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Trae Young’s magical bag of passing tricks

The Atlanta Hawks’ rookie is already one of the NBA’s best passers. Here are all the ways he slices up defenses.

Getty Images/SB Nation illustration by Karyim Carrea

It’s March 3, and Trae Young is going for the kill.

The Chicago Bulls trail Young’s Atlanta Hawks by 13 early in the third quarter. They miss another shot, and Young takes the outlet pass. He dribbles three times, finding himself on the horns of the Bulls mid-court logo.

He doesn’t need to go any further. In one fluid motion, Young fires from the parking lot. Swish.

The shot serves two purposes. For one, it demoralizes the opponent if it goes in, a no-stakes version of Stephen Curry’s famous dagger against the Oklahoma City Thunder three years ago.

More importantly, it serves as a warning. Defenses must treat Young as a threat the second he crosses half court, or else he’ll pull the trigger. When they stretch themselves that thin, it gives Young the leverage needed to amplify his actual best skill: his passing.

Fans have associated Young with long-range shooting since he captivated the nation with a barrage of triples at Oklahoma. Comparisons to Curry were easy to make then and easy to make now.

But they’re wrong. Not only is there a sizable gap between the two in shooting ability, there’s a stark difference in approach. While Curry can operate as a scorer or passer, he’s wired more towards the former, leveraging his GOAT-level shooting to bury teams. Young, on the other hand, uses his range to force defenders into mistakes he can abuse with a pass.

That’s why Young is less Curry and more Steve Nash, a Hall of Famer that Young admitted to idolizing growing up. Much like Nash, Young is a master manipulator with a preternatural understanding of defensive coverages. Not only is his basketball IQ sky-high, he has the toolbox to counter anything a defense throws at him.

Here are all the tools at Young’s disposal.

The Foundation: Double Drag

As the old cliche goes, the NBA is a copycat league. Most teams run variations of the same offensive sets.

Still, some teams are associated with certain sequences. The Rockets use an array of high pick-and-rolls and dribble-handoffs from the wing to get their guards attacking downhill. The Golden State Warriors rip teams apart from the post, but in a non-traditional way: they use the post as a passing hub rather than the bump-and-grinding style we saw in the 80s.

With Young at the controls, the Hawks have made one particular set their staple: Double Drag.

The moment Young crosses half court, his big men will station themselves above the three-point line while the wings chill in the corners. As Young dribbles off the screens, one of the bigs will dive to the rim, while the other will pop out for a three-point opportunity.

Young’s ability to pull up from the logo puts pressure on his defender to stay with him over both screens. If he falls behind Young at all, one of the big men defenders will be forced to help until the guard can recover. That either frees the spacing big man for a