The Outlet Pass: Trae Young is Master of the Impossible Pass
Also: The Pelicans really miss Buddy Hield, the Hornets finally have a future, Dante Exum's joyful path to figuring it out, Josh Jackson's demise, the Bucks unsustainable defense, Jaren Jackson Jr.'s post-ups, and more!
Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images
Trae Young's Passing is...
Trae Young’s notorious three-point shot has yet to come around—he takes some exceptionally difficult shots and has made fewer than 30 percent of them—but he might already be one of the best passers in the NBA, top ten in every category worth mentioning with an undeniably positive impact on teammates. Atlanta’s assist rate is 66 percent with Young on the floor and 56.8 percent—a team low—when he’s not. (That disparity equals the gap between being third and 19th in the league right now.)
As Hawks GM Travis Schlenk recently told The Undefeated’s Marc J. Spears: “He got a lot of notoriety for his deep shooting in college, which is obviously great. But his court vision at his age, 19 years old, to be able to see the floor like he does, and ability to pass left hand, right hand, off the bounce, hitting the guys down the floor, that is what really stood out.”
Young doesn’t pound the ball or even have to penetrate in order to draw help and find an open man. Guys simply run the floor faster and cut into space harder, knowing he’ll hit them on the money if/when they get open. His kick aheads alone deserve to be nominated by the MacArthur Fellows Program. This brings us to a pair of his passes that, so far, are probably my two favorite of the entire season.
The first came a few days ago against Miami. Young was trapped high on the right wing and appeared to have his whole line of sight blocked, but a quick up-fake lifted Bam Adebayo off his feet and out of position. Young then pivoted middle and, using his left arm, fired a blind cannon at Omari Spellman who was standing in the weak-side corner. The ball must've traveled at least 35 feet before it arrived in Spellman's shot pocket a split second before the defense’s rotation.
Words don’t do this pass justice. It’s something only a prodigy would think of, and immediately makes you fantasize about the realms of Young’s potential that have yet to be realized. He’ll never shoot as well as Steph Curry, but he already has the same range. Mix that with an unselfishly inventive approach to commanding Atlanta’s offense and it’s not insane to think he can lead the league in assists and scoring some day—the former is a borderline guarantee.
The next pass came during a nationally televised game against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks. (For the record, even before Atlanta uses the future pick Dallas gave them to move up on draft night, it appears both teams won that trade!). Young rebounds a missed three, takes two dribbles, then whips a one-handed line drive at Taurean Prince as he streaks up the left sideline. A corner three is essentially created out of thin air!
Film Session: Milwaukee’s Defense May Need to Change
The Milwaukee Bucks have a top-three defense and, whether Giannis Antetokounmpo is on the floor or not, are brick-walling opponents with a game-plan that couldn't be more different from the blitz-happy aggression encouraged by Jason Kidd over the past few seasons. Once upon a time, Milwaukee’s goal was to sow the game with chaos. They'd trap, recover, and scramble all over the court. It was compelling, controversial, and, given Milwaukee’s unprecedented length, theoretically a good fit. The Bucks forced a ton of turnovers and occasionally made Kidd look like he knew what he was doing, but they were inevitably done in by poor communication, missed rotations, and untenable execution. Pure talent and questionable shot selection aside, it was their defensive issues—Milwaukee surrendered a ton of corner threes and layups—that weighed them down.
Milwaukee isn’t playing like that anymore, which is ironic because their new head coach, Mike Budenholzer, enforced a similar strategy in Atlanta. Instead, they’ve adopted a conservative base defense—right now they rank 27th in opposing turnover percentage—that was en vogue half a decade ago but has since been swallowed whole by the three-point revolution.
The approach plays out as such: When offensive bigs run up to set ball and flair screens, Milwaukee’s defenders will drop back and stay in the paint. They want ball handlers to either meet their length at the rim or submit via a mid-range pull up. So far, so good! Only four teams are forcing more long twos; after they finished dead last in opponent shot frequency at the rim in 2017-18 and 2015-16, the Bucks currently rank first.
For the regular season, it’s a low-risk, medium-reward tactic that fits their personnel and maintains order. Switching is mostly frowned upon, which simplifies defensive rebounding (long an issue for the Bucks) and reduces the negative side effects that long rotations tend to have, which is evident when you look at how often they foul shooters relative to the past four years.
