The mark of an established NBA point guard is the ability to consistently make opponents play on his terms. Some players react to the flow of the game and simply find their place in it. That’s a perfectly fine way to earn minutes or keep an NBA job, but there is a select group of players who decide the conditions for themselves. If Trae Young wasn’t in the latter group already, he made a convincing case Thursday night that he belongs. As much has his 38 points, nine assists, and occasionally incandescent shooting, it was Young’s command of both Atlanta’s offense and the Pistons’ defense that stood out.
Detroit didn’t have much say in what defensive strategies it employed, because Young virtually mandated traps almost regardless of where he was on the floor. It didn’t matter who the Pistons stuck on Young or where they tried to direct him, because he got where he wanted anyway. He shot 6-of-10 from 3-point range (including four makes from at least 28 feet), but also 4-of-6 in the restricted area and 10-of-12 from the free throw line. The kind of pressure that sort of range and accuracy exerts on a defense changes a its formulations and priorities. Once Young established his pull-up jumpshot as a weapon, the rest of the floor opened up, creating avenues to the basket and, eventually, the foul line.
It became clear nearly from the start that Detroit had little answer as Young dropped in 14 points over the final 7:06 of the first quarter. When the Pistons made strategic alterations to stop him, Young adjusted right back, passing out of traps or simply waiting them out before making his next move. When he didn’t have the ball, he either moved his way into open shots or drew enough attention to keep teammates unencumbered by additional defenders. That’s a luxury Young didn’t always have last season, but with more capable and mature ball-handlers in Atlanta’s rotation, the relationship between Young and his teammates could be more symbiotic this year.
Even if he doesn’t have as much on his shoulders, Atlanta’s offense still starts and stops with Young; the strides he takes individually will be reflected in the team’s performance. Atlanta scored 1.2 points per possession Thursday, and while several Hawks played exceedingly well – namely Jabari Parker, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, and DeAndre’ Bembry – Young catalyzed the effort. Hitting pull-up 3s more reliably, as he did Thursday, would be an important step for the second-year guard and could turn an already dangerous threat into a devastating weapon. He could stand to cut down on his six turnovers – though Atlanta had just 13 as a team, and given how often he handles the ball and how much value he creates with daring passes, the Hawks will live with some well-intended giveaways from Young.
He offered flashes of this sort of production last season as he surged into Rookie of the Year contention behind a strong second half, but it was unclear how much of that would sustain as he became a bigger priority on opponents’ gameplans. The first game of a season seldom provides definitive answers, but Young looks as in-control as ever.
- They had their lapses, but the Hawks’ defense was solid on Thursday night. They held the Pistons to 102.8 points per 100 possessions and Detroit posted a 52.8 true shooting percentage despite shooting 20-of-22 at the free-throw line. While Andre Drummond and Derrick Rose had efficient nights, Luke Kennard and Markieff Morris combined to shoot 6-of-23 from the field and Atlanta prevented any Piston from settling the team into a flow.
- De’Andre Hunter was impressive in his NBA debut. He shuffled his feet twice, but otherwise did not turn the ball over. Even with missed bunny at the rim, he shot 5-of-8 from the field and 2-of-3 from deep. Atlanta intentionally involved him on offense throughout – something they it didn’t do with Fernando or Cam Reddish – and Hunter looked comfortable with the ball in his hands. His defense wasn’t quite as solid as it was in the preseason – he took a couple of poor routes on screens and didn’t seem to fully understand the tendencies of Detroit’s players – but that’s all a matter of course for a rookie figuring out the NBA game.
- DeAndre’ Bembry won’t start this season, and may not play as many minutes as he did last year as Kevin Huerter takes on a more prominent role, but expect Lloyd Pierce to continue finding a place for him. Bembry goes hard, and continually finds ways to positively impact the game despite not shooting from deep. He shot 4-of-5 from the field against the Pistons, played active defense, and provided key secondary playmaking that alleviated pressure from Young’s shoulders.