and waned all year; he might fight hard over screens or dart through passing lanes one game, then float around aimlessly the next.
The Hawks have built their roster with these limitations in mind. Teams with elite playmakers should build within an offensive framework, but Young’s defensive limitations also require Atlanta to surround him with dynamic defenders. Those sorts of two-way contributors are difficult to find, which reduces the Hawks’ margin of error in building out the team. As the team’s stakes increase, Young’s defensive effort -- or lack thereof -- will become far more important to its success.
For the time being, Atlanta can appreciate having an elite young offensive linchpin around which to build. Young’s ascension has given the Hawks assurance and clarity of their future sooner than they could have anticipated. For all they know, he isn’t finished rising.