- Trae Young has mastered a read in the pick-and-roll that makes him almost unguardable.
- Young can either shoot a floater against a big man dropping back, or throw it to his teammate.
- Young is also such a good three-point shooter that sometimes the only defense is hoping he misses.
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The Milwaukee Bucks, like the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers before them, learned during Game 1 on Wednesday that there is no easy method of defending Atlanta Hawks superstar Trae Young.
The 23-year-old Young is averaging 30.5 points and 10.5 assists per game in the playoffs, leading the upstart Hawks to two straight upsets and a 1-0 lead over the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. They’re three wins away from the NBA Finals.
Defending Young is a pick-your-poison proposition: play him too loose, and he’ll rain three-pointers, but play him too close, and he’ll knife into the lane for floaters and lobs to big men.
In particular, Young has mastered beating the “drop” defense the Bucks deploy, picking apart the coverage with a simple, yet challenging read at a level few other guards have reached.
Young is reading defenders at an advanced level
“Drop” defense essentially asks a big man to momentarily guard two players at once in a pick-and-roll: the ball-handler and the screener. The defender will gradually drop back toward the basket, corralling the ball-handler while attempting to keep his own man from getting behind him.
Here’s an example:
Notice how Lopez is gradually dropping back, keeping himself between Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, and the basket.
Yes, this resulted in a made floater, but the object is to take away two more efficient shots – three-pointers and a layup – and force opponents into tough, contested floaters or kicking the ball out. The Bucks have generally had success with this coverage, using Lopez and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s length to bother opponents.
The key for ball-handlers is to wait for the exact moment when they are far enough into the paint to launch an open floater or when the defender “dropping” back is too far up, thus opening up a lob to the rolling big man.
Young is making this read, going through progressions like a quarterback and picking his best option.
Young has done this consistently throughout the playoffs. While defenses would rather force players into those tough floaters, Young led the NBA in made floaters this season – he’ll keep taking that shot if defenses give it to him.
On JJ Redick’s “The Old Man and The Three” podcast, Indiana Pacers guard T.J. McConnell praised Young’s ability to make this read – between shooting a floater or finding the rolling big man – at such an exceptional level.
“When he’s hitting from three, and you try to take that away, his floater is so good that the big either steps up and he throws the lob – he’s unbelievable at reading that,” McConnell said, adding: “He’s reading the big. If they step up, he’s shooting that floater, and he’s elite with that shot, or he’s passing it off.”
McConnell added: “When his shot is going in from three, it’s tough to guard. I mean, when I come into guard him, sometimes you almost just pray that he misses.”
Indeed, Young’s shooting opens up his entire game. If a guard doesn’t fight over the screen, Young will launch.
The threat of that shot allows everything else to fall into place for the Hawks – Young can blow past defenders playing up on him, get into the paint, shoot a floater, throw a lob, or kick it back out to the perimeter when the defense collapses.
There is some debate about whether the Bucks should switch every screen, ensuring there are no gaps in coverage for Young to exploit. The Bucks tried this late in Game 1, but the Hawks often then called for another screen, eventually leaving Young to attack a mismatch.
The Bucks can clean up other areas of their game to get back in the series, like shooting better from three and giving up fewer offensive rebounds.
But as if the case with many superstars in the NBA, sometimes there is no way to stop them except hoping they miss their shots.