When a star is detached from the system built around him, it has a way of reorienting his team’s approach. All the more detrimental if that player is the only high-level playmaker in the system and the driving force that makes everything else possible for the team. Atlanta will likely be without its propeller after Trae Young suffered a right ankle sprain Tuesday night against the Heat, and must somehow find a way to approximate his singular offensive prowess by committee. It’s not just Young who will feel this absence, but De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter, and Atlanta’s other secondary creators as well. With the point guard out, the Hawks will ask his teammates to pick up more slack – a test that will have both short-term consequences and long-term implications.
The current prognosis of two weeks would keep Young out for six games, over which time we’ll likely see an entirely different Atlanta offense. For virtually his entire career, the attack has been predicated upon Young’s ability to pass and shoot out of the pick-and-roll; his gravity and decision-making inform the way the rest of the offense functions and where his teammates fall into place. His tendency to draw double-teams and traps opens up the floor for rolling big men, and the threat of his lob chemistry with John Collins makes things easier on weak-side shooters.
This season, Young appeared to have reached a new level as a scorer, which will only serve to solidify his entire game. He is 9-of-16 this season on shots from at least 26 feet, and had been more effective at the rim than he was in 2019. His ability to warp defenses just isn’t common, and without it the Hawks must be more imaginative than ever to replicate the sort of ingenuity that comes naturally to Young. That will require some creativity from head coach Lloyd Pierce and likely more ball movement from his players. The Hawks may have the collective intelligence and cohesion to adapt to a more egalitarian offense in Young’s absence, but their margin of error will be reduced and their safety net taken away.
Hunter has looked capable with the ball in his hands thus far, but how will he fare as a primary creator rather than an ancillary threat attacking already-moving defenses? Huerter has looked the part of a dynamic secondary playmaker, but will become a greater focal point for opponents. DeAndre’ Bembry is a decisive and resourceful ball-mover, but not so much an initiator of possessions. Cam Reddish can’t yet be relied upon to consistently create offense and Evan Turner has struggled in limited minutes. Nearly every one of Atlanta’s remaining ball-handlers is on a minutes limit or battling nagging injuries of some kind.
That could place more responsibility on John Collins, who has long been better finishing plays than initiating them but has tried to become a better facilitator in his third season. Despite the loss, he stepped into a bigger role against Miami, scoring 30 points on 10-of-17 shooting – and, most notably, four assists and 5-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. Collins will likely never be a primary ball-handler, but if he could round into a better offensive conduit out of pick-and-rolls or ball reversals, could energize Atlanta’s offense both when Young is out and when he returns.
Collins’ defensive growth will be a key swing point of Atlanta’s rebuild, but it could be under greater scrutiny during Young’s absence, when the Hawks will have to become a vastly better defensive team just to tread water. Atlanta mustered just 94.1 points per 100 possessions during the competitive portion of Tuesday’s game and have scored below that rate with him off the floor this season. One might expect the Hawks’ turnover issues to subside without Young – one of the most turnover-prone guards in the league – on the court, but they turn the ball over far less when he plays. Even Atlanta’s defense has been vastly superior with him on the court.
It’s far too early in the season to take any of those figures at face value, but the general negative offensive effect of not having Young on the court will likely endure. When a team’s identity is so strongly rooted in one side of the ball, and that side of the ball is to closely tethered to the performance of a single player, the entire structure becomes vulnerable the moment its star does. This is new ground for the Hawks – Young played 81 games as a rookie and has never missed significant time with an injury at any level – even if they only have to tread it for a fortnight. The games they win over that stretch won’t be as important as what they learn from it and how they integrate that knowledge when Young returns.