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Heading Into 2019 Skills Challenge, Trae Young Already Terrific Passer
Author: Kevin L. Chouinard
When Trae Young takes the court in Charlotte Saturday night for the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, he will get the chance to show the world how well he can navigate the obstacle-style course designed to test each participant's dribbling, passing, and shooting skills.
At the same time, the world should already know what a terrific passer Young is. In just 58 games, Trae Young has demonstrated enough skill to certify his passing abilities.
Take, for instance, Young's passing performance on Tuesday in a win over the Los Angeles Lakers. He finished with 14 assists, a total that did not include his two most gasp-inducing passes of the night: a pick-and-roll feed to Omari Spellman that bounced through LeBron James' legs and a post entry to John Collins that also slipped under James. Young connected on both; the only reason they didn't register as assists was because both led to free throws instead of a made basket.
Young currently ranks 4th in the NBA in total assists, trailing only Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday and Ben Simmons. Head coach Lloyd Pierce compared Young's assorted between-the-legs passes to the ball-distribution talents of another unique player from the assists leaderboard: Nikola Jokić.
"He's small," Pierce quipped of Young.
"Jokić plays with the basketball above his head," Pierce added. "His vantage point is that he can see over the defense when he makes his passes. He is an elite passer. Trae's vantage point is that he's a wraparound guy, he's a bounce pocket-pass guy. If you're a 7-footer or a 6-foot-10 guy and you're standing straight up, and you've got a wide stance, that's a vantage point. Because he's a smaller guard, his vantage point is different than Nikoka Jokić's or LeBron James'. He's not jumping in the air and passing over a 7-footer."
If Pierce took the physical approach to understanding Trae's nutmegs, teammate Kent Bazemore took the psychological one.
"I love it. I've gone with all season how fearless he is," Bazemore said. "That's one thing that you can't really coach."
At the same time, there is a skill level in Young's game that extends beyond his audacity. It's the kind of talent developed over the years by a kid who would go into his garage at night to practice dribbling in the dark.
"I think he just practices a lot," former Hawk teammate Jeremy Lin said. "His ball skills are amazing. People don't realize it. They think, 'Oh, he can shoot,' or, 'He's quick.' No, his ball skills and his ability to control the ball with both hands are amazing."
For a smaller player – and one who gets a tremendous amount of attention from defenses – the ability to use both hands is key. If his window for firing off a pass is, as Pierce noted, in any way limited by his size, he has doubled that window by becoming proficient with both hands. In fact, 'proficient' probably isn't a strong enough superlative to describe the passes that Young can throw with his left hand.
Consider this absurd pass from Young's 24-point, 15-assist in a win over Miami in November.
Young has two defenders trapping him as he comes out of a pick and roll. A help defender scrambles to take away Dewayne Dedmon, his roll man. So who is open? It's Omari Spellman in the corner – the opposite corner – 50 feet away. Trae whips a sidearm pass with his left hand that hits Spellman squarely in his shooting pocket.
As fellow point guard Lin hinted, that type of skill doesn't exist without years and years of practice. Young said that he got that practice with his father.
"There were times when I was a kid growing up where me and my dad would be in the gym and we would do nothing but passes: right hand, left hand, behind-the-backs with the right and left," Young said. "Everything that I did with my right, I did with my left."
The list of Young's high-vision, high-difficulty passes is nearly endless: An on-the-spot, lefty pick-and-roll feed. A one-touch, 90-foot bomb to Kevin Huerter for a dunk. An inside-out, lefty wraparound to Omari Spellman. As highlight reels go, these passes would make a fine clip from an excellent passer's season.
Trae Young made all these passes in one game.
"Trae's a magician with the basketball," Pierce said. "That's the first thing (Hawks general manager) Travis (Schlenk) talked about when we drafted Trae. He's a facilitator and he can make every conceivable pass – right hand or left hand. And that's a skill that you just don't see."
Young will need more than just passing to win Saturday night's Skills Challenge. The event features eight players (Young, Jokić, Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Nikola Vučević) competing in a head-to-head, single-elimination format. The course includes dribbling around cones, a layup and a three-point shot.
The course also includes a pass, a relatively simple pass that Trae Young should be able to handle. But if he doesn't, don't be fooled. Everyone should already know that Young has rare passing skills.