Sunday, July 8, 2018
LAS VEGAS — Trae Young‘s first five games of summer play have raised an intriguing possibility: What if the No. 5 pick in this year’s NBA draft is better as a passer than a shooter?
Yes, Young led the NCAA in both scoring and assists during his lone season at Oklahoma. However, it was his 30-foot 3s off the dribble that caught the nation’s attention more so than Young’s work distributing to an unheralded set of Sooners teammates. So it has been somewhat surprising that Young has found far more success as a playmaker than a scorer so far in the NBA, first at the Utah Jazz Summer League and now at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
During Saturday’s 21-point effort against the New York Knicks, his highest-scoring game this summer, Young finally saw a few of those long 3s off the dribble go down. For the most part, they haven’t fallen — or sometimes haven’t even caught rim. Young has shot 6-of-35 (17 percent) on 3s in this span, most of them long and heavily contested.
As I noted in last summer’s study on the meaning of summer-league stats, shooting percentages have little if any predictive power when it comes to how players will perform the following regular season. The samples are simply too small. However, the quality of the shots Young is taking hasn’t been any better than the results, suggesting his low-percentage shooting is more than just a fluke.
The same has been true for Young inside the arc, where he has been only slightly more accurate (10-of-31, 32 percent). At 6-foot-2, Young always has to finish over bigger defenders in the paint, and he struggled in that regard even against college opposition. Young’s 53.5 percent shooting on attempts at the rim was lowest among NCAA players drafted in this year’s first round, per Hoop-Math.com research.
While Young made an impressive reverse finish headed away from the basket in Utah, for the most part he hasn’t even tried to challenge rim protectors. Instead, Young has turned to a low-percentage floater that he will need to improve dramatically to have any chance of shooting a decent percentage on 2-point tries early in his career.
A fast break during the final minute of Saturday’s game was illustrative of Young’s limitations and how he can work around them. With the Hawks trailing 85-80, Young forced a turnover near midcourt and headed toward the basket with a defender charging after him. Instead of attempting the layup, Young dropped a pass off to teammate Antonius Cleveland for a dunk.
Young has managed to draw enough defensive attention out of the pick-and-roll to set up teammates for open looks on a regular basis, displaying excellent court vision. He averaged 6.0 assists in his four full games, including 11 against the Knicks, and easily could have had more with better shooters around him. (Whether Atlanta’s real roster will provide better shooting remains open for debate.)
In the first half of Sunday’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, before he was shut down for precautionary reasons because of a quad contusion, Young focused largely on playmaking. Hounded by bigger defender Wade Baldwin, Young attempted only two shots and handed out three assists in the nine minutes he played.
Thinking pass-first might be the best way for Young to be effective offensively early in his career, before he develops the savvy necessary to be a capable finisher and create enough separation for higher-percentage 3-point attempts off the dribble. — Kevin Pelton
Next matchup to watch: July 9
While Mohamed Bamba vs. Deandre Ayton is the obvious headliner on Monday, make sure to also lock in on the Pacers and Cavs for a clash between two hard-nosed rookie point guards in Sexton and Holiday.
Although Sexton is two years younger and was drafted 15 spots higher, Holiday deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the “Young Bull,” Trae Young and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s still learning how to make every ball-screen read and finish in traffic, but Holiday is a versatile shot-maker, aggressive driver and scrappy defender, all of which should test Sexton on Monday.
Sexton has shown flashes of his talent in Vegas but holds a sub-45 percent true shooting percentage through two games, and the feisty Holiday should be out to prove himself against the Alabama guard. This is an excellent litmus test for Sexton to show where he stands against a strong defender in Holiday, and for the UCLA guard to remind scouts exactly why he shouldn’t have slid all the way to Indiana at No. 23. — Mike Schmitz