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Why Trae Young Will Never be a Top 5 Player in the NBA

Atlanta Hawks’ point guard Trae Young has been a household name among basketball fans since his college days at Oklahoma. He spent his one-and-done year of college playing for his hometown Sooners, and as a local hero and a five-star recruit, he got plenty of media coverage. Young was perhaps the most electrifying offensive player in the nation during the 2017-2018 season, draining off-the-dribble threes and threading ridiculous dimes on a nightly basis. Young was doing all this at the same time that Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry was leading the 3-point revolution; breaking shooting records left and right and and quite literally stretching the dimensions of the basketball court with shots like this:

All of this made Young the darling of social media pages like House of Highlights, Overtime and Sportscenter. He was dropping almost 30 and 10 every night, and doing it in the style contemporary basketball fans have come to love: lots of pull-up threes and (sometimes unnecessarily) flashy dribble combos and passes. 

The 2018 Sooners were bounced in the first round of the NCAA tournament, losing to Rhode Island despite Young dropping 28 points and seven assists to go along with six 3-pointers. Young predictably declared for the 2018 NBA draft about two weeks after the loss and was immediately presumed to be a lottery pick.

A Problem From the Start

There were many legitimate questions raised by NBA scouts about how Young’s game would translate to the NBA level. Most of them did not center around Young’s offensive ability; there was no reason to doubt that his shooting and playmaking would transfer to the next level. Rather, scouts were concerned about his ability to play defense against NBA point guards. Young is slightly undersized for an NBA point guard at 6-foot-1, but size isn’t always a deal breaker for point guards on defense who make up for it with large wingspans and good athleticism. Unfortunately, he has neither of these going for him, as he has a 6-foot-2 wingspan (below average for his height), and below average athleticism for an NBA player. As is often the case, a team became enamored with his high offensive ceiling and overlooked the concerns about his defense. D’Angelo Russell comes to mind. He was taken by the Dallas Mavericks with the fifth pick in the lottery and traded to the Atlanta Hawks shortly after.

Young had a solid rookie season, even though the Hawks were an abysmal 29-53. It took him a while to adjust to the speed of the NBA game, but he ended the season averaging 24.8 points and 9.1 assists in the 22 games following the All-Star break. He had an extremely poor defensive season statistically and was among the worst defenders in the league. That is easy to overlook with young players on bad teams, especially since he was being asked to carry the Hawks’ offense every night. Expectations were high for the Hawks going into Young’s sophomore season, with many predicting they would make the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference. They spent a lottery pick on a competent wing defender in UVA’s De’Andre Hunter, and Young would have another year to gel with his fellow promising young star John Collins. There were reasons for optimism among Hawks fans.

Repeat Defender

The 2019-2020 season did not shake out the way the Hawks hoped it would, nor how many expected it to, as their winning percentage decreased from the season before. They were putrid on the defensive end once again, allowing a league worst 119.7 points per game. Opponents shot 47.8 percent from the field and 36.3 percent from three, good for fifth and tenth worst in the league respectively. 

More importantly though, Young had another season as one of the worst statistical defenders in the NBA. In a year where he was expected to step up and lead his team to the playoffs as a primary option, he had the third worst defensive box plus minus in the league at -2.3. The offensive numbers were gaudy however, Young averaged 29 points, 9 assists, 3.5 made threes a game and was voted as an All-Star starter. The Hawks were awful, but just like his college days, he kept churning out the highlight plays. He continued canning off-the-dribble threes and making flashy passes that were cannon fodder for Sportscenter.

The Hawks seemed to get a pass from most NBA fans for last season. They had some young players in Hunter and Cam Reddish who took longer to develop, and Collins missed a good chunk of the year to a drug suspension. This year though, they’ll have no excuses for not being a playoff team. Head coach Lloyd Pierce is in the Brett Brown stage of his time with the Hawks. He’s helped them soldier through a rebuild, but if they don’t start tangibly improving and winning games, he might not see another season with the franchise.

trae young defense
Atlanta Hawks star power forward dunks against the Washington Wizards, courtesy Kevin C. Cox Getty Images

Bring it all Back Around

To bring things full circle, the reason for this article’s titling is because of Young’s defense. There’s no denying his offensive talent, and he will surely be a perennial All-Star and a top five offensive player in his prime. However, when looking at guys who are, and have been top five overall players in the NBA, none of them come anywhere close to being as much of a defensive liability as Young is. At the rate he’s currently developing, Young’s ceiling falls more in the Damian Lillard range than it does the LeBron or Kawhi Leonard tier.

Here are some players that are currently part of the top five player conversation. Giannis Antetokounmpo just won Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY). LeBron James is a six time All-Defensive team member and is still one of the most impactful defenders in the league when he chooses to be. Anthony Davis is one of the most versatile defenders in the NBA and has led the league in blocks three times and finished second in DPOY voting last year behind Giannis. Kawhi Leonard has won DPOY twice. Even guys like James Harden, Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić, while not known for their defense, are at least statistical positives on that end of the court. Young simply has a ceiling, and it is capped by his size and athletic ability on the defensive end. It raises doubts about his ability to be the primary option on a legitimate contender, and explains why the Hawks have had difficulty winning games with Young at the helm, even though his offensive numbers seem to indicate superstardom. It also explains why despite Young’s status as a five-star high school recruit, Oklahoma hobbled its way to an 18-14 regular season record and barely made the NCAA tournament. Offense wins games, defense wins championships. 

The Path Forward

Some have suggested that his lack of success is in part due to a lack of effort, although analytics do not suggest that this is the case. So what does Young need to do to become a championship caliber player? The answer lies in the defensive success of his spiritual predecessor, Mr. Wardell Stephen Curry. Curry too, was a poor defender at the beginning of his NBA career. but found his niche not as a lockdown individual defender, but instead, as an impactful team defender within the Warriors’ system. Curry knows he doesn’t have the size, length or athleticism to shut down the other team’s best player, or even best point guard on his own, but he makes up for it by knowing his role and  playing smart basketball. Because of his IQ and awareness, he is always in the right place on rotations and pick and roll switches, and he uses his clairvoyance to play the passing lanes as well as any point guard in the league. People forget that during Curry’s historic 2015-2016 MVP season, he also led the league in steals with an average of over two a game. Similar to Curry, Young does not need to be Kawhi or Giannis on defense, he just needs to be good enough that he isn’t a liability, because right now, teams are targeting Young all the time, and they haven’t even reached the playoffs yet.

Some of this is on the Hawks too. They need to continue to develop their young wings in Reddish and Hunter. They will be indispensable in helping hide Young on defense in the playoffs by allowing the Hawks to be more switchable. But for that to work, he needs to reach a level of competency as a defender. He cannot continue to be the traffic cone he has been thus far. Otherwise, the Hawks future is grim, and Lloyd Pierce’s days in Atlanta are numbered. This season has been promising thus far for the Hawks so far, as they are off to a 3-1 start. They can be a playoff team with Young as the number one guy, the question is whether they can truly contend for a championship this way. 

For the sake of the league, Trae Young needs to figure things out on defense, because he is a blast to watch. As social media content becomes a more important avenue to a sports league’s commercial success, having a guy like him become one of the faces of the league would be a huge win for the NBA. Here’s to hoping he has what it takes, but so far the odds are not pointing in his favor.

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference

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