It feels unfair to attack something that’s obviously working, but this scheme can only do so much against the best offenses in the league. This is something I touched on in greater detail earlier this week in a column about Joel Embiid’s individual defense, but the same principles apply: Against the league’s most potent offenses, any plan that doesn’t account for pull-up threes is antiquated and futile. And guess what: Milwaukee is allowing a higher three-point rate above-the-break than any team in the league!
In the Bucks' season opener, the Charlotte Hornets went 16-for-38 from deep. The Kawhi Leonard-less Toronto Raptors went 9-for-45 (Kyle Lowry took nine threes and missed them all). Milwaukee's first loss came against a Boston Celtics team that jacked up 55 triples (more than ever before in franchise history) and tied a league-record by making 24 of them. The Sacramento Kings finished 14-for-36 and, in Milwaukee’s second loss, the Portland Trail Blazers drilled 17 of their 43 tries.
None of this is a coincidence. The Bucks want teams to take floaters and tough mid-range jump shots, but in doing so they’re conceding a ton of pull-up threes. Even though the Golden State Warriors don’t like running a bunch of high pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry, Fiserv Forum would spontaneously combust if they did.
Five years ago, guards and wings (and some forwards!) didn’t have the freedom to jack threes up off the bounce. During the 2013-14 NBA season, only four teams launched more than six pull-up threes per game. Today, two-thirds of the league eclipse that volume. What Milwaukee wants/needs is for the ball-handler's man to earn his money at the point of attack. Either fight over a screen and take away the shot by pressuring from behind, or duck underneath and either allow a poor shooter to shoot his shot or recover in time to take it away.
This is where Milwaukee’s length and tenacity comes into play. Khris Middleton, Giannis, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, and Donte DiVincenzo are not terrible at navigating on-ball screens. But against just about anyone, it’s still extremely difficult work.
But pull ups aren’t the only threat. The league has never had more big men who can and will stab you from beyond the arc. And when their man is deep in the paint, trying to stop penetration, a kick back pass usually results in an open look.
Bledsoe has no interest in switching onto Al Horford, knowing it would let Kyrie Irving surgically remove Brook Lopez’s ankles from his body. But it’s unclear if leaving Horford wide open is a better strategy.
It makes sense to drop Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova because rim protection is good and neither guy is particularly mobile in space. But to have them do so while seemingly ignoring specific matchups is not the wisest move. Watch how the Celtics take advantage by having Horford set a flare screen for Irving. Ilyasova might as well take a nap.
And the strategy applies across the board! Why don’t Giannis and Malcolm Brogdon make life easier for everyone involved by switching this? Instead they give up an open three to a good three-point shooter.
This brings us to the future, and how Milwaukee will solve a problem that doesn’t currently exist. They may not feel this way, but adding an athletic big who’s more comfortable switching and scurrying on the perimeter—while still providing offensive substance—should be a priority before the trade deadline.
If they run into an opponent who plays Lopez off the floor, the rangier Thon Maker isn’t good enough to fill those minutes. The Bucks struggled mightily with Giannis at the five last season, too. (That doesn’t mean it can’t work—they have more two-way players this year—but assuming Budenholzer doesn’t venture too far from a formula that’s yielding terrific results throughout the regular season, how hard will it be for the Bucks to adjust after a sharp left turn in the playoffs?)
It’s a fascinating conundrum and one worth keeping an eye on as the season goes on. Milwaukee’s legitimacy as a true title contender may hinge on it.
Josh Jackson is Drowning
It feels like yesterday, right around the 2017 NBA draft, when it became clear that Josh Jackson did not want to get drafted by the Boston Celtics, a winning organization that couldn’t offer the same opportunistic environment (in terms of shots and playing time) lottery picks of his stature normally step into. He cancelled a workout that was to be held in Sacramento while Danny Ainge, Mike Zarren, and Brad Stevens were literally in the air flying to it, which probably made the decision to take Jayson Tatum that much easier.
As the saying goes: Be careful what you wish for. Jackson was instead picked by a dysfunctional organization that also has quite a bit of young talent. So much, in fact, that Phoenix’s coaching staff can’t find time for Jackson to contribute. His PER is 2.1, and his minutes are drying up.
Before the Suns even trade for a starting point guard—assuming that day comes this season—they already have so many mouths to feed at Jackson’s general position. (And that’s also before you mention Deandre Ayton, the first overall pick who needs reps and touches.) Devin Booker, Trevor Ariza, T.J. Warren, and Mikal Bridges are all better than Jackson right now. He can’t shoot from literally anywhere and has a comically abysmal turnover rate that’s a couple mistakes from becoming the league’s worst, per Cleaning The Glass.
