25-under-25: Trae Young at No. 8


Trae Young has set the NBA world on fire in his first two seasons. Last year he finished in the top five for both points per game and assists per game. What’s next?

In high school, Trae Young was a dynamic, high-scoring guard that was a McDonald’s All-American, but his size left scouts puzzled about how well he would perform at the next level.

In college, Trae Young was a dynamic, high-scoring guard that was a consensus All-American, but his size left scouts puzzled about how well he would perform at the next level.

Trae Young is a dynamic, high-scoring guard in the NBA that was an All-Star last year, but his size leaves many worried about his impact on winning games.

It’s safe to say that Young has heard all of the doubters. He probably knows each specific bit of criticism by heart at this point. Yet, at each level he’s played at, Young’s game has silenced most critics.

In his second season, as the clear-cut best player on the Atlanta Hawks already, Young averaged 29.6 points per game and 9.3 assists per game. Only James Harden, Bradley Beal, and Damian Lillard outscored him, and only LeBron James dished out more assists than Young on a per-game basis. As an individual, it’s hard to find many players who have been able to match his production this early in his NBA career.

He was a one-person offensive system in Atlanta. The Hawks with Young’s difference on the court and when he was on the bench was astronomical. In the minutes that Young was off the floor, the Hawks were basically the equivalent of an NBA G-League team trying to face off against NBA teams.

For all of the personal accolades that Young reached last season, his team remained one of the worst in the league. Though he carried the bulk of the load offensively, his lack of defensive fortitude contributed majorly to the Hawks’ struggles on that end of the floor.

Young is not a big man by any stretch of the imagination. He’s listed at 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds. For my two cents, he’s much closer to 5-foot-11 than 6-foot-1. Despite all of the quick-twitch moves and start-and-stop ability that he uses to his advantage on offense, none of that translates to defense.

Will Trae Young’s defense hold back the Atlanta Hawks?

It’s not that he can’t do it; we’ve seen him lock in for a few possessions at a time when he’s locked into a mano y mano scoring battle. It’s more that he far too often elects to use defense as his time to rest and recharge — so he can lift the Hawks offense to some semblance of respectability night-in and night-out.

The front office knows that Young will always get picked on as a defender and makes it a point to surround him with as many plus defenders as they can get to come to Atlanta.

It began with their two lottery selections in the 2019 NBA Draft (DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish), then again with the midseason trade for Clint Capela. They doubled down by taking Onyeka Okongwu with the sixth overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and they signed noted perimeter defender, Kris Dunn, in free agency.

In the end, it comes down to whether or not Young goes from careless to at least attempting to try on that end of the floor. Just making that simple mindset switch can lead to huge improvements for Young and the Hawks.

His lack of size isn’t a deal-breaker. We’ve seen several small guards be a complete menace and pest on the defensive end in the NBA. However, most of those names weren’t also asked to be the initiator, creator, and finisher of their team’s offense.

While the defensive additions the front office sought after will pay dividends, they also brought in offensive upgrades in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic to ease Young’s offensive burden.

As easy as Young has made it look on offense, we haven’t really seen any one-person shows reach championship status in the league. The James Harden era in Houston is the closest we’ve seen to the heliocentric offense succeeding, but without fail, Harden looks completely worn out when the Rockets need him the most.

Getting another playmaker and moving Young off-ball more could end up being the change that takes Atlanta from a fun NBA League Pass team to a playoff contender. Bogdanovic has shown that he can create his own shot, but he’s not a true playmaker. Gallinari can still stretch defenses with his perimeter shooting, but at this stage, he’s closer to the end of his career than the prime. Reddish showed promise before the season was suspended due to Covid-19, but he’ll only be entering his second season and nothing from his rookie year showed that he could leap similar to what Young did.

Regardless, the pressure is on Atlanta this year. General Manager Travis Schlenk and head coach Lloyd Pierce could have their futures with the franchise decided based upon this season’s outcome. These two men have put their faith in Young and his ability to be the guy on a good team. Now is his chance to prove their faith wasn’t misplaced.

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