Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, NBA

Trae Young, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and the importance of context

Let’s talk about two players who, on the surface level, seem to have a lot in common. Both are rookies. Both were lottery picks. Both are point guards. Both are starters. Both even have just four letters in their first name. Just about everything else about them, however, seems different.

One is starting on one of the worst teams in the NBA. The other is starting on a playoff squad. One was given his starting job from Day 1, and his team is seemingly built entirely around his exploits. The other began the season on the bench and operates largely as a supplementary player, no matter with whom he shares the floor. One is 6-foot-2 and has a wingspan of 6-foot-3. The other is 6-foot-6 and has a wingspan of 6-foot-11.5.

One takes a ton of 3s, but is shooting terribly from pretty much every area of the floor while trying to figure out how best to get his looks, but has nevertheless experienced some explosive scoring outputs and has been a consistently excellent passer, making high-level reads in pick-and-rolls and transition and delivering the ball to teammates on time and on target. The other rarely shoots 3s, but is finishing well near the basket and excelling from mid-range, and making smart passes when given the opportunity. One is arguably the worst defender in the NBA and the other already looks like an average or better defender at multiple positions. One’s team is getting smoked when he’s on the floor and the other’s is outscoring its opponents when he’s in the game.

You’ve probably figured it out by now, but the two players who are simultaneously very similar and extraordinarily different are, of course, Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Young, the No. 5 overall pick, has been the foundation of the Hawks since the moment he was drafted. He’s largely struggled with his shot but he’s also put up some absurd stat lines, like 35 points and 11 assists against the Cavaliers, 25 and 17 against Shai’s Clippers, and 24 and 15 against the Heat. He has seven different games with 10 or more assists, second-most in the NBA behind only Kyle Lowry. If he keeps up the same rate of 10-assist games for the rest of the season, he’ll end up with the sixth-most for any rookie ever. He’s also the main focus of opposing defenses every single night, even with John Collins back in the lineup in recent days.

Gilgeous-Alexander, the No. 11 overall pick, began the season on the bench but has started the Clippers’ last 11 games and played a sizable role in their rise to the top of the Western Conference standings. His numbers have been more muted than Young’s, owing largely to his complementary role on a surprisingly dynamite Clippers squad. His career-highs are 19 points and 7 assists, and those came in different games. Gilgeous-Alexander, though, has rebounded well for his position, shown the ability to play either on or off the ball, and made a positive impact on defense with his length and size, and his ability to dart into passing lanes for steals and deflections.

Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The difference in how each point guard is used by his team is perhaps best exemplified through how often the ball is in their hands. Per an analysis of Second Spectrum tracking data on NBA.com, Young has had the ball in his hands 21.84 percent of the time he has been on the floor. Among the 211 players averaging at least 20 minutes per game, that rate ranks FIFTH in the entire league. Only James Harden, John Wall, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook have had the ball in their hands a greater percentage of the time. Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, has had the ball in his hands 13.72 percent of the time he has been on the floor, which ranks 46th among the same group of players. That’s on par with players like Patty Mills and teammate Lou Williams. Young also averages considerably more seconds and dribbles per touch than Gilgeous-Alexander, owing to his role as the primary creator on his team.

via NBA.com/stats

So what are we to make of the differences in performance between these two players? Young has largely been more productive, but much of that production has been driven by simply being given more opportunities — you can’t score or assist on baskets if you don’t have the ball. Gilgeous-Alexander has been more efficient and appears to have more directly contributed to winning, but it’s easier to be efficient when working as a complementary player and it’s definitely easier to contribute to winning basketball when your teammates are also doing so.

In a way, this is largely what we should have expected from these two players at this stage of their respective careers. Young was drafted by one of the worst teams in the league, given the keys right away, and thrown to the wolves with the expectation that he would experience great successes and great failure, and learn from both. That’s exactly what’s happened. Gilgeous-Alexander was drafted by a team with clear playoff aspirations which hoped that he would contribute right away but didn’t necessarily need him to do so, and elevated him to a larger role when it became clear that he could hang. Both guys have their strengths and their weaknesses, and those are magnified by their current situations.

Young is small and thin and has just about as much confidence in his ability to create and make any shot from anywhere on the floor as anyone you’ve ever seen. It was entirely predictable that the combination of those attributes would result in a poor shooting season as a rookie — so much so that nearly everyone in and around the league predicted that it would happen. But Young also has magnificent floor vision, a dedication to controlling tempo, tremendous gravity, and the ability to leverage said gravity in order to create opportunities for his teammates. All of that has shown through already this season as well. On the nights where his shot is falling, you see flashes of an unstoppable offensive force. As he learns how and where to get his looks, his shooting numbers will gradually improve.

Young’s size and lack of strength are concerning on defense. He’s likely been the single worst individual defender in the NBA so far this season. But again, that was entirely expected — especially when you consider the offensive burden he bears and how difficult it is for any player to excel on both ends of the floor, let alone a rookie. He does have good hands, though, and if he can figure out a way to simply be more bothersome in passing lanes he could mitigate some of the inherent defensive weaknesses he has. He’ll likely never be a pure positive on that end of the floor, but if the offense comes around the way the Hawks hope it does, that matters less than it does right now.

Gilgeous-Alexander, meanwhile, is benefitting from not having to do any more than he currently can do. He runs the offense sometimes. He’s a cog in the machine at others. He can handle plenty of defensive matchups, but he has Patrick Beverley there to take on the toughest backcourt player if need be. He’s given opportunities to operate as a secondary creator, working second-side pick-and-rolls, attacking closeouts, and getting in the post against shorter defenders when the chance presents itself. The Clippers don’t necessarily depend on his production in any given area on a night-to-night basis, but they typically get it anyway. And if they don’t, well, they have plenty of other options they can turn to.

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Gilgeous-Alexander already has an incredible feel for how and when to modulate his speed, and he’s shown he can leverage his length into positive plays on both ends of the floor. The extendo-arms layup that is so popular with lanky players around the league is already in his arsenal, just 20 or so games into his career. He can make the easy plays and the right plays, and the tougher ones that not everyone sees will come to him as he gets more and more opportunities. Being given the chance to learn and excel at the same time without the pressure or having to do everything (or even anything) on any given night can be a tremendous gift for a player, and it’s one Gilgeous-Alexander has right now.

None of this necessarily means Gilgeous-Alexander is or will be flat-out better than Young. But it also doesn’t mean he won’t. With these two players and two situations, we’ll be given a nice test-case of the different ways that young point guards can be developed. It’ll be fascinating to watch.

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