The 2020-21 NBA season has finally reached its conclusion. An exciting start, followed by a tumultuous and injury-riddled middle was then proceeded by a thrilling and exhilarating finish with the addition of the play-in format making every possible playoff seed worth more than it was in normal NBA seasons. With the playoffs underway, every year there are players who step up and help their teams reach the levels they ultimately want to achieve; an NBA championship. Unfortunately, only one team can win that, but that won’t stop the others from trying, so we’re going to run through some players throughout the week who will be of note in determining how these playoffs go down. Part two of our miniseries buildup to the playoffs will focus on Trae Young of the Atlanta Hawks.
I’m not sure there is a newcomer to the postseason more intriguing to watch than Trae Young. He is a riveting, dazzling offensive player. One of the better playmakers we have in the league, he balances that well by being a supreme threat in the pick and roll. When he isn’t serving the ball around the three-point line or lobbing it up to his big men teammates, he is feasting as a scorer. We all know about his Curry-esque range (even if his percentages may not reflect it), but he has excised some of those out of his game. Young is shooting roughly three fewer shots from the field per game, and basically, all of those shots have come at the expense of the number of threes he shoots. The number of threes Young has hoisted this season is down from 9.5 per game a year ago to 6.4 this season. He’s shot roughly the same number of shots at the rim, the midrange, and in between, and shot them with solid efficiency. Young has shooting splits of 56.3/46.6/45.5 at the rim, floater range, and midrange, according to NBA.com. He’s also amongst the best in the league at drawing fouls on jumpers. Young averaged 9.3 free throws per game last season and 8.7 this season. With a three-ball to keep defenders honest, a proficiency to get to the free-throw line, and a myriad of shots inside the arc, Young should still be able to get his no problem in the playoffs.
What is going to be interesting is how Trae Young harnesses his dynamic scoring and playmaking ability. He still is amongst the tops in the league in usage rate. He gobbles up 32% of his team’s possessions, a mark that would rank seventh in the league. We’ve mentioned how Young is a great playmaker already; his 9.4 assists per game is a career-high and only trail Russell Westbrook’s 11.8 in the entire NBA. Young doesn’t just hunt assists either; he’s more than capable of running the offense, moving the ball to his other playmakers, or feeding mismatches his dynamic scoring invites. This is most evident with John Collins (having a very great season just in time to get a bag). Many teams will switch pick and rolls involving Collins and Young with Clint Capela occupying the lane, effectively taking the role away from Collins (this same issue plagues the LeBron James – Anthony Davis pick and roll as well for the Lakers). Young will have no issue feeding the ball Collins’ direction and letting his teammate eat up the smaller defender. John Collins generates 1.01 points per possession when posting up this season, according to Synergy data via NBA.com. Young helps in this regard.
While Trae Young is an unselfish player and capable of setting his teammates up, many possessions still begin and end with Young. We mentioned his 32% usage rate; the next highest mark on the Hawks is John Collins at 21.4%. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, it’s just harder to continue to muster up points in the playoffs when largely know what is coming. Some additional variety would do Young and the Hawks some good. They’ve already gotten some of that with the additions of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Clint Capela, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari alongside the improvement of John Collins, De’Andre Hunter, and Kevin Huerter. This year’s team isn’t like the Hawks of Young’s first two seasons where the offense would fall apart without Young on the floor. In Young’s rookie season, Atlanta’s offense was 6.6 points per 100 possessions worse when Young sat. Last season, that number ballooned to a monstrous and unspeakably bad 15.5(!) points per 100 possessions difference when Young was not on the floor versus when he was in the game. This year’s mark actually isn’t much better (13.7 points per 100 possessions worse), but that number is skewed a bit by the games Bogdanovic missed earlier this season. When Bogdan Bogdanovic plays while Trae Young is off the floor, Atlanta’s offensive rating sits at 108.6.
Now, that 108.6 number is a far cry from the 117 points per 100 possessions Atlanta averages when both are on the court together (that would be second in the entire NBA behind the Brooklyn Nets and would be the sixth-worse mark in the NBA, but that could be enough to get by in the short stretches Young would sit in a playoff game. But maybe that discrepancy speaks to the high usage rate Young accumulates and that mixing up the offense while Young is on the floor would make it better when he sits. Bogdan Bogdanovic’s usage rate is only at 21%. Bogdanovic has run just 154 pick and rolls this year. He actually generates more points per possession than Trae Young but has run over 700 less than the amount Young has. I’m not trying to argue that Bogdanovic is better than Young by any means or that he necessarily *deserves* more chances to create. But I do think it would behoove Young to conserve some energy and let some of his other guys cook and get comfortable to give the Hawks a different look. I’m curious to the degree we see Young do this.
That’s one side of the floor, so let’s talk about the area of the floor Young struggles. Young is an explosive offensive player, but he provides about as much resistance defensively as a turnstile fans walk through when entering an arena or a red carpet at an award show. The Hawks defense is at its most stingy when Young is not on the floor, more so than anyone else on the Hawks. He is the weakest of links on the team, which makes defending around him a tough task. It’ll only get more difficult in the playoffs. Young ranks in the 32nd percentile defending pick and roll ball handlers, the 54th percentile defending isolations, and the 44th percentile defending post-ups. Adding an All-Defense team candidate in Clint Capela has helped mitigate some of Young’s defensive deficiencies, but it hasn’t entirely and still requires plenty of help and attention. How much so might be the biggest question I have for any single player in the playoffs. Can the Hawks get by and cover for Young’s defense? If so, then they should handle whatever opponent they face. If not, does interim Head Coach Nate McMillan take Young out of a game they’re leading, even if there was somewhere from 3-5 minutes left on the clock? Young already sits at the end of games for offense-for-defense purposes, but I wonder if that could be more pronounced, especially if the Hawks have the lead. And if the Hawks do go that route, will they have enough offense to squeak out the W late? If the Hawks opt to leave Young in and are successful, does the notion of defense become even less valuable in today’s offensively crazed game? So many fascinating questions.
Young is a great offensive player. He’s an All-Star caliber player in general. He’s not perfect, but then again, just about no one is. How his offensive brilliance holds up compared to his defensive limitations in the playoffs is one of the more anticipated elements of this year’s playoffs for me. At least we’ll finally get an answer to that question soon enough.