Jackson’s trade value has never been lower, and the long-term consequences of his current struggle loom over an organization that might’ve squandered three top-five picks in the past six drafts. That’s not a great way to rebuild! If Jackson can’t be much more than Tony Allen (in an era where Tony Allen couldn’t even be Tony Allen), it’d be a significant blow.
Jaren Jackson, Jr. Wants to Make Post-Ups Great Again
It’s downright strange to watch Jaren Jackson, Jr. operate in the post and believe that he recently turned 19. The strength, stoicism, patience, determination, and technical skill has been unreal, and by letting him do work down low instead of placing him on the outside as a full-time spacer, the Memphis Grizzlies deserve credit for believing what their eyes (and early statistical returns) have told them.
The first time I watched him play in an NBA game, he sprinted up the floor, sealed 255-pound Derrick Favors just outside the restricted area, caught Marc Gasol’s entry pass, and immediately scored with a lefty jump hook.
Jackson Jr. already has a reservoir of post moves, and he executes them with admirable composure. He doesn’t get flustered or worry if his shot is contested, and can get to either hand whenever he wants. (Apologies to Favors.)
A first-class ass whooping at the hands of Golden State’s swarming defense on Monday night notwithstanding, Jackson Jr. is a migraine down low. He’s fluid, strong, and packs a delightful spin move that bigs around the league have yet to figure out. It’s a breath of fresh air watching someone that young enter the league with skills that are A) still valuable, B) inevitably unguardable one-on-one, and C) ostensibly extinct in the way he’s using them. According to Synergy Sports, Jackson ranks in the 73rd percentile on post-up possessions, and they account for 27.4 percent of his offense (the eighth-highest proportion in the league right now).
He’s still a rookie, and obviously needs to round out other areas of his game—Jackson Jr. is 1-for-14 from behind the three-point line since Memphis’s second game—but all that will eventually take care of itself. (He made 40 percent of his threes in college, was 5-for-9 in the preseason, and 14-for-28 during summer league.)
It’s just cool to see him contribute in a way that complements his veteran teammates while adding wrinkles to an offense that wants to be slow. Jackson Jr. is going to be so freaking good, and his advanced post game is a notable reason why.
The Buddy Hield Bandwagon is Ready to Roll
Buddy Hield’s hot start can be explained by absurd shooting numbers. Compared to last year, he’s up 11 percent at the rim, 10 percent from the mid-range, and 6 percent from deep (he made 43.1 percent of his threes in 2018, so, yeah, this dude currently exists as an inferno).
These numbers should come back to Earth—he's averaging 20 points, six boards, and three assists per game—but they're also a sign of his natural progression towards becoming an extremely valuable player type. Hield can shoot on the move, standing still, and pulling up in transition. He can escape-dribble his way into a cringeworthy albeit accurate long two or attack a closeout and then finish strong at the rim.
Even if Hield doesn't sustain his shooting splits (doing so would be super human), players who spend the entirety of a game racing around the court to leverage their gravity in myriad ways are a luxury. Chasing him off the ball for 32 minutes would be my idea of hell on Earth. Last year he averaged 1.95 miles per game, which was about the same as Rockets center Clint Capela. This year he’s at 2.62, trailing only three players in the entire league. Even more wild is Hield’s average speed. He’s one of the 15 fastest players in the league, but everybody who ranks higher doesn’t even cover half as many miles per game as he does.
Defense is a big issue; Hield was repeatedly obliterated by Eric Bledsoe over the weekend. But he’s still only 24 years old, with the stamina and shooting chops to potentially become a more dynamic version of J.J. Redick. This comparison is an absolute best-case scenario but also within the realm of possibility. It should make fans of the New Orleans Pelicans cry themselves to sleep, and fans of the Sacramento Kings feel great knowing their team's backcourt of the future is outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions when on the floor.
Hield isn't a star, but he doesn't need the ball to have a similar effect. That matters.
Watching Dante Exum Figure It Out is Pure Joy
One of the more fascinating contracts offered last summer was a three-year, $33 million deal awarded to Dante Exum by the Utah Jazz. I say “awarded” because the 23-year-old’s first four years in the NBA were mostly a collective dud. Facing obstacles that mostly weren’t his fault, Exum wasn’t able to write a resume that rationalized Utah’s decision.
