Trae Young comes into tonight’s game versus the Brooklyn Nets averaging 15.5 points per game (3rd among rookies) and 7.3 assists per game (1st among rookies and 9th in the NBA). Those are solid NBA numbers for anyone and arguably terrific for a rookie, but for Young, many look for the negatives.
There are some negatives. Young is shooting 39% from the field and 29% from beyond the three-point line. He is also averaging four turnovers per game, good for 4th worst in the league.
He is a rookie.
We used to be able to say a kid’s going to take his lumps in his rookie season and look past some of the early mistakes. For some players we still can.
Luka Doncic, widely considered the best player so far from the 2018 draft, is averaging 19.6 points, 4.9 assists, and 6.7 rebounds. Those are also impressive numbers for a rookie. Doncic is shooting just 43% from the field and is averaging 3.3 turnovers per game. However, you rarely hear anyone doing anything but gush over Doncic, perhaps rightfully so. Young, like other star rookies in his class – notably, Deandre Ayton - has been disproportionally overshadowed by Doncic and the attention he does receive from the media and fans alike, is often perplexingly negative.
Young is aware of this.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” Young said before his game against the Nets last month, when I asked him why he seemed to have so many “haters.” “I didn’t know me playing basketball would cause so many people not to like me.”
“I definitely recognize it,” he continued. “Something that my Dad has always told me is that there’s more people out there that love you than don’t. So, the more people that don’t like me, that just shows there’s even more people in the world that do. So, I don’t even trip, I don’t let it affect me or think about it too much.”
It is hard to pinpoint a reason for the skepticism about Young’s game, but a few reasons that you hear from the anti-Trae Young crowd include the hype he received at the college level and the lofty comparisons that some in the media and basketball circles made between him and Stephen Curry.
Although Young started his college career in spectacular fashion and tailed off statistically in the second half of his first and only season at Oklahoma, he still finished the season as the NCAA leader in points (27.4) and assists (8.7) per game, a feat that had never been accomplished by anyone, much less by a freshman. In an age where hype is handed out like candy on Halloween, Young’s praise and acclaim seemed justified.
As for the Stephen Curry comparisons, it is never fair to compare a college player or rookie NBA player to a two-time league MVP, three-time NBA champion, and a player many consider to be the best shooter of all time. Granted, Young may have been a victim of believing his own hype by falling in love with ridiculously deep 3-point attempts, but, hey, the kid is young and shot selection is a much easier fix than shot mechanics or confidence.
His struggles with his outside shot are what most of Young’s detractors point to and is particularly bothersome to those flabbergasted by the Curry comparisons. 39% from the field and 29% from three-point range is not good, but the problem stems mostly from poor shot selection rather than any mechanical issue with his shot. If you take away some of his unnecessary 30-foot attempts, it’s likely his 3-point percentage would be more respectable.
Moreover, Young is a 20-year-old obviously still learning the game. To put up 16 points and 7 assists on a regular basis in the NBA, on a team with maybe the least talent in the league is truly an accomplishment.
“I think it’s going really good,” Young said about his rookie season. “I mean, I definitely could be better, knocking down shots, making more shots. But for me, doing what I’m doing without making threes, I think is a good thing. I mean, I’m doing pretty good.”
With all the talk about his shooting percentage and turnovers, things most rookies struggle with, people are missing the many positives he brings as a rookie. Young’s ability to finish around the rim at his size, his court vision and his uncanny ability to draw fouls and get to the free throw line have all been extremely impressive.
“Obviously, [Young] hasn’t shot the ball well from three this year and part of the education and conversation with him is shot selection,” Hawks’ coach Lloyd Pierce told me after that December game in Brooklyn, in which Young posted 13 points and 10 assists.
Young is confident his shooting will come around.
“For me, I know why I’m missing now. I’m shooting flat, I’m not getting enough arch on it. I’m not doing the things that I’ve been doing since I was 5-years-old,” he said. “So, I think it’s just getting in the gym more, getting back to my mechanics. That’s gonna come.”
So, you’re confident your shooting will come? “My confidence never varies.”
Vince Carter, in his 21st season in the NBA, thinks Young will be just fine if he focuses on the most important thing: being a point guard.
“The most important thing [for Young], outside of everything, is learning how to run his team,” Carter said after the Brooklyn game. “When you’re a point guard you have a huge responsibility. Coming in as a 2 through 5, you have some responsibility, but as a point guard, running the team, having the keys at this young age, it’s a huge responsibility. I think these are the growing pains that he will go through that will help him last as long as he wants to in the league.”
“We always talk about ‘oh his shooting,’” Carter said mimicking Young’s critics, “and we talk about the percentage or we talk about his assists. None of that matters, you have to run your team.”
Running a team and being a traditional point guard is something that Young seems very comfortable with, evidenced by his high assist numbers despite the lack of any proven scorers around him. Young, for one, is also confident in his playmaking abilities.
“I just feel like I’m smarter than my opponent. I think I can out-think my opponent, whether it’s knowing how to get fouled or knowing where my teammates are at. I’m a cerebral point guard.”
His coach is on the same page.
“Because he has the skill to facilitate for other guys, he can get 10 assists pretty much every night. I think he had 10 again tonight and I thought he had a great floor game,” Pierce continued in December.
If you take away the hype, the unfair comparisons or the infatuation with other rookies, Trae Young is having a rookie season comparable to anyone in his draft class. He has already proven to be an elite passer at this level, having been top ten in assists for the majority of the season. He is one of two rookies to be top ten in a major category (the Knicks’ Mitchell Robinson is currently 10th in blocks).
Young has been even more impressive since we talked in December. In his last 12 games, starting with the Brooklyn game, Young is averaging 15.4 points, 7.6 assists and is shooting 44% from the field and, get this, 50% from three-point range.
Young is clearly “doing pretty good” in this his rookie season and his trajectory is pointing up. Haters be damned.