HIS FINISHING MOVE was probably unnecessary, but Trae Young knows he wouldn’t be here watching the play otherwise.
Young, his Atlanta Hawks jerseys on display all around him, is sitting in a folding chair inside the locker room of the team’s shimmering, new practice facility.
The Hawks call this area their “flex space,” and today, it’s serving as Young’s personal film room. He peers down at the screen beside him to watch a highlight he has seen countless times.
“Oh yep,” he says with a coy grin. “This play.”
Young is about to school LaMarcus Aldridge.
In the video, Young catches the San Antonio Spurs‘ big man in a one-on-one mismatch in a tight game on Nov. 5, hitting the seven-time All-Star with back-to-back crossovers before blowing by him and firing a one-handed, no-look dime to a cutting DeAndre’ Bembry.
Rewatching now, Young is asked why he pulled the ball back a second time. After all, he already had Aldridge beat.
“Sometimes I like having fun,” Young says.
A few things stands out the more you watch Young with the ball in his hands: He’s always in control. He’s always slightly ahead. And there is always function to the flash.
“Immediately once I get past LaMarcus, my read is not Derrick [White], it’s the guy behind him,” Young adds. “For me, I know I’m probably not going to score this. So it’s either a lob at the rim or [pass to Bembry], who likes to cut and slash to the basket.”
Young runs through more highlights, some recognizable, some subtle — a 3-pointer that was part of this career-high 49 points on Nov. 29, a perfect touchdown pass assist from last season.
They are all examples of why Young has vaulted to fourth in the NBA in scoring at 28.8 points and has taken the early lead in All-Star voting among Eastern Conference guards, all despite the ongoing struggles of the 8-28 Hawks.
The tight handle, the herky-jerky change of pace, the floaters, the runners, the tear drops, the step-backs, the deep 3s off the dribble — it’s all there, all showcasing a deep bag of tricks belonging to one of the league’s most exciting phenoms.
TRAE YOUNG CAN’T dunk.
Well, he can, it’s more that he chooses not to. Most NBA origin stories include the time and date of their first dunk, a sort of coming-of-age, eureka moment that alerts everyone — including themselves — that there is some special talent within.
Young’s first dunk was his junior year of high school. Or maybe it was his sophomore year? His dad, Rayford Young, is having a hard time remembering.
“I wouldn’t really call it a dunk even,” Rayford Young says, laughing to himself. “It was more of a throw-in. But I always told him I’d count it as a dunk. He tried to dunk on people a few times, and it’s actually pretty funny to me to see him try.”
Ask about the first logo 3, though? That memory is vivid.
The power of the deep 3 can be as momentum-changing and crowd-pleasing as a poster, anyway. The modern NBA has turned inside-out, and logo launchers such as Trae Young are the new high-flyers.
Thirty feet from the basket, the rim might start to look like a mirage. The white on the backboard square blends in with the glass. The rim is far less inviting, teasing like a rigged game at the state fair.
To Young, 30 feet is 20 feet is 10 feet. Open is open.
Yet, as Young shifts his attention to the screen playing one deep 3-pointer that features one full shoe on the Hawks’ half-court logo, he drops his head and cracks a sheepish smile, scratching the wiry whiskers on his chin.
The bottom right corner of the screen shows 18 seconds left on the shot clock when Young lets it fly.
“I don’t necessarily like taking shots like this,” Young says.
The tape disagrees. After the shot falls, Young taps his chest and struts back on defense. He interrupts the video.
“I don’t like taking shots like this if I haven’t seen the ball go in,” he clarifies. “So if I had a floater that goes in, then I take one like this. It’s different.”
Young is willing to concede the audacious nature of the shot, though. It’s the kind of heat-check heave that could drive many coaches mad, and Young is self-aware enough to acknowledge that.
But it was never something that anyone ever tried to coach out of Young. There’s a simple reason: His dad was his coach.
