YOUNG MONEY: The Discography of an Emerging Point-God
People didn’t always know what to make of Trae Young. As a high school prospect, the Oklahoma native was known as a premier perimeter marksman with surpassing ball-handling skills and a silky smooth jumper. He surprised many by staying home for his lone year of college, yet even after his record-breaking freshman campaign as a Sooner, the future Hawks centerpiece had more red flags than gold stars during his draft evaluation process.
If Trae had one thing going for him it was how well he fit the “Curry archetype.” The hypothesis was simple: “If even 75% of Stephen Curry’s success could be replicated in Trae, then his suitor would have an incredible asset.”
The reality, though, is that there are a low number of transcendent talents with Trae’s physical makeup and shot profile that have made a significant impact on their teams’ success. Due to his size, and the freshness of the NBA’s move to the perimeter, Trae ran the very real risk of being given the old “undersized combo-guard” glass ceiling. In a vacuum, it makes sense, but in quantifying his game, we can isolate two months of Trae’s production (February & March) and see just how similar they are to two of Curry’s early years - the 2009-10 and 2010-11 campaigns. The potential for success was very real.
It’s easy to point to the Warriors’ three rings and laud their foresight, but this draft thing is an inexact science. Someone once said - and meant - “Johnny Flynn was an okay NBA player, but he’s no Ricky Rubio…” When you consider that both Rubio and Flynn were selected before Curry, arguably the best shooter in league history, it puts the difficulty of draft day into even greater context.
Every franchise has its share of lottery busts littering its history, and every GM fears taking Bowie over Jordan or Oden over Durant, but it’s hard not to project future headaches for GM’s that passed on Trae. For some risk-averse franchises, it almost doesn’t matter how successful Curry has been. Even during this statistical overhaul where three point bombs are the new slam dunk, Trae’s archetype is still problematic. The endemic reluctance towards drafting Trae shocked almost no one, but should it?
What’s tough to understand is how GM’s projected Ayton or Bagley as better prospects than Trae at all. Taking a snapshot of the league, we should have put more value on the theory of Trae’s game. The question of who won the Hawks-Mavs trade may not be answered until their primes have come and gone, but Trae’s status as a top tier point-guard prospect is undeniable. Forget other rookie point guards -- to date, he is currently 4th in the league in assists per game. The only players who lead him are a five-time All-Star and two former MVPs, one who might be the best player to ever play the game.
Da Drought III:
After a Summer League to forget, Trae hardly set the league on fire when regular season play began. During the month of November, Trae was humbled, and as Luka Doncic proved that his skills would very capably transfer from Europe, there were many who believed that the Hawks had erred catastrophically in their draft-day swap. Still in a reasonable period of adjustment, Trae’s timing and shot selection looked nothing like his best college performances. While his playmaking was a welcomed constant, Trae looked more ‘Mike Conley’ than ‘Steph Curry’. This isn’t a huge indictment on his game, but it wasn’t what Hawks fans had in mind.
In establishing himself as a dynamic passer, though, Trae learned to read the game and create for his teammates while he found his shot. Steph Curry didn’t become ‘STEPH CURRY’ until he was 24; the thought that Trae had to realize GM Travis Schlenk’s vision of “Warriors-East” in one month, let alone one season was a ridiculous one, but fans aren’t known for their rational thoughts.
November stats: 14 points, 8 assists, 3 reb / 20% 3p / 3 attempts / 4. 2 T.O. / 28 min: 16 games
The Carter III:
In February, the shooting light came on. Trae shot ten or more 3’s in five out of the Hawks twelve games. This was a welcome uptick for Trae, having only had two such games during his previous 50 contests. Not only was he shooting threes, he was making bombs, leading the league in deep threes - those from over 28 feet out. He wasn’t just making threes, he was changing the geometry of the court, forcing teams to consider how they would defend more real estate than they ever had before. Just as important is the confidence he gained from succeeding in all aspects of his offensive game. Sorry for the wait, but Trae had finally adjusted to the league, and his star was officially on the rise.
February stats: 23 points, 9 assists, 4 reb / 43% 3p / 7 attempts / 3.3 T.O. / 33 min: 12 games
No Ceilings: What is the defining characteristic of the modern NBA star? If we assume that Trae’s best asset is his playmaking, he shouldn’t be such a great shooter. If we define the future of basketball as the ability to hit from range, he shouldn’t be so good at setting up his teammates. We keep thinking that apex-Trae is Curry, but in ten years in the league, Curry has only one season where he has averaged more assists than Trae has as a rookie. What we should project is a player who tips the usage scale on its head. Forget lottery bust: averaging close to a 20 & 8 puts Trae closer to a legit All-Star snub.
March stats: 22 points, 8 assists, 5 reb / 37% 3p / 6 attempts / 4.0 T.O. / 31 Min: 10 games
At this point, this small, shoot-first, point-God still has a very liquid ceiling. His playmaking is the main reason that the Hawks have a 112 offensive rating - Top-5 in the league, and that John Collins has as much upside as any big-man in the Association. His shooting ensures that the Hawks will be on the cutting edge of the statistical revolution. His dynamism ushers in a set of new opportunities for the ceiling of Lloyd Pierce’s team, making them the League Pass MVP and boding well for the eventual success of their emerging young star.
Four years ago, the Hawks rose like a phoenix to a 60-Win season, more than Atlanta had ever known; they burned too bright and were at the top of the lottery three years later. These Hawks are the real deal, and their undersized, underrated, unanticipated talisman will lead them out of the wilderness and to the promised land.