Trae Young – From threes at Oklahoma Basketball to floaters in Atlanta

Whether it be in Norman, Oklahoma, or Atlanta, Georgia, Trae Young has consistently found ways to give defenses fits. After averaging 27.4 points and 8.7 assists in his lone collegiate season with  Oklahoma Basketball, the 22-year-old averaged a 25.3/9.4 clip this past regular season (his third) with the Atlanta Hawks.

When one compares Young’s college and NBA highlights, there are plenty of similarities. He’s always been the primary ball-handler, exhibited rare passing abilities, and been a dangerous scorer from anywhere on the floor.

But while Trae Young’s bucket-getting ability has clearly translated to the next level, the WAY he’s put the ball in the basket has changed a bit.

College

With the Sooners, Young generated Steph Curry comparisons due to his propensity for launching a ton of threes — particularly those well beyond the arc. 10.3 of his 19.3 (53.4%) shots per game came from downtown.

Aware of his shooting prowess, opponents guarded him at the 3-point line, but Young responded by pulling up from NBA range and beyond. Given he’s not the tallest player (6-1), this provided him the space to shoot over bigger defenders. Despite this challenging shot selection, he managed to hit a solid 36.0% of his long-range attempts.

NBA

Since beginning his professional career, Young has continued to take his fair share of long threes, but there’s been a notable shift in his shot diet. After taking 53.4% of his shots from three as a freshman, this fell to 38.7%, 45.7%, and 35.6% in his first three seasons with the Hawks.

What’s going on? The NBA is increasingly embracing the 3-pointer, so it’s not as if there’s any philosophical factor dissuading Young from these shots. Whether it be the NCAA or the NBA, “3” is still more than “2”.

First, NBA defenses are making an effort to limit opponent 3-point attempts, and the players trying to take these shots from Young are bigger and faster than those he faced in college.

Why doesn’t Young just create space by launching deep threes like he did at Oklahoma? Well, he has, but given the farther NBA 3-point line, these shots are now significantly more difficult (and require more energy). The college three was only 20 feet, 9 inches for Young in 2017-18 (now 22 feet, 1 inches), while the NBA arc is 23 feet, 9 inches (22 feet in the corners). So whereas “long” college threes were in the vicinity of NBA range (23-24 feet), “long” NBA threes are several feet further.

These factors have contributed to Young shooting 34.3% from this past regular season and the same 34.3% for his career. On moderately deep NBA threes (25-29 feet), he shot 92/277 (33.2%) in 2020-21. On super deep 30-34 footers, he hit 20/64 (31.3%). While these 3-point numbers are nothing to scoff at, they’ve likely contributed to Young turning down some 3-point attempts.

The guard’s inability to replicate his collegiate 3-point prowess could have been a major obstacle in his NBA career, especially since his modest stature creates challenges in the other “analytics zone” — the restricted area. Young has barely missed a beat, however, due to his effectiveness with a shot he didn’t need to utilize as much at Oklahoma: the floater.

The Floater

When defenders pressure him and fight over screens to deter 3-point attempts, Young maneuvers his way into the lane and launches touch shots over opposing big men — many of whom have dropped way back to protect the rim.

Most of these shots come in the paint but outside the restricted area (“floater range”). Young attempted 3.2 such shots per game his rookie season (made 46.9% of them), increasing this to 5.1 in year two (45.0%) and 5.9 (46.6%) in 2020-21. How does this compare with the rest of the NBA both today and historically?

Since 1996-97, 48 players have averaged at least 5 FGAs per game in the paint that were NOT in the restricted area (see chart below). Only one player (Shaq) has averaged over 7 FGAs (7.6 in ’99, 8.8 in ’00 & 7.7 in ’01).

(Click the chart and hover over dots to find Trae Young!)

Interestingly, the shot’s popularity has fluctuated over time: 6 players in ’01, no more than 1 per season from ’09 -’17, and 7 this season. What could explain this? Here’s one theory:

Back in the late 90’s to early 00’s, the shot’s popularity was driven by big men posting up and launching their versions of floaters (e.g. jump hooks). But as these plays and players took on reduced offensive roles, these shots took a step back as well.

While the post-up has never really made a comeback, a new generation of guards — one who potentially grew up watching Tony Parker’s floaters — has filled the void.

As alluded to, NBA defenses have prioritized taking away threes and shots at the rim. The “floater range”, however, is far enough from the basket that defenses will concede shots from this area, but close enough that players have a chance at shooting efficiently. Floaters also require less energy than launching from 30-plus feet, enabling scorers to utilize them at a high volume.

Conclusion

The formula is clearly working for Trae Young, who has his Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals, averaging 28.8 points in and 9.8 assists in his first postseason run. He’s taking 38.8% of his shots from three — only slightly higher than the 35.6% in the regular season (made 33.8% of them).

The floater has continued to serve him well in the playoffs. He’s averaging 6.8 shots per game from “floater range” and has hit 51.9% of them (up from 46.6% in regular season). Is that good? As the above chart reflects, only five players have shot better than 50% on 5-plus attempts per game over an entire regular season: Hakeem Olajuwon, Elton Brand, Al Jefferson, Luka Doncic, and Nikola Jokic.

This shot is here to stay, and Trae Young is ahead of the game.

(Credit to basketball-reference, sports-reference, NBA.com and House of Highlights for GIFS)