“I let him get away with that stuff,” Rayford Young says, “because I knew what he could do, since I was in the gym with him every day. But if he would’ve been playing for another coach, I can honestly say they might not have let him do that.
“They might’ve taken away his confidence at an early age.”
Confidence has never been an issue for Trae Young. Some of his 3s are almost comical, the kind that normally wins someone a year of fast food or an oversized, $20,000 check.
“I’ll go home and watch the game again, and I don’t realize necessarily how deep I am until I watch it,” Young says. “So after I watch it at home, I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s crazy.'”
When the Hawks drafted Young, the deep 3 was built into his DNA. After all, those types of shots had already taken over the game, and Young was merely the poster boy for the next generation of guards with unlimited range.
“If this is the next trend,” Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce says, “and he’s a guy capable of doing it, when he’s effective, that’s something special.
“That’s a skill we were attracted to, not surprised by.”
“I told him, ‘If you’re just going to be a 3-point shooter, you’re probably going to end up going to a Division II school.'”
Rayford Young, on his son Trae Young
This season, no one has attempted more 30-footers than Young, according to Second Spectrum tracking. His 2.3 30-foot attempts per game laps the field — Damian Lillard (1.4) is the only other player with at least one attempt per game.
Young’s 33.7% conversion rate on those deep looks isn’t great, but consider everything the threat of the shot sets up.
Young stretches defenses to their limit, extending their pickup points to beyond half court. It creates the space for Young to blow by his defender, setting up the Hawks to play 5-on-4 and letting Young read the floor.
“He’s never going to be the biggest, the fastest or the most athletic,” Rayford Young says, “but that’s gonna be the key to his game, to be able to knock that down consistently.
“Because guys aren’t going to know how to guard you.”
VINCE CARTER KNOWS better than most: Once you are on the floor with an elite passer, be ready. The ball might catch you.
“Your awareness is heightened,” said Carter, who has shared the court with point guards such as Jason Kidd, Mark Jackson and Jason Williams during his 21-year career.
“[Trae Young] is definitely in the conversation with those three guys as far as passing and no-look-passing ability,” Carter adds. “He does it so easy. Effortless.”
Inside the practice facility, Young is dissecting a sequence that had the entire Detroit Pistons defense spinning during a February game last season.
In the play, Young fakes a behind-the-back pass, goes through his legs and drops a no-look bounce pass to Dewayne Dedmon for a dunk. It’s spicy, but it’s also part of Young’s plan all along.
“When I’m dribbling down the court, I know I’m about to get a screen, and I know my man is going to go over it,” Young says.
“The scouting report is Dewayne likes to pop a lot. If Blake [Griffin] is in front of me, Bruce [Brown] is probably thinking, ‘I have to get back to his man,’ because he likes to pop and hit 3s.
“So whenever I went behind my back — I do a lot of passes where I come off screens and pass behind my back — so when I wrapped it around my back [Brown] thought I passed it back to a popping big.”
As Young entered the NBA, scouts all said the same thing: Young is an elite shooter with unique range, but his true gift is his passing.
He’s a maestro of using bounce passes to tunnel the ball through defenses. He uses subtle glances and nods to stagger defenders off balance.
Game plans are being designed with that in mind. Slow down Trae Young, slow down the Hawks. Defenses blitz and trap, trying to force the ball out of his hands early.
A developmental focus for Young has been adapting to playing against two on the ball, making the right read out of a trap and trusting a teammate with the next pass. Hawks coaches are emphasizing hockey assists.
It’s also why Young watches plenty of film from a fellow point guard he idolized as a kid.
YOUNG HAS DRAWN plenty of comparisons throughout college and his NBA career, with pundits attaching him to players such as Stephen Curry due to the duo’s penchant for launching deep 3-pointers.
But if there is one player Young seems to really embrace a comparison to, it’s another two-time MVP: Steve Nash.
