The Atlanta Hawks are off to a strong 3-0 start to the season, thanks mostly to having the league’s best offense through the first week of the regular season.
Atlanta spent their offseason spending considerably to upgrade its roster, splurging on Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo, as it made clear its intentions not just to take a leap into being a playoff contender, but also to prove to Trae Young that the organization is committed to getting him the help he’s craved. Through three games, the Hawks are averaging 123.7 points per 100 possessions, the most in the league by a full four points over the Lakers, and are second to L.A. in effective field goal percentage as a team at 59.1 percent, per Cleaning the Glass.
Young is the driving force behind this offensive explosion, as he has been fully unleashed by the newfound spacing of the Hawks offense. The third-year star is averaging 34 points and 7.3 assists per game on mind-numbing efficiency, hitting 53 percent of his shots (42.1 percent from three). Most staggering is the way he’s getting to the free throw line. Young has steadily emerged as one of the NBA’s great grifters in the same vein as James Harden and the man he’s forever tied to in his draft class, Luka Doncic. A year ago, Young got to the line 9.3 times per game, with a free throw rate of .443, while Harden’s free throw rate was .528.
Through three games this season, Young has taken the art of drawing fouls to a completely new level, one that would even make the Beard blush, as his free throw rate is an astronomical .939. He’s gone to the line 46 times while taking just 49 field goal attempts so far this season. Once at the stripe, he’s hit 42 of those 46 attempts, good for 91 percent, and has controlled every game he’s been in with his ability to change speed, embrace contact, and manipulate his way to the charity stripe.
Take this play on Monday night against the Pistons for instance and tell me it doesn’t remind you of Harden. Young rejects the screen and slithers his way past his man, sweeping his arms across his body as he recognizes the reach is on its way from the help side so he can gather, get the contact, and put up the runner off the glass for an and-1.
Absolutely nothing you can do about this. pic.twitter.com/i7avv5ORjc
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 29, 2020
He’s not just learned the dark arts of finding and finishing through contact in the paint, but is finding his way to the line from the perimeter as well. Watch as he toys with Jonas Valanciunas, creating just enough space to get off a shot but also keeping the big man close enough that he goes for the aggressive closeout where Young can catch some contact down low with the subtle kickout and get himself an and-1 opportunity.
Don't do 'em like that Trae! 🥶 pic.twitter.com/Nlk5n08fUk
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) December 27, 2020
What separates the greats in the art of getting to the foul line is being able to do so in a natural way that doesn’t impede your ability to score when the fouls aren’t there, and that’s something you can see in Young. Even when he doesn’t draw the contact, you can see how it’s just become a natural part of his game when he drives. Look at the way he sweeps the arms through quickly from left to right on this floater, knowing the reach is coming from behind on his right, and even though he doesn’t get the contact, he just goes about his business and knocks down the floater.
That’s the mark of the elite grifters, the ones who transform buckets into and-1s, and missed calls (or efforts to draw contact that come up empty) into buckets. Young came into the league tabbed as the next Stephen Curry because of his smaller stature and ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor, but “short Harden” is maybe a more apt comparison for the way his offensive game has developed, which is honestly a rather incredible development.
When Young was coming into the league, one of the questions he faced was how he’d do as a finisher. In college, he wasn’t the best at the rim, didn’t seem to always embrace contact, and doesn’t have the elite athleticism to blow by defenders to create significant space to get off easy layups. Fast forward to the start of his third season and he not only accepts contact but actively seeks it out, and has developed one of the best in-between games in the league. He can get a step on a defender and, if the opportunity presents itself, he’ll just stride to the rim, but more often than not he uses an off-rhythm cadence to frustrate defenses.
He loves stopping just shy of the restricted area to pop off a floater over a closing big man and changes speed and tempo like the very best to get a defender on his hip and then create contact to get himself to the line for either a pair of free throws or an and-1 opportunity. Young has become a fan favorite for his quick trigger on three pointers and willingness to fire from anywhere on the court, but as the Hawks grow in stature and become featured on national TV more, I expect him to become one of the NBA’s great villains.
Young has the demeanor and mannerisms for it, flexing after and-1s and giving his shivering taunt after a big made three, and the game to back it all up. He is as gifted a scorer as there is in the game and has embraced the benefits that grifting your way to free points provide so shamelessly that when people begin watching more of him than the highlights, he’s destined to become a polarizing, Harden-esque figure.
This is far from a bad thing, as it should only be a compliment to be considered on that stature of offensive player, but it’s something Hawks fans (and Young) should be prepared for as the team gets better and gains more attention on a national scale. It isn’t a 1-to-1 comparison, if for no other reason than Young is a much smaller player than Harden, but the mannerisms and the way they go about creating and drawing contact so naturally within their shooting motion is uncanny. For Hawks fans, it’s something to embrace and enjoy, because it will make your team incredibly competitive, because even on nights where shots aren’t falling, when your star can march himself to the free throw line for cheap points, it can help you steal games you might otherwise lose.
For everyone else, it’s going to become an annoyance, as Young preens after his third and-1 basket of the game, offering that knowing smirk that he can, and will, do this all day.