Atlanta Hawks, Nylon Calculus

Nylon Calculus: Trae Young is more James Harden than Steph Curry

It’s time to put aside the Stephen Curry comparisons for good. Trae Young is a uniquely talented offensive player but in the James Harden mold.

The comparisons to Steph Curry started even before Trae Young officially declared for the NBA Draft. His slight built, flashy handle and propensity for pulling up off the dribble at any time, even well behind the 3-point arc and 30 feet from the basket, made the analogy fairly obvious and it surrounded his pre-draft profile, persisting through his first two seasons.

The obvious failure of the comparison is that Curry is perhaps the greatest shooter in NBA history and Young has proven to be closer to league average in accuracy (although his accuracy would probably be a lot higher if he wasn’t so dedicated to duplicating Curry’s wildly aggressive shot selection).

But as Young moves through his third NBA season, his statistical profile has begun to expand in a different outlier direction, one that even further erodes the Curry comparison but makes James Harden seem increasingly apt.

Why is Trae Young more like James Harden than Steph Curry?

So far this season, Young is averaging 10.1 free throw attempts per game, second only to post-anchor Joel Embiid. That mark is nearly double what Young averaged per game as a rookie two years ago. The 3-point shot is still the most easily identifiable part of Young’s game but getting to the free-throw line has become his most powerful offensive weapon. This season, 34.8 percent of his points have been scored at the free-throw line, tying Kevin Martin (in 2006-07) for the highest mark in a high-volume scoring season of the last 15 years.

The graph below shows all player seasons with an average of at least 23.0 points per game over the last 15 years, with each player marked by their scoring average and the percent of their points that came from the free-throw line. Young, Curry and Harden are all highlighted for comparison.

Physically, Trae Young (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) is much closer to Curry (6-foot-3, 185 pounds) than to Harden (6-foot-5, 220 pounds), which makes his prodigious free throw rate even more impressive. Two weeks ago, Dashiell Nusbaum introduced an app here at Nylon Calculus that allows you to look at historical stats benchmarks by height. His dataset doesn’t appear to be full updated by Young’s mark this season would still be the highest of the 3-point era for any player his size, and by a wide margin. In fact, it would be an elite number for even for players 7-foot-2 or taller.

The ability to draw fouls and free throws has become the defining aspect of Harden’s game over the past few years, much to the ire of certain basketball purists. And Young has moved in that direction by picking up some of Harden’s tricks, particularly the ability to draw shooting fouls beyond the arc.

Over the past five seasons, James Harden has drawn 367 shooting fouls on 3-point attempts, a rate of about 1.16 per 36 minutes and more than double the total for any other player over the same time span — Damian Lillard is second with 143, one of only four players beside’s Harden to top 100. But if we focus in on just this season and last, we find Young drawing close. He’s drawn 51 to Harden’s 78 (the two highest totals in the league) and his per-36 minute rate — 0.70 to Harden’s 0.94 — is closing as well.

Two years ago I looked at Harden’s preternatural ability for drawing fouls away from the basket and found that it wasn’t just about manipulating referees or exploiting sloppy closeouts with heaves at the basket that he otherwise wouldn’t have taken:

“But foul-drawing is often lauded as a meaningful skill in the paint and Harden has simply figured out how to extend the range on that ability. He is a good 3-point shooter, so teams have to guard him closely. He is a devastating ball-handler so defenders have to be ready to react to any change of direction. The result is limited space and an off-balance defensive player. For years, ball-handlers have exploited that advantage by driving to the basket. Harden has figured out the math on staying put.”

More than any other player, Harden has established the pattern of getting a defender off balance and playing for a pull-up 3-pointer as often as trying to blow past them to the rim. The result has been a lot of made 3-pointers but also a lot of contact as defenders haphazardly try and contest from a disadvantage. More and more, we’re saying Young take advantage of the same strategy.

To be clear, he’s also gotten better at the Reggie Miller school of baiting defenders into contact on shots he wouldn’t otherwise take, and he’s also driving often and getting plenty of contract at the basket. But all of those strategies put together are what’s helping him get the most out of his offensive toolbox this season. Trae Young can make difficult shots but at this point, there is precious little evidence that he is actually or will ever be a scheme-busting shooter on the level of Stephen Curry. But, like James Harden, it appears he’s already figuring out how to create elite efficiency in other ways.

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