Atlanta Hawks: Living and Dying by Trae Young

Trae Young is simultaneously the most promising and frustrating young scorer in the NBA, and the Atlanta Hawks, as much as they’ve shocked the world as a 5 seed first by destroying the equally upstart 4 seed New York Knicks in the first round and then by taking a 3-2 lead on the Philadelphia 76ers so far in Round 2, are living and dying by him.

Young, even though he’s three years into his career, all but guaranteed a giant extension this offseason as he enters the final year of his rookie contract, and has an All-Star appearance under his belt, still has seemingly the lowest floor and the highest ceiling of anyone in that 2018 draft.

Because man, he is downright Iversonian on his worst day, a shooter who can’t shoot, a scorer whose eye-popping counting stats are a result mainly of the volume of shots taken. Like Allen Iverson or Josh Smith or even Lance Stephenson, he can win you games with his scoring…or shoot you out of them.

Then again, the two times in ten tries this playoff season that he’s hit more than half his shots, the Hawks lost. And in a putrescent shooting performance Monday night in Game 4, Young shot 8-of-26 from the field, had more shot attempts (26) than points (25), and yet the Hawks won anyway, thanks mainly to Joel Embiid (17 points, 4-of-20) playing offense with his hands clutched firmly on his own throat.

Young hit 30.8 percent of his shots; the Hawks as a team hit 36.6. Still won. Unbelievable.

But even though the numbers don’t seem to want to behave themselves in the playoffs, we’re still talking about a guy who in three seasons has put up a .499 eFG% and hit just 34.3 percent of his shots from long range.

That’s not as awful as, say, Russell Westbrook, and it certainly makes the Allen Iverson comparisons seem unfair (Young’s a far better shooter than Iverson was even at his best, one more reason why AI is overrated, but I digress), but it’s still pretty bad by 2021 standards.

Except Young’s also a tremendous free throw shooter (88.6 percent this season, and he’s improved every year while posting an 86.1 percent career average) and one reason his wretched field goal percentage doesn’t reflect in his ratio of points to attempts (24.1 PPG, 17.7 FGA/game, for a juicy 1.36 points per shot.)

To give you some perspective on how efficient the NBA is now compared to “back then” for all you history misinterpreters and nostalgia-goggles types, 1.36 points per field goal attempt is better than Michael Jordan (1.31) and Kobe Bryant (1.28) put up in their careers.

If we throw out Jordan’s two years with the Wizards dragging down his career averages, he still only nets 1.35 points per shot attempt.

That’s what modern basketball buys you. I’m not saying for half a second that Trae Young is better than Michael Jordan, only that the NBA is so freaky efficient right now that we need to appreciate how even “shooters who can’t shoot” can still use fundamentally sound methods of 3-point shooting coupled with attacking the basket and getting to the line to do things that even the greatest players of the past weren’t able to achieve in the systems they played in at the time—even in the 3-point era.

Anyway, Young hit 7.7 free throws a game this regular season in 8.7 tries, and he’s averaging 8.1 free throw makes on 9.0 attempts in ten games in the playoffs (including a bananas 17-of-19 in that Game 5 win in Philadelphia on Wednesday night) even as the referees tend to swallow their whistles and the quality of opposing defenses rises. That’s 81-of-90. 90 percent even. Better even than the regular season in terms of both getting to the line and making shots.

Those 484 free throws Young made during the regular season despite playing in just 63 of the 72 games? He just led the league, y’know, as you do. Fully 30 percent of his total points came at the line.

This is one reason the Hawks can so easily weather Young’s bad shooting nights from the field. The guy’s always forcing his way to the line; quite a few of his misses are when he drew contact and the refs, since he’s a third-year player and his name is not James Harden, didn’t give him the whistle.

You start to appreciate Young as you watch him work on offense. He’s not Donovan Mitchell out there, the far less efficient volume scorer who always seems to come up snake eyes in the playoffs when the Utah Jazz, no matter how good they are during the regular season (and this year they were the best in the league), inevitably choke out well short of the Finals; they haven’t been past the second round in Mitchell’s four-year career, and the Los Angeles Clippers are one win in either Game 6 or 7 away from proving me right (or two losses from me jinxing them. We’ll see next week.)

Never mind that he can’t guard my dead grandmother defensively. As putrid as the Hawks were on defense during the regular season (21st in Defensive Rating), they’ve done a fine job of, say, forcing Embiid into barfing out a 4-for-20 night in a series-swinging game on the road. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if the Sixers had taken a 3-1 lead back to Philly, even if they lost Game 5. Instead of playing a do-or-die Game 6 on the road, the Sixers would have the luxury of knowing their worst-case scenario was a Game 7 at home against a team of guys with almost no playoff experience.

It’s kind of wild just how little playoff reps the Hawks have. Clint Capela has his time in Houston, but he was on the floor for the worst Game 7 choke job in Western Conference Finals history. Danilo Gallinari‘s only making his fifth playoff appearance in his career, and this is his first time playing in a second-round series. And Lou Williams has never been in a conference finals in 16 years in the league.

Then again, thanks mainly to Kawhi Leonard‘s follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along in Game 7 in 2019, the Sixers haven’t seen a conference finals since 2001; the last time before that the Sixers were in the ECF, Dr. J was still on the team as they lost to Larry Bird‘s Celtics in 1985. Granted, that Sixers team made seven conference finals in nine years, got to the NBA Finals four times, and won the championship in 1983.

So we’ll see if a franchise that has been a joke for most of the past 36 years will fall short against an upstart team riding an emerging superstar further than most teams making their first playoff appearance with a built-through-the-draft roster tend to.

Or we’ll see if Young’s tendency to shoot the ball terribly comes back to bite Atlanta and the Sixers can get back a little bit of the dignity of their franchise and finally make a conference finals for the first time in 20 years and only the second time in 36.