Mike Check

Michael Cunningham’s ramblings from the world of sports

Hawks rookie Trae Young already looks like the real deal


Full disclosure: I’m rooting for Trae Young to succeed. That’s not because of any allegiance to the Hawks, of which I have zero. It’s also not because of a personal affinity for Young, who has seemed likable in our professional interactions but who I don’t know well. 

Rather, I hope Young becomes a good NBA player because so many annoying people are cheering for him to fail. I’m anti-anti-Trae Young. 

So maybe I’m just being defiant when I say that Young already looks like the real deal. It’s possible I’ll end up looking silly making such a proclamation after he’s been in the league for barely three weeks. If it turns out that way, I’ll own it. 

But I doubt I’ll have to take that “L.” The Hawks are a bad team but Young is really good. He just turned 20. As Young gets more minutes and muscle, and the Hawks add more talent around him, look out. 

Young’s numbers already are impressive. He ranks first among qualified rookies in assists per game (7.9), second in points (19.1), seventh in field-goal percentage and fifth in 3-point percentage (32.1).  

The enticing point guard attributes Young showed at Oklahoma — superlative court vision, feel and passing ability — have quickly translated to the NBA. Young already shows promise in areas that I thought would take a while to develop, and he’ll be even better if he cleans up some weaknesses from college that have followed him to the league. 

Young has been a high-usage player, which is a term used by stats heads (raises hand) use to say that he’s a big part of the Hawks’ offense. His usage rate is tops among rookies and 27th among all players, according to Cleaning the Glass. Most rookies, especially point guards, struggle when immediately taking a central role, but Young has been productive and efficient even as opponents frequently blitz and trap him to make him give up the ball. 

Per Cleaning the Glass, Young ranks in the 65th percentile among point guards in points per shot attempt. He’s assisted on 41.3 percent of his team’s baskets, which ranks in the 90th percentile among all point guards. It’s notable that Young’s production as a passer has been outstanding without John Collins playing a game; when Collins returns from injury that tandem will be a pick-and-roll terror. 

I’m not surprised by Young’s early impact as a passer, which I saw coming. The positive thing for the Hawks in the big picture is that, if Young keeps it up, good players will want to play with him. He’s unselfish with the ball and can make his teammates look better. 

What has surprised me about Young’s offense is his ability to score at the rim. He was crafty around the basket in college and showed toughness, but he’s small for the NBA (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and not particularly athletic. Yet Young has been among the better rim attackers early in the season. 

He’s attempted 41 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning the Glass, ranking him in the 84th percentile among point guards. Young has made 57 percent of those attempts, which ranks in the 53rd percentile. Those are good numbers for any rookie point guard, but especially a skinny one. 

During his first few games Young was trying to make floaters in the short mid-range area, which it tough to do consistently. But then Young started using his deceptive change-of-pace and outstanding ball-handling to get all the way to the rim and finish (he’s starting to draw more fouls, too). 

In fact, that part of Young’s game has been better than his 3-point shooting, which is what earned him the most hype in college. 

Young is shooting 32.1 percent on 3’s. He’d probably me more accurate if he’d take fewer pull-up 3-pointers and more catch-and-shoots (the Hawks could do much better at getting him the latter). Young is shooting 45 percent on 2.2 spot-up 3-pointers per game and 25 percent on four pull-up 3’s per game, according to NBA tracking stats. 

As for Young’s defense, well, it’s a a mess. Lots of rookies struggle to adjust to the NBA’s speed and understand defensive concepts but, even accounting for that, Young has been bad. 

Young generally gives good effort getting over screens and closing out to shooters (putting him one up on his predecessor, Dennis Schroder). But he can be inattentive when defending off the ball and doesn’t always seem to know how to react when opponents attack him. Young could mitigate some of these deficiencies by using his quickness to stalk passing lanes, but he’s produced low rates of steals and deflections. 

Young’s defense should improve if he keeps working at it. The same is true for his high turnover rate. He’s committing 3.8 turnovers per game, though I’d argue some of that is related to Young’s teammates fumbling sneaky passes that they didn’t see coming. 

Young has struggled in some games this season and it will happen plenty more. It takes time to become a consistent NBA player. As he gets better, opponents will make it even harder on him. We aren’t likely to learn Young’s true ceiling for at least two seasons, maybe three. 

But those critics eager to declare Young an NBA bust right out of the gate are going to have to wait. I hope their wait never ends.


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About the Author

Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.