Nash was Young’s favorite player growing up, and it’s easy to see, with the slight stature, crafty handle and deadeye shooting, how parts of his game has been shaped by offseason workouts with the Hall of Fame point guard.
Young still studies tape of Nash: the way he maintained his dribble through traffic and under the basket and found cutters and shooters at the last moment.
And the floater Nash used to perfection.
Young’s focus shifts to a highlight against the Golden State Warriors from early December. He had just beat Warriors wing Glenn Robinson III to the paint and fakes a quick, behind-the-back pass before gathering for a floater like he’s trying to toss an egg onto a countertop without it breaking.
“As soon as I get past my man, I know he’s beat, so it’s about me making reads [after] him,” Young says. “You’ve always got to remember, once you get past your defender, he’s gone. Once he’s behind me, I know I don’t have to worry about him.
“I have to start reading everybody else.”
Young neutralizes shot-blockers who get caught between playing center field and recovering back to a big who could be open for an easy lob. Young has worked at the floater probably more than any other shot — even more than 3-pointers.
“Because there are so many big dudes, so many dudes with length down there [in the paint],” Young says. “It’s hard to time a floater as a shot-blocker.”
Young learned the importance of the floater at an early age. His dad always had him playing against older kids, so the 6-foot-2 guard is no stranger to being the shortest guy on the floor. They’d do drills with Young shooting floaters over a broomstick to get the feel for lifting the ball over outstretched arms.
“I told him, ‘If you’re just going to be a 3-point shooter, you’re probably going to end up going to a Division II school,'” Rayford Young says.
As an undersized scorer, Young leans heavily on a midrange floater the coaching staff tries to urge him to be judicious with. It’s the kind of shot Nash was known for, and it’s one Young knows he can execute almost anytime he wants.
“We know; he’s a talent, he’s a gift,” Hawks assistant coach Marlon Garnett says. “He can create anything on his man, and when he gets into that area, that floater is always there.”
Young’s development is a collective task for the entire Hawks organization, but Garnett spearheads it as the constant voice in his ear, the shot-selection angel on one shoulder to the 30-footer-chucking devil on the other.
The 44-year-old has the authority to make the Nash comparison more than most: He was teammates with Nash at Santa Clara.
On the season, Young is shooting 48.9% on non-restricted area paint shots and is fifth in the league with 2.9 makes per game. He is shooting 47% on floaters this season on the most attempts in the league (116), per Second Spectrum tracking.
It’s a give and take: Analytically inclined defensive schemes encourage you to take them, but Young is proficient at making them. As Garnett says, it’s about discretion.
“Just because that play is always going to be available for you,” Garnett says, “doesn’t always mean it’s the right one all the time.”
THE HIGHLIGHTS KEEP coming as Young sits and watches from his seat in the locker room: More no-look passes, howitzer 30-footers, ruthless crossovers and dazzling, ballhandling maneuvers.
They are the types of plays that keep Young an #NBATwitter darling, populating 10-minute YouTube reels and making him one of the freshest, most exciting young players in the league.
There are so many plays to choose from that eventually he has to cut the film session short to get to a team meeting. Back to reality, back to figuring this season out.
Young remains painfully aware that his offensive rise has not coincided with the Hawks’ following suit.
After an encouraging finish to last season, some saw Atlanta as a possible dark horse in a wide-open East, but this season has gone horribly awry. There have been tense, frustrating moments for Young. And despite his offensive explosion, he remains a drag on the team’s numbers on the other end (he has a defensive rating of 115.0 this season, fourth worst in the league among players with at least 30 minutes per game).
But overall, he’s the same resolute, confident self that he was when he started his career.
He trusts the developmental process that kind of reversal requires. He believes in the Hawks’ young talent. He’s not panicking.
“For me, it’s kind of a weird feeling,” Young says.
“Obviously, I’m playing really well individually. But at the same time, we’re not winning as many games as I wanted to.”
“I want to win. I want to win, and I know that that’s gonna take care of everything else.”