ATLANTA — Trae Young howled in agony and held his lower back. Nothing has come easy for Young, the Atlanta Hawks point guard and No. 5 pick in last summer’s NBA draft, but as he squirmed onto his stomach, moving the State Farm Arena crowd to silence, his start in the NBA looked downright painful.
During Wednesday night’s match up against the Washington Wizards, Young elevated for a three-pointer, a shot for which he’s developed quite a reputation, and felt contact by guard Austin Rivers. Young tried to ensure a foul by overselling the contact, responding as if he was being suplexed off an invisible top rope then crashing without a cushion to the hardwood.
Later, his coach predicted he would feel it in the morning. Young didn’t need to wait that long — after the Hawks' 131-117 loss to the Wizards, he showed reporters his puffy right elbow. But during this rookie season, while playing the lead role in the Hawks' latest rebuild and finding himself atop every opponent’s scouting report, the damage to his shooting percentage has been even more apparent.
“I think the rookie wall is getting hit right now,” said Young, after going 4 for 13, including 1 for 4 on threes, for 14 points against Washington. “Hopefully I can break through and get some.”
This week, Young was honored as the Eastern Conference rookie of the month for October and November. Young posted averages of 15.6 points and 7.6 assists and compiled more point/assist double-doubles (seven) than any other first-year player. A closer inspection of those numbers, however, reveals just how difficult the transition has been for Young, the likable undersized guard with unlimited range.
Although he rejects the comparisons, Young’s confidence is similar to Steph Curry’s. He takes deep shots — he leads the NBA with 47 attempts from a distance of at least 28 feet — as if they’re layups. Against the Wizards, Young needed two dribbles in a transition play before rising and draining a 28-footer in the first quarter. When he connects, those shots show up nightly on social media as highlights. They also attract the attention of rivals.
“The new three is 30 feet,” Coach Scott Brooks said. “He hasn’t made as many as he’s going to make but any given game, he can knock down a bunch of them. It’s disgusting how many good shooters are [in] this league.”
The threes are both his masterpiece and his stumbling block. In the first 23 games of his NBA career, Young needed 14.6 attempts a game to reach his scoring total and shot 37.8 percent from the field and just 24.8 percent from the three-point arc.
“Right now all of his looks are difficult,” Rivers said. “Everything he does is difficult. Part of that’s because people come here and he has a target on his back. He’s a top pick, he’s a guard and [people] compare him to Steph. So a lot of stuff is out of his control. Every day guys go at him so he doesn’t get a lot of easy looks as is."
Young may deem it necessary to launch from deep on the court because that’s where he’ll find his only breathing room. The majority of defenders Young faces go over the pick, limiting his space. He has the third lowest shooting percentage in the league (34.9) on attempts after seven or more dribbles, which means he has to work hard just to get up a shot. And according to Synergy Sports, Young has come off a screen only 22 times. If there is a pin-down in the Hawks’ playbook, Young hasn’t read that page yet. Simply put, the rookie isn’t catching a break.
“I mean, it’s crazy. It’s crazy. My shooting percentage is so bad right now and teams are still pressing up on me just like I was shooting 80 percent,” Young said with a hint of a smile.
“It just shows a sign of respect for the level of shooting ability and what I can do outside the arc,” Young continued. “That means teams still believe I can do what I was capable of doing, what I’ve been doing my whole life.”
On Wednesday, Rivers started in place of John Wall, who was not with the team for personal reasons, and drew the defensive assignment on Young. Rivers looked past the poor shooting percentage and remembered the player who had dominated his only season of college basketball a year ago. Rivers didn’t just defend Young as if he were back at Oklahoma, he treated him like an all-star.
“He’s 23 percent but I treat him like he’s . . . Steph or [Damian Lillard] or whoever’s out there. So I picked him up at half court. That’s why he wasn’t able to get any threes off really,” Rivers said. “Because of the shots he shoots, even the deep threes, it’s like a momentum builder. Everybody goes crazy because of how deep he shoots it. So it’s like more than three points because if he hits one of those, the crowd starts going crazy.”
In the second half, as Young was being chased away from three-point territory, he mostly tried to locate teammates or get inside the paint for a floater. Young was credited with only one three-point attempt in the final 24 minutes. Rivers sighed deeply before diagnosing what’s really limiting Young’s offense. Rivers might have dogged Young on the defensive end all night, but he can feel the kid’s pain.
“He needs another guard to help him get easy looks. And right now they have wings and it’s him. They don’t have another point guard [or] shooting guard. So it’s tough," Rivers said. "It’s like watching the Suns right now. If you watch Devin Booker, everything he does is like so tough. He has to work his a-- off to get 30 points because everybody just loads up on Devin. He needs another guard to help him relieve pressure.
“Everything’s off the dribble, everything’s pick-and-roll where he has to dribble," Rivers concluded about Young. “It’s just hard.”
So hard that with 9:16 remaining in the game, Young nearly broke his back just to get a three-point foul — “All I did was come under, he just, like, went crazy. I was like, ‘Bro . . . You didn’t have to flop that hard,' ” Rivers said. But for his effort, Young made only one of the three free throws.
“He has a lot of room for improvement,” Wizards forward Markieff Morris said. “He’s a small guy but he has a lot of room for improvement just becoming a leader, getting better shots, finishing in the lane, getting his teammates involved. So he has a lot of upside.”
Young may be staring at the rookie wall and experiencing what it’s like to be targeted by the best defenders in the league, but it hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the game. On Tuesday, Young closed a team practice by catapulting the ball high into the air to make it rain down into the nylon. He tried from a few feet inside the arc and missed the rim entirely. He tried again from the free throw line, then the baseline and same result. Young looked off the court, noticed a reporter holding a cellphone and laughed while saying he hoped no one was recording.
The high degree of difficulty and the concern of an air ball appearing on Twitter didn’t dissuade Young. He kept shooting.
“That doesn’t bother me at all because I know there are kids watching me like I was watching guys growing up, as well,” Young said. “I’m only 6-1, 6-2 and little kids are growing up and going to be around my height, so kids seeing me doing highlights and tricks and doing cool things, I think that’s motivation and just gives confidence.”
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