Nylon Calculus: What do the numbers say about Trae Young’s defense?

Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images /

Trae Young is already an elite offensive player. How bad is his defense, really, and how much of his offensive value does it erode?

It’s been quite the start to Trae Young’s career. Offensively, he’s a maestro. He’s clearly capable of ripping off a couple of 30+ point games and can make about any pass on the court at the professional level. Nearly halfway through his second season in the NBA, he’s averaging 28.5 points and 8.3 assists per game on a 58.6 true shooting percentage.

However, when the Hawks change end and it becomes time for Young to defend, the wheels come off. This issue was obvious to anyone who watched him in college. It was assumed that his defense was going to be a big question, it was simply about the degree to which it would affect his overall value. So far this season, he’s in unique territory.

As you can see from the graph above (data going back to 2010), a wide gulf between offensive and defensive value doesn’t necessarily make for a negative player and in fact, we’re looking at several notable and historic seasons here.

Comparing Young to the rest of these seasons brings curious insight. First, Thomas’ 2016-17 season didn’t provide for many defensive highlights, but he posted an OPIPM higher than 5. On the other hand, Young has been a disaster on defense while not being able to quite establish the offensive impact that Isaiah Thomas had during his career-best season.

Secondly, most of the players listed on here are franchise superstars besides Lou Williams and Isaiah Thomas. At the time Thomas was a superstar, but the franchise clearly didn’t feel that way and they traded him away. Young’s DPIPM this season is comparably as low as Lou Williams’ 2017-18 season and Bradley Beal‘s DPIPM this season (which is deserving of another post in itself).

If Trae Young’s offense is still lagging from these outlier seasons, is it enough to balance the poor defense?

Young will likely always be limited on defense because of his stature but a lot can be overcome by effort and energy. If you’ve watched him this season you can see that as a concern, as he repeatedly dies on screens and seems to give up on plays. However, the numbers add some context as he’s one of the most active defenders in the league by miles traveled.

Even if this graph were adjusted for team pace, Trae still comes out running more than many in the league on defense. It’s also disingenuous to call a player “lazy.” Maybe a better way to think about it is a player’s composition or character. If a player realizes his size, speed, and talent, why waste the energy to change things up? Sometimes you just go with what you have and forget the rest.

Another question worth asking about the above graph is whether Trae Young is running of his own volition to help the team’s defense, or if opponents realize his weaknesses and keep going after him on defense.

The graph is showing how many field goals NBA guards defend per game against the difference in field goal percentage that they allow per game. The quadrant that Trae appears in, then, shows that he’s attacked relatively more than his cohorts whilst defending field goals less effectively compared to other guards in the NBA, although the opponent field goal numbers are incredibly noisy.

Teams recognize when Young is in the game and this gives him an uphill battle to fight to improve his defensive value. He’s being targeted and the Hawks don’t have a way to hide him, exacerbating the negative impact of his defense. The good news is that there are multiple paths to improvement for the team. He could play with more effort, his awareness could improve and the Hawks could find ways to hide him more. The bad news is that none of those paths to improvement are particularly easy.

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