He tore his ACL in 2015 while playing for the Australian national team, and two years later had a shoulder surgery that sidelined him for four months. When healthy enough to play, he shot miserably from deep and struggled to command Utah’s offense. Turnovers were high. Assists were low.
Exum’s defense flashed peaks that made playing him worthwhile, but the blurry end-to-end zip he displayed before his knee injury was but a flicker; much of his offensive play this season remains a concern (Exum still isn’t making threes or finishing at the rim), but there’s an aggression and confidence that weren’t there before. As the Jazz clearly believed when they offered that contract: It's not about what you've done, it's what you can do.
Just from watching him play, there are certain aspects of Exum’s game that make it impossible not to want to see how high his ceiling will be. He cuts hard, gifts soft lobs to Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, relentlessly attacks the paint like someone who’s never felt pain, and draws fouls by bringing the ball low and tempting defenders to swipe at it, a la James Harden.
Exum also has an individualistic flair that allows him to stand out in a system that sometimes makes Donovan Mitchell look like Beyonce right before she left Destiny’s Child. Take the layup seen below as a prime example. It’s awesome. Exum darts to the basket and then, with time of the essence, seamlessly pushes off the wrong foot to kiss his layup off the glass before Karl-Anthony Towns can block it.
Plays like this only yield two points, but—speaking as someone whose bank account is completely unaffected regardless—they’re graceful enough to justify the investment Utah has made in Exum, and part of the reason why their offense averages a whopping 6.3 more points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game.
TL;DR: It’s Not a Bad Time to be a Hornets fan!
Most of the attention in Charlotte should be directed towards the good (a top-five offense and the league's sixth-best point differential!) and somewhat infuriating (the league’s worst win differential...again!) aspects of their surprising start. Beyond that, something unexpectedly attractive is happening to a franchise that once felt rudderless: The Hornets have an intriguing/good young core that makes their future much less bleak than it appeared to be 20 months ago.
Charlotte looks like a playoff team. They’re disciplined, explosive, led by the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, and their new reasons to be optimistic about the future double as explanations for their current success. The Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, Tony Parker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willy Hernangomez all-bench squad is crushing people by 22.1 points per 100 possessions (they’re +19 in 43 minutes). That’ll come down as opposing three-point shooters regress to the mean, but the group is still so watchable and quietly boasts a thrilling pair of 20-year-olds who play basketball without a seatbelt.
Bridges is experiencing natural growing pains but already looks like a positionless gem; James Borrego trusts him enough to play in crunch time and guard the opponent’s first option—as he did for a recent stretch against Russell Westbrook.
(This is kind of a random observation, but in comparing Bridges to Aaron Gordon, you can’t help but notice the benefits of falling in line on a team that already has accountability, direction, and a distinct pecking order. Bridges’s role is clear. He knows how to help and feed off his teammates. Meanwhile, in Orlando, Gordon’s “what should this dude be?” limitlessness was initially thrown against a wall just to see what would stick. Again, that was random, but something that went in my notebook last week while I was watching a Hornets game.)
Monk has been inefficient, but Tony Parker’s rejuvenated play lets him work off the ball instead of backing Kemba up at the point. Ask him to worry about others and Monk tends to overthink the game. Tell him to score and Charlotte’s offense makes a lot more sense. The most important thing about him and Bridges looking this good is the effect it’ll have on Walker’s unrestricted free agency. No matter what, locking him into a five-year max contract would not end well. But an expensive sub-max agreement that covers the next four or five seasons is much easier to swallow with Monk and Bridges providing a youthful push. With those two inevitably finding their way into Charlotte’s starting lineup, the Hornets can rebuild on the fly around their franchise point guard.
That’s easier said than done, pending how much Walker’s next contract is actually worth. Nicolas Batum’s current deal erases any path to cap space, while Bismack Biyombo, Marvin Williams, and Kidd-Gilchrist have $45 million worth of player options they’re likely to pick up. The following summer, with Walker paid (and Frank Kaminsky renounced), Cody Zeller, Bridges, Monk, and Batum’s player option are all that’s left on the books. Walker will be 31 then, but an opportunity to reshape their image around their intriguing young studs will present itself.
This Has Nothing to do With Basketball But…
Whenever a jump ball takes place during an NBA game, the world's two kinds of people reveal themselves: Those who want to hear "Jump" and/or "Pass the Courvoisier" get blasted over the PA system, and everybody else.