25-under-25: Trae Young at No. 4

25-under-25, Atlanta Hawks

After quieting critics by guiding his Atlanta Hawks to the Eastern Conference Finals, what does Trae Young have in store for an encore?

Trae Young might be the NBA’s next great villain.

Like any good wrestling heel, Young seems to revel in infuriating fans. After hitting a game-winning floater in Game 2 of the Atlanta Hawks‘ first-round series victory over the New York Knicks this past spring, he put his finger to his lips to silence the heartbroken Madison Square Garden crowd. He hasn’t stopped taunting Knicks fans ever since.

Unfortunately for Knicks fans — and the rest of the NBA — Young can back up his trash talk with his play.

The No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 draft dropped from averaging 29.6 points per game as a sophomore to 25.3 points per game last season. That was largely attributable to the infusion of talent Atlanta brought in, from Clint Capela at the 2020 trade deadline to Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari in free agency last year.

After making the All-Star Game as a sophomore, Young missed out this past season, as the Hawks got off to a rocky 14-20 start under then-head coach Lloyd Pierce. Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick of The Athletic published a report in early January detailing some behind-the-scenes tension between Young and fourth-year forward John Collins, who had just turned down a reported four-year, $90 million extension offer from Atlanta.

During one film session, Collins reportedly “shared his unfiltered and unhappy views” about how Young “was running the offense,” Kirschner and Amick wrote. “According to three sources who were either in the session or had knowledge of what was said, Collins raised several issues about the way these Hawks were functioning with Young at the helm,” they added.

The Hawks fired Pierce in early March, and they promptly went 27-11 over the remainder of the season under interim head coach Nate McMillan. Injuries ravaged them during the first half of the season, but they got healthy and caught fire heading into the playoffs.

That’s when Young put any questions about his game to rest.

During the postseason, Trae Young showed just what his ceiling could be for the Atlanta Hawks?

At 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, Young has been one of the NBA’s worst defenders ever since he joined the league three years ago. It was fair to wonder whether teams would routinely hunt him on that end of the floor in the playoffs when it’s easier to construct opponent-specific game plans that harp on weaknesses.

Personnel limitations might have prevented the Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers from doing so, but it also wouldn’t have mattered. Young went off for an outrageous 29.2 points and 9.8 assists per game in the Hawks’ first-round thrashing of the Knicks, and he averaged 29.0 points and 10.9 assists in their second-round victory over the Sixers.

Young then fueled a Game 1 upset of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, finishing with a season-high 48 points on 17-of-34 shooting, 11 assists and seven rebounds. However, he wound up missing Games 4 and 5 with a bone bruise in his ankle, and he was a shell of himself in the Hawks’ Game 6 closeout loss.

Having now gotten his first taste of playoff success, Young figures to enter the 2021-22 season hungrier than ever. The Hawks re-signed Collins in free agency and brought in promising rookies Jalen Johnson and Sharife Cooper, making them one of the deepest teams in the Eastern Conference.

They’ll only go as far as Young takes them, though.

With Young on the floor last season, the Hawks averaged a scorching 118.2 points per 100 possessions, nearly a full point ahead of the Brooklyn Nets’ league-leading mark (117.3). With him on the bench, they mustered a meager 104.4 points per 100 possessions, ahead of only the Oklahoma City Thunder’s league-worst mark (102.8).

That’s a testament both to Young’s floor vision and his three-level scoring ability. Not only is he slithery off the dribble and among the league’s best foul-drawers, but he also boasts game-breaking shooting range.

This past season, Young shot 55-of-140 (39.3 percent) on attempts at least 28 feet away from the basket. He was third leaguewide in makes from that distance, trailing only Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard. In 2019-20, Lillard was the only player to hit more treys than Young from 28 feet or further.

Young isn’t ever likely to become a plus defender, but he might not need to. As long as he continues to find the proper balance between scoring and playmaking, he’ll be Atlanta’s centerpiece for years to come.

The Hawks are flying under the radar compared to the defending champion Bucks and the star-studded Nets, but they have a real chance of making a second straight Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Whether they can upset one of the East favorites may come down to what Young has in store for an encore this year.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats via NBA.com, PBPStats, Cleaning the Glass or Basketball-Reference. All salary information via Spotrac.

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