Our 2021-22 Atlanta Hawks player review series continues with a look at the fourth season of guard Trae Young.
Even as the Atlanta Hawks admittedly missed reaching their own expectations for the 2021-22 NBA season, Trae Young just kept getting better. He had the best shooting season of his career on his normal high usage. And he did it while opposing defenses largely took his floater away by refusing to play drop coverage against his pick and roll work.
He finished sixth in the NBA in points per game and third in assists per game while leading the Hawks to the second-best offensive rating in the league all while opposing defenses were scheming against him with more focus and urgency than at any other point in his career. If that’s not an all-NBA season, then I don’t know what is.
Statistically, the thing that best captures what he accomplished is how good he was while having to work so much more frequently this season in isolation possessions. As opposing defenses increasingly chose to run switch-based schemes against the Hawks, intending to keep him out of the middle of the floor, Young’s workload in isolation increased by a whopping 293%.
Hawks head coach Nate McMillan consistently encouraged his team to locate and attack mismatches when they drew switches. Unsurprisingly the bulk of the workload fell to Young, easily Atlanta’s most dynamic offensive player and most reliable scorer.
Only four players in the league registered more shot attempts working in isolation than did Young and just one of the four, Jayson Tatum, shot a lower percentage on these possessions.
And still Young posted a .460/.382/.904 shooting line on ultra-high usage.
He converted 37% on off-the-dribble shots from three-point range on a massive volume (525 attempts).
Only Ja Morant generated more shot attempts and makes on drives. And Young did all of this while helping his team generate the lowest offensive turnover mark in the league. Further, all came after he signed a max extension. It was, by any measure, a wildly successful season for Atlanta’s superstar point guard.
Despite their elevated offensive success, the Hawks have some things to figure out heading into next season. Their work against defenses that chose to switch or otherwise be aggressive at the level of ball screens took a toll, much of it in the form of wearing down the diminutive Young.
Atlanta posted the league’s 24th best offensive rating in the fourth quarter and the league’s 24th best net rating in the clutch. Young’s number in the fourth quarter and in the clutch were not what Atlanta needed. And that’s most likely related to a workload issue that needs to be solved.
All of this is covers the part of the season that took place before the Hawks were eliminated by the Miami Heat in five games during the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs while Young often had two, if not three, defensive players allocated to him.
His performance in the playoff series versus Miami (15.4 points, 6.0 assists) wasn’t in the same universe as what he showed during the team’s run to the Eastern Conference finals last season.
The single clearest takeaway from this season for Atlanta is that Young needs help. It’s clear that he can lead them to consistently performing as a top-five offense in the league while owning a usage that rivals any other player in the league. But, to take the next step, the Hawks need a full-time secondary playmaker who also serves as a primary playmaker when Young is off the court.
They also need another player that can punish switches at a higher level than any member of the current supporting cast. Atlanta could benefit from a player that can help get Young chances to work off of the ball when opposing teams load up to defend him in the pick and roll. Young was in the 98th percentile scoring in spot up opportunities as he shot 48.1% from the three-point line in catch-and-shoot opportunities.
With Young as the offensive centerpiece, there really is no limit to what the Hawks can do on that end of the court across a full season. But as to get the results they need against the best defensive teams in the league and as to elevate their performance late in games, they need to get their point guard more help than he had this season.
It should be obvious now that, while the supporting cast continues to improve overall and to show promise, if time is of the essence as Young enters his fifth season in the league and the first on his new contract, he needs more help from veteran players that are ready to deliver now.
There should be little doubt that Young is going to add to his game yet again during this coming offseason. He always does. But it’s time to find the right partner(s) for him.
In addition to improving the roster in strategic ways, the Atlanta coaching staff needs to get more creative when facing the stingiest defensive teams in the league. When Miami took away everything the Hawks look to do to with Young, they had no answers. There was never a material scheme change nor any meaningful modifications on the margins.
Throughout each of the five games in the series possession after possession started with Young in the middle of the floor looking at a fully set Heat defense loading extra defenders toward the middle of the floor.
As the series progressed, Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra worked to keep both Bam Adebayo and PJ Tucker on the court when Young was in the game. The result was that when he drew switches against the Miami big men, he couldn’t get his usual space as to attack them.
This was not just the result of the impressive individual defensive work of Adebayo and Tucker, Miami used extra defenders to continue pushing Young away from the middle of the floor.
Atlanta needs more capability on the roster in the area of “short roll” execution than more secondary and tertiary playmaking at the power forward and center position. They need wings that will aggressively attack the seams created by Young and do so with physicality when they encounter defensive resistance at the rim.
But none of the roster changes will matter, really, if there is not more intentional and purposeful ball movement and use of players moving off the ball as to generate stress on defenses that load up on Young.
Young has continued to get better. Now the working parts around Young need to get better. Some of that can come from internal development, but that’s not likely to be enough. It’s time for bolder action on the part of the Hawks front office and coaching staff.
When you’ve secured a player like Young to be the foundation of your franchise, you can’t take seasons for granted. Especially once that player reaches his second contract.
The time is now.