Trae Young is not the hero we deserve, but the basketball villain we need. The Atlanta point guard has captured the minds of basketball fans worldwide with his rise to stardom in these playoffs. He’s embraced the villain role. He’s taken you on a polarising journey with him, holding your imagination as you watch him navigate his next move. Whether you hope he stumbles or rises to the occasion, your eyes are firmly glued to the screen.
Trae Young the Villain
It’s not that every aspect of Young’s game is fun to watch. I must admit, the constant foul-baiting can get a little tiresome. But that’s all part of the polarising nature of a villain. He divides opinion. Evicting varying emotions, all of which are refreshing to see. Love him or loathe him, he doesn’t care. In fact, he thrives on the hostility, you can ask Knicks fans about that.
Madison Square Garden was the stage for Young’s origin story. Stunned sounds of silence reverberated around New York when Young assumed the role of public enemy number one and announced himself to the basketball world in its grandest arena. He carved apart the Knicks with a series of rhythmic buckets, silencing the raucous Madison Square Garden crowd, and sent them packing in five games. Almost Shakespearean in his showmanship, it was quite fitting that Young delivered his closing sonnet on Broadway. After draining a late three-pointer that all but a secured victory for the Hawks, his final act was to stare down the stunned crowd and take a bow.
Young’s Multi-faceted Offensive Game
Young can produce mesmerizing highlight plays that go viral on Twitter. However, the way in which he operates is what’s most impressive to me. His sheer presence generates offense for his team. Young manipulates defenses with his dribble when attacking the paint, keeping defenders honest as they’re worried about both the floater and the lob. An element of Young’s deception is this exact floater; and it’s his most underrated weapon, as he makes 47% of them.
Young’s two main offensive strengths work in harmony together. Young uses the threat of being able to shoot from anywhere on the court to make any pass he wants; whilst simultaneously using the threat of his playmaking to open up scoring opportunities for himself. Due to his ability to drain threes from distance, defenders must respect his long-range threat, pressing high up on him at all times.
However, Young’s offensive game is multi-faceted. When defenders sell out to take away his three-ball, Young has counters. His slick handle allows him to swiftly glide past his opponents and set up drives inside. Young’s ability to maneuver in between screens and open up driving lanes, creates space for an interior pass to a teammate running the floor.
Clint Capela and John Collins are often the beneficiaries of Young’s unique offensive threat. When defenders gamble or make mistakes, Young’s court awareness allows him to make the correct reads. Whether that’s assertively driving into the lane and dropping home a floater or using his vision to create open looks for his teammates.
Young’s Similarities to Curry & Lillard
These facets of their offensive game are what separates shooters like Young, Stephen Curry, and Damian Lillard from the rest of the pack. You can take away their primary weapon of choice, but they can’t be nullified; they still have a whole arsenal of moves to hit you with.
Curry will make defenders chase him off the ball to the brink of exhaustion and still knock down shots. Lillard will extend his range to as far out as the logo to combat what defenses throw at him. Whilst Young will tantalize you with his subtle movements and craftiness with the ball, which constantly keeps defenders off balance. A quality that is very Steve Nash-esque.
The Hawks Remind Me of the 2013 Warriors
I see a lot of similarities between this Hawks team, and the 2013 Golden State Warriors. Atlanta’s GM, Travis Schlenk, was the Warriors assistant GM during those early trips to the finals. Schlenk has now constructed a roster around Young where similarly, all the pieces seemingly fit. There is an abundance of shooting, along with more than enough secondary shot creation. The Hawks are a team that has the talent required but needs more playoff experience before they are truly ready to contend.
In the closing stages of Game 1 against Philadelphia, the Hawks made numerous inexplicit decisions when a more veteran team turned up their defensive pressure on them. It almost resulted in the Hawks throwing away a game they had seemingly wrapped up.
The Sixers were able to partially slow down Young when they defended him with length. Both Matisse Thybulle and Ben Simmons bothered him to some degree; with the stout perimeter defenders forcing multiple turnovers.
In comparable fashion, also due to poor decision-making, the 2013 Warriors barely fell over the line when trying to close out a veteran Nuggets team in their first playoff run. However, the Warriors learned a lot from those early endeavors and turned out pretty good. If the Hawks can take similar lessons from this year’s post-season run, they will be on the right track.
Ultimately, Young’s lack of size could become an issue as we progress further into these playoffs. When blitzed, Young occasionally attempts to force passes through tight spaces, resulting in turnovers. This is all part of Young’s growth process however, how he learns to balance discipline with risk-taking against top-level defenses will determine how far the Hawks go this year, and in the years to come.
The next stage in Young’s development is improving his efficiency off catch and shoot attempts. With the ball in his hands, Young has demonstrated that he can perform a near mirror impersonation of James Harden by creating plays for both himself and his teammates. But for the Hawks to take the next step, he must tap into his inner Curry; a player that Young has been so often compared to since he was lighting up the college scene in Oklahoma.
This means that Young should spend more time off-ball, trusting his teammates to create easy looks for him, rather than trying to do it all himself.
Despite highlighting a few nit-picky flaws; on the whole, Young leading the Atlanta Hawks to a playoff run in only his third season has been quite a sight to behold.
Down 2-1 against the Philadelphia 76ers, Game 4 presents the toughest challenge of Young’s career so far. Whatever happens next, these playoffs have already given him the moment to show who he is. Young has been masterful in the way he’s navigated the stage, whilst carrying an eery confidence like he belongs throughout.
So much of the Hawks offense is generated through fear of Young’s scoring prowess; and shouldn’t the best villains strike fear into the heart of opposition players and fans? Hushing Knicks fans and taking a bow at Madison Square Garden was just the start. Trae Young the villain, is the player that the NBA so desperately needed.
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