After all the preseason buzz, all the “dark-horse playoff contender” hype, all the good-will over Trae Young’s miraculous recovery from a disturbing start to his rookie season, all the fawning over the team’s 23-30 record to finish last year, the Atlanta Hawks sit 4-13 at Thanksgiving; just one game better off than their 3-14 mark achieved at the same point in the previous two seasons.
There are, of course, mitigating factors. The team started the season 2-0 with impressive wins over the Detroit Pistons and Orlando Magic behind dominant performances from Young and fellow young stud John Collins. Then, on November 6, Collins was suspended for 25 games after testing positive for a growth hormone.
With Collins in the lineup putting up outstanding numbers of 17 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, the Hawks won two of their first five games – consistent with how they finished last year. Without him, they’ve lost eight of 10 games, despite Young putting up absurd averages of 26.7 PPG, 8.6 APG. 4.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG and shooting an elite 36.1% from behind the arc on 8.5 attempts per game.
Young has been so good that it’s hard to believe the Hawks could possibly still be this bad. The sophomore – inexorably linked to Luka Doncic through the infamous draft night trade – has already had four games this season with 30+ points and 10+ assists, plus three others with 30+ points and 9+ assists. He currently sits well-entrenched in the league’s top six for scoring as well as top three for assists per game.
On a nightly basis, Young will do ridiculous, jaw-dropping things like this:
While the weaknesses which plagued him for the first three months of last season are still glaring – particularly on defense – Young and the Hawks training staff have clearly made a concerted effort to improve all facets of his game. For example, his shooting percentage from anywhere that wasn’t a layup or a three (any shot taken outside three feet and inside the three-point line) last year was a mediocre 39.4%.
This year, after a summer spent in the gym studying film of Lou Williams (according to Young’s trainer), that number has jumped markedly to 43.2%. Given Young’s usage rate of 34.0% is already among the highest in the NBA (currently sixth behind Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden), any percentage jump – particularly one of nearly 4% on a sub-class of shot which Young is taking at a rate of nearly 10 per game – is significant.
Remarkably, despite taking more than 20 shots per game and 42% of those shots from three, Young’s PER of 22.8 is still the 15th highest in the league.
Young’s shooting – from just about anywhere on the floor – is transcendent, but that was something that was evident to even the most casual of analysts prior to his entry to the NFL. It’s his passing improvement which has been the most impressive.
Young can make every pass and every read in the book, from this insane nutmeg of the roll man:
To this behind the back dime when seemingly left bereft of options under the rim:
Young’s assist percentage – the number of the team’s assists he accounts for when on the floor – has jumped from 40.5% last year, to a ridiculous 44.2% this year. He is currently ranked third in the league – behind only Doncic and LeBron James – for that metric.
Thanks to his supernatural ability to out-think defenses, teammate Jabari Parker is equal-second in the league for dunks with 49, despite starting only 13 games in relief of Collins.
Remarkably, per NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, with Young on the floor the Hawks are 16.7 pts per 100 possessions better off than when he’s on the bench.
The problem for the Hawks, the reason they’ve lost their last seven games, is simple; it’s their defense. Or, more pointedly, their lack thereof.
Atlanta’s defensive rating of 113.9 is the 27th in the NFL, and the 119.4 points per game they allow their opposition is comfortably the worst of all 30 teams.
They are 23rd in the league in allowing fast break points, 27th in allowing points after turnovers and 27th in allowing second chance points. You get the picture.
Unfortunately, Young cannot escape a share of the blame for their turnstyle-esque performance on the defensive end. Remarkably, per NBA.com’s Advanced Stats, the Hawks hold opponents to 15.6 points less per 100 possessions when Young is off the floor as opposed to when he’s on it.
The same lapses and lack of ability to fight through screens that plagued his rookie season are again rearing their ugly head. For example, and even though it is only preseason check out some of Young’s lacklustre efforts to allow Tyler Herro to get off the chain for 14 straight points against the Hawks in Miami.
Opponents are licking their chops when seeing Young at the defensive end of the floor. ESPN FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR model ranks him as the 18th-worst overall defender in the league, in the same breath as notoriously-poor stoppers like Devin Booker, Luke Kennard and Lou Williams.
Consequently, despite being ranked the 11th-best offensive player in the league, RAPTOR considers Young’s overall value to his team to be at about the same level as guys like Nemanja Bjelica, Mason Plumlee and Kris Dunn.
Collins, who still has 13 games to serve on the sidelines, is the yin to Young’s yang. His defensive presence is sorely missed by the Hawks; with him on the floor, the team had a defensive rating of 100.0.
The franchised added or brought back veterans Evan Turner, Jabari Parker, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons and Vince Carter, but none have provided the requisite grit or steel on the defensive end. Alex Len has again regressed after a decent 2018-19 campaign,.
Young is a rare offensive talent, but his foibles make him unable to carry a team on his shoulders without a competent supporting cast.
Until Collins returns, and perhaps even beyond, the Hawks are going to be nothing more than a low-tier Eastern Conference team.