Trae Young is the NBA's Tomorrow
With no cap on his shooting range, tight handle, and natural vision, figuring out how to slow Young down may be the sport's next great quandary.
Photo by Rob Ferguson - USA TODAY Sports
Trae Young—the inimitable flamethrower who’s entering the NBA as it struts through a three-point revolution he was born to flourish in—can’t remember the first time he used a 25-foot jumper to crush his opponent. “I’ve been doing that for a while, if I’m being honest with you,” he tells me. “It was probably my freshman year, in a high school varsity game.”
But what he can remember is last Thanksgiving, when he tested his unlimited range at the Phil Knight Invitational with the type of shot that, if hoisted in an earlier century would’ve instigated a witch trial. It was the third game of Young’s college career, and his relative anonymity belied a bubbling peerlessness. “I was really, really close to half-court,” Young explains. “It was early in the shot clock. I just dribbled down, with 21 seconds left. It was by the Trail Blazers logo.”
“It” was a shot that doesn’t compute. (Young’s memory on the subject is almost perfect: the Blazers logo was a State Farm Insurance emblem and there were actually 25 seconds on the shot clock.) On ESPN’s television broadcast, the words that spilled from Bill Walton’s mouth do justice to how farcical it really was. Analyzing the instant replay, Walton asked a question that’s both reasonable and irrelevant: “Why was he even thinking shot there?”
Three days later, a couple months removed from his 19th birthday, Young stabbed 43 points into the University of Oregon. Over the next month, he’d average 30.6 points while making 43 percent of his 11 threes per game. The NCAA’s three-point line is 20 feet and nine inches from the basket; it did less to impede Young’s progress than a white picket fence would a monster truck. He went on to lead college basketball in points and assists per game (also turnovers, with the highest usage rate (37.1 percent!).
Functioning as a one-man team, he spliced legitimate greatness with extended lulls that are completely foreign to legitimate greatness, intertwining a 48-point classic with a 12-turnover flop. But speaking as someone who doesn’t watch college basketball, overanalyzing what Young did or didn’t do in 32 games is beside the point. There was something mystical about a 6’2”, hollow-cheeked every man doing things nobody else ever has before.
The NBA presents its own set of challenges, but Young will never be held back by the college game ever again, or compete against teams that can win by throwing two defenders on him at all times. What matters, instead, is how his game translates in a league that will prop his skill-set up while being vulnerable to its power.
Few concepts in modern basketball are more terrifying than Young’s ceiling. He “only” made 36 percent of his threes at Oklahoma but tallied 328 attempts, which are the most by a freshman since the 1992-93 season, per Basketball-Reference’s database. Add more context and this feels like a rare instance where the numbers are fibbing.
“I saw a stat the other day,” he says. “I only took 19 uncontested shots this year, and was 14-for-19 on uncontested shots. That just shows I never really got any open looks. But I feel like coming to [the NBA] I’ll be able to get more open looks, running off screens and different things like that that’ll only make my shooting percentage, and my shot, that much better.”
In that way, Young reminds former NBA point guard Rod Strickland of Bradley Beal when the All-Star guard was a freshman at the University of Florida: “I remember sitting on the bench at Kentucky and watching Bradley Beal. He hadn't shot it well. I'm watching him warm up and saying, ‘I love his shot. But in games he hasn't shot it well.' But you could see he was a great shooter. He gets to the league and it's lights out. That's how I look at Trae Young. When he's open he'll be taking quality shots and making quality shots."
Beyond actual percentages lays the promise of a gravitational pull only a handful of players have ever had, whether he’s running a high pick-and-roll and forcing two to the ball, or sprinting off a stagger screen along the baseline and discombobulating help defenders. The result is a lose-lose dilemma for a defense that’s suddenly afflicted with the type of hopelessness basketball didn’t really know ten years ago. Nobody can shoot like Steph Curry, but he and Young both have an atmospheric influence on the games they play in, with step-back threes that can thaw an icebox.
Someday he may become a sommelier below the rim, too, leveraging the tight defense his deep range dictates by unleashing floaters and in-between pull ups on demand. He has the handle to split traps and the vision to find an open man in the weak-side corner. Imagine him surrounded by better shooters, more athletic lob threats, and smarter cutters, with more room to operate and more freedom to attack.
He made 49.3 percent of his two-point shots as a freshman, which, according to Cleaning the Glass, would land just above the 75th percentile among NBA point guards last season. But he also only shot 49.6 percent at the rim, which is around the 18th percentile and about a pinch better than a collection of floor generals who don’t crack six feet: Tyler Ulis, Kay Felder, Isaiah Canaan, Jawun Evans, Frank Mason III, and Aaron Brooks. (Curry shot 65 percent at the rim last season and was at 58 percent as a rookie, per CTG.)
“I hear a lot of things, like I can’t finish around the rim and different things like that,” Young says. “But I can only worry about what I can control, and that’s just playing my game.”
Defense is another concern, but any flawed team that needs a playmaking grand-slam hitter (Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, etc.) can’t afford to let that be a fly in their ointment. That side of the ball matters, but it’s not a deal breaker when the upside provided on the other end is so overwhelming. To improve, Young spent the past three months getting stronger, putting on 15 pounds with the help of tireless workouts and countless strawberry-banana protein shakes.
“He can change the culture,” Young’s strength coach Travelle Gaines tells me. “He’s a good fit anywhere he goes.”
At worst, whichever team puts the ball in his hands will at the very least benefit from the distorted order he inflicts on the game. Anyone who studies his efficient pull-up numbers and then watches clips of him blasting away with that impossibly quick release can’t help but be seduced (several brands are betting on this, too; he just signed with Adidas, and starred in his own Foot Locker promo). In the same way Curry turned the NBA into a field of hell fire, Young has the tools to shape an apocalyptic aftermath. The simplest blueprint for elite offense in today's NBA includes someone exactly like him serving as the fulcrum.
Young is an evolutionary next step in a league that forever has more frontier to explore. "I’ve always been able to score the ball and been able to shoot the ball," he says. "From watching guys like Steph and watching Steve Nash and Chauncey Billups, different guys who can really shoot the ball. It’s something I really want to do."