Trae Young Plays Like He’s a Great Shooter. The Bucks Should Let Him.

Trae Young Plays Like He’s a Great Shooter. The Bucks Should Let Him.

- in Basketball

When it comes to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks star, much of the discussion is about whether he takes too many 3-pointers at the expense of his true strengths, which include his dominance in the paint.

It’s a worthy discussion, but after Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, in which the Bucks convincingly equalized the best-of-seven series in a blowout, it’s also worth asking if that discussion should be directed toward Atlanta’s Trae Young, too.

The Bucks put the game away in the first half with a 20-0 run en route to a 125-91 victory. How they won wasn’t exactly basketball rocket science. They made 3-pointers at a high clip. In the first half, Milwaukee shot 10 for 18 from deep and didn’t look back. Many of those shots were open and weren’t much different from the Bucks’ looks that didn’t fall in Game 1.

As the perimeter opened up in Game 2, so did the lane for Antetokounmpo, who relentlessly attacked the rim, both in transition and in post-ups, and finished with 25 points, 9 rebounds and 6 assists in 29 minutes.

The Bucks also disrupted Young by playing him more physically. In particular, Milwaukee used its length to cut off passing lanes, forcing Young into nine turnovers. Jrue Holiday, an elite perimeter defender, was more aggressive in containing Young, particularly coming off screens.

“They just picked up their pressure, their intensity,” Hawks Coach Nate McMillan said after the game. “They played with more sense of urgency. I didn’t think Jrue did anything other than stay focused on Trae, containing the ball and just being right there.”

Young didn’t hesitate to take the blame.

“That’s all on me,” Young said. “I’ve got to be better at taking care of the ball and just do a better job of at least getting us a shot. Nine turnovers. I’ve got to do better, and I will do better next game.”

There is another issue with Young that doesn’t seem to get as much attention beyond the turnovers, and here he may have something in common with Antetokounmpo.

Antetokounmpo went 0 for 3 from outside the perimeter in Game 2. And with each missed shot, TNT’s Reggie Miller harangued Antetokounmpo on the broadcast for taking those wide-open shots, saying that he was bailing out the Hawks’ defense. It has been a theme throughout Antetokounmpo’s playoff runs. In this year’s second-round series against the Nets, every time Antetokounmpo had an open look at Barclays Center, the crowd would roar with anticipation, hoping he would take the shot.

Miller and the Nets fans were onto something. Those are not great shots for Antetokounmpo, given his strength near the rim. But three long jump shots in a game isn’t much in today’s N.B.A.

Young, who is supremely confident in his long-range shooting, is an example of that. His confidence is part of what makes him such a great player and why the Hawks have unexpectedly made it to the conference finals. But there is growing evidence that Young’s 3-point shooting is almost as problematic — if not more so — than Antetokounmpo’s, because he takes many more of them and hasn’t consistently knocked them down.

Young and his teammates struggled from 3 in Game 2, finishing 9 for 36 from 3. Young went 1 for 8. The one make was a highlight-worthy quick release following a crossover against Holiday. That’s just it with Young: When he succeeds, he does it in a flashy way, making it easy to forget about the seven misses. It’s easy to chalk this up to a poor shooting night. But in Game 1, when Young masterfully poured in 48 points, what went less noticed was that he shot 4 for 13 from 3.

OK, that’s two poor shooting nights — at least from 3. That happens. But when one zooms out and looks at Young’s history as a shooter, there are holes. Against the Philadelphia 76ers in the semifinals, Young shot poorly from 3 over seven games: 32.3 percent on almost nine attempts a game. In the opening round against the Knicks: 34.1 percent over five games.

Over 204 career regular-season games, Young has shot only 34.3 percent from 3. For someone who has averaged more than seven 3-point attempts per game for his career, that’s not very good.

Part of this is the difficulty in the 3s Young takes. As the primary ballhandler, Young is excellent at creating shots for others, but he rarely has shots created for him. That means many of his 3-point shots are coming off pull-ups or step-backs, and rarely off catch-and-shoots. They’re also frequently contested.

Young certainly looks the part of a great 3-point shooter: His form is similar to Curry’s. He is a great free-throw shooter (88.6 percent during the regular season). And he is often aggressively guarded as if he is a consistent threat as a shooter. But there’s isn’t evidence that he is much of one.

During the regular season, when the closest defender was more than six feet away from Young, he only shot 39.6 percent from the field. During the playoffs, entering Friday, that number was slightly worse at 38.2 percent. (Curry, during the regular season, was at 48.9 percent. The Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James was at 45.2 percent, and Durant was at 56.3 percent.)

This is an argument to occasionally guard Young in the same way that opposing teams guard Antetokounmpo: Goad him into taking more deep shots, particularly step-backs. Give him more space and put a defensive wall up around the rim. Young makes up for his shooting with his skillful ball-handling in the paint and by getting to the free-throw line. While Antetokounmpo bullies his way to the basket, Young uses finesse. One of Young’s best weapons is a floater, which he deploys often coming off a pick-and-roll and seeing a Bucks big man drop back in coverage. On Friday, Young was 5 for 8 inside the 3-point line.

Simply put: The Bucks should encourage Young to take shots he doesn’t usually make and stop him from getting the ones he usually does. Giving him more space to operate on the outside might help neutralize his skill at breaking down defenses to get to the rim. The downside is that this leaves more space for Atlanta’s other shooters as well. But Young is adept at finding them anyway when he gets into the paint easily.

Young is a better deep threat than Antetokounmpo, who shot 30.3 percent from 3 during the regular season. But to an extent, shooting has so far been a weakness in Young’s career — one that the Bucks should not be afraid to exploit as the series heads to Atlanta on Sunday.

Young seems to think he’s a good long-range shooter. Don’t disabuse him of that notion.

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