The problems behind Trae Young’s signature plays

NBA

The future of the NBA is bright. The short list of emerging basketball superstars age 22 and under includes Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and Trae Young. But while four of those guys are playing meaningful games right now, Young and his Atlanta Hawks teammates are careening toward the lottery.

Despite the fact that Young is putting up eye-popping numbers — he ranks third in the NBA in scoring and second in assists — his individual success hasn’t been contagious. The Hawks are an atrocious 19-44, ranking 24th in offensive efficiency and 28th in defensive efficiency. If Young and the Hawks expect to be playing meaningful games at this point next season, they’ll need to get a lot better on both ends of the floor.

Building a playoff team around Young is both an alluring and confounding architectural challenge. On one hand, you have to surround him with off-ball offensive threats that open the floor. Then you also need a fleet of defensive talent to compensate for his tremendous limitations.

The current Hawks roster doesn’t do either. But the fact that the offense is so bad is most surprising, because their primary ball handler is one of the most talented young playmakers in the game. When Young is on the court, the Hawks score at league-average rates, putting up 111 points per 100, and that number surges up to 115 on possessions that begin with Young bringing up the ball. That’s encouraging, especially considering Young leads the NBA in turnovers and his supporting cast is among the least experienced in the league.

That supporting cast absolutely collapses without Young. When Young sits, Atlanta scores only 94 points per 100 possessions, a number so low it’s almost 10 points worse than the worst overall offense in the NBA, which belongs to what’s left of the Golden State Warriors.

That gargantuan on/off differential demonstrates how potent Young’s offense can be. When he’s on the court he has the power to transform a hideous offense into an average one. Imagine if he had better teammates. But Young is not blameless here. The Hawks’ defense is their biggest problem, and Young is a major component of that issue.

Looking at the data, the best two offenses in the NBA are the Dallas Mavericks and whichever team is playing against Young and the Hawks. Doncic and the Mavs lead the NBA by scoring 116.1 points per 100 possessions. When Young is on the court, Hawks opponents are also pouring in 116.1 per 100. Oof.

And just as Atlanta’s offensive on/off numbers reveal how important Young is on that end of the floor, the team’s defensive numbers have an opposite plotline. With Young on the bench, the Hawks’ defensive rating is 106.8, which would rank just below the Clippers for sixth best in the NBA.

Young’s sophomore scoring and assisting has silenced some of the haters from his rookie season. His offensive stats are ridiculous, and they’re a boon for any team-building process looking forward into a decade where 3s will only become more central.

At first glance, his 3-point shooting efficiency is modest. He makes just 36% of his attempts, but when you consider the volume and difficulty of his shots, that number looks more impressive — 77% of his 3-point tries are unassisted and his average 3-point shot distance this year is over 28 feet.

But while those deep-space triples may be his signature play, it’s unclear if they are actually helping the Hawks win games. Here’s where it gets interesting: When Young misses a 3-point shot, opponents should start licking their chops. Other teams turn Young’s missed 3s into points at freakishly high rates.

Young misses 64% of his 3s, and opponents grab defensive boards on about 75% of those misses. On the ensuing possessions, as those defenses turn into offenses, they rack up a wild 127 points per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum tracking data. Folks, the league average offensive efficiency following a missed 3 is 112.

In other words, the Hawks play historically bad defense after their best player misses his signature shot. Here’s a prime example from a January game against the Raptors. Young has just missed a deep 3, only to turn around and quickly get burnt on a baseline cut on the other end.

That’s too easy, and these are the exact kinds of things that must change going forward if the Hawks are going to turn their young core into a contender.

So what exactly is going on here?

The Hawks struggle with every phase of the game, but their defensive awakening has to start with Young. Individual defense remains a difficult skill to quantify, but members of two separate teams told ESPN that their in-house models have pegged Young as one of the worst defenders in the league. Other publicly facing metrics like defensive real plus-minus concur, with Young ranking 493rd out of 495 players.

Part of this is youth — young players struggle to play great defense, and young point guards are thrown right into the front lines, guarding the best playmakers on the planet at the point of attack. One night you’re tasked with stopping Chris Paul, the next night you might have Kemba Walker, Damian Lillard or Kyle Lowry dying to make you look bad.

Part of this is effort. Defense requires equal parts athleticism, smarts and effort, and Young isn’t bringing all three of those to the table right now. At this point it’s fair to question whether he can ever play satisfactory defense in the NBA.

Young is 6-1 and 180 pounds — one of the slightest rotation players in the league — and it’s that primitive limitation that hurts him the most on defense. He has no room for error, yet his effort doesn’t reflect that reality. When he misses one of those go-to deep 3s, too often he takes it easy on the other end. Other times he’s forced to act as the last line of defense because he’s the last man back, and there’s nothing he can do given his size. That’s an issue.

In a league obsessed with pick-and-rolls, Young is simply not big enough or strong enough to fight through screens, and it shows up in the numbers. Among the 79 players with at least 600 such plays, he allows the sixth-most points per chance leaguewide when defending ball handlers in pick-and-roll, per Second Spectrum.

He’s arguably one of the worst pick-and-roll defenders in the NBA. That’s not good news for a front office charged with building a playoff team around him. He’s not long enough to contest shots or clog up passing lanes. He’s not bulky enough to rebound. He lacks the body to contain larger NBA guards.

But there are plenty of small NBA guards who still manage to play better defense than Young. Just look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose three main guards are all relatively small. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Paul (6-foot-1) and Dennis Schroder (6-1) all weigh 180 pounds or less, and when that trio is on the floor, OKC outscores opponents by 29.6 points per 100 possessions.

Fair or not, Young is the culture driver in Atlanta, and right now that story lacks a consistent character, especially on defense. While other NBA teams featuring young phenoms are currently busy writing exciting new postseason chapters, the Hawks are struggling with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-him-on-defense. Unless the defensive culture around the team suddenly changes, next year’s chapter will be just as scary.

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