Atlanta Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk was a member of Golden State’s front office nine years ago when the Warriors drafted Stephen Curry and watched him blossom into the savior of their long-downtrodden franchise.
Now it looks like Schlenk is chasing the unlikely dream of Steph 2.0 after he traded for the college star already burdened with incessant comparisons to Curry.
Atlanta landed fifth overall pick Trae Young and a protected 2019 first-round pick on Thursday in a blockbuster draft-night deal with the Dallas Mavericks. In return, the Hawks gave up the rights to third overall selection Luka Doncic, a massive risk considering the moments of brilliance that the skilled 19-year-old flashed while winning EuroLeague MVP this spring and spearheading Slovenia’s unlikely gold medal run at last fall’s EuroBasket championships.
For Atlanta’s gamble to pan out, Young must reward Schlenk’s faith in him by emerging as an impact player for the Hawks. That doesn’t mean winning three championships and leading the league in scoring and jersey sales like Curry has, but it does require Young to make a smooth transition to the NBA offensively while working to address his glaring shortcomings on defense.
Young was the runaway favorite to become college basketball’s national player of the year halfway through his freshman season because he was putting up dizzying numbers for an Oklahoma team that started 14-2. By mid-January, Oklahoma was fourth in the Associated Press poll and Young was leading the nation in points and assists per game by an astonishingly wide margin.
Sixteen games into his college career, Young was averaging a ridiculous 30.1 points and 9.9 assists and shot 40.8 percent from behind the arc and 45.8 percent from the field. He was the college basketball version of Curry, a point guard with the range to pull up off the dribble from anywhere inside the mid-court stripe, the quickness to beat his man off the bounce and the court vision to generate open looks for his teammates.
Everything began to get tougher for Young in mid-January, when opponents began to gear their defenses around getting the ball out of his hands. Whether it was face-guarding Young when he didn’t have the ball or sending two defenders at him every time he curled around a ball screen, Big 12 teams did everything they could to force another Oklahoma player to beat them.
When Oklahoma’s role players proved incapable of taking advantage of the extra attention that Young received, the burden of being the Sooners’ one-man engine began to take a toll on the freshman guard. He still averaged 24.6 points and 7.4 assists during the final 16 games of the regular season, but his turnover rate soared and his shooting efficiency sank to 38.4 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from behind the arc.
An Oklahoma team that had been suspect defensively all season couldn’t cope with the downtick in offensive efficiency. The Sooners dropped 10 of their final 14 games in the unforgiving Big 12, then crashed out of both the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments in the opening round.
The good news for Atlanta is that Young won’t face so many double teams in the NBA, nor will he have a supporting cast so incapable of helping him. While Atlanta’s roster is far from playoff-caliber, the Hawks can either pair Young with young pillars Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince and fellow first-round draft picks Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman — or they can deal Schroder in return for more draft picks or young talent.
There’s ample reason to believe that Young will be an excellent offensive player in the NBA despite his slight stature and lack of elite explosiveness. His ability to pull up from 30 feet and in forces opposing defenders to guard him tighter and allows him to get by his man easier than other guards do. His court vision and passing ability out of the pick-and-roll might be his greatest assets, making him a good fit for the modern NBA.
“I never realized he was such a terrific passer because on his high school team he never had guys to pass the ball to,” a Big 12 assistant told Yahoo Sports in March. “When we played him the last time, he had like 14 or 15 passes that could have been assists but his teammates either didn’t make the shot or weren’t ready for the pass. He throws players open like a quarterback. If you’re not turning and not ready for the ball, it will hit you in face.”
Where Young may have more trouble in the NBA is on defense, a weakness throughout his freshman season at Oklahoma. Too often he lost concentration, failed to stay in front of his man or chose not to fight through a screen, perhaps a product of him conserving energy for the offensive end of the floor.
In today’s mismatch-oriented NBA, a player as slight of stature and disinterested on defense as Young will turn out to be a magnet for switches. Opponents will use ball screens to force Young to guard their best perimeter scorer until the former Oklahoma star proves he can string together stops or the Hawks pull him off the floor.
“If he has to guard and he’s got the right mindset, he can be an adequate defender, but he has to want to,” the Big 12 assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “He’s a liability defensively right now because that effort isn’t always there.”
Perhaps Young can achieve what Curry did and work to transform himself from a complete defensive liability into merely an adequate defender. Maybe Young can be so efficient on offense that Atlanta will overlook his defensive woes. Either way, this is the downside to drafting Young, especially when it meant sacrificing Doncic to do it.
Young showed up to the Barclays Center on Thursday night clad in a maroon suit with shorts instead of pants, a look that stood out even on a night when other draftees donned everything from floral print, to crushed velvet, to Black Panther garb.
“I wanted to be different,” Young said. “No one has ever rocked the shorts before at the draft.”
Atlanta hopes Young will be a rarity on the court, too, a slightly built point guard who can emerge as an elite offensive player while also defending his position and withstanding the physicality of the NBA. Schlenk watched Curry up close for the first eight years of his decorated career, and now he’s betting Young can defy the odds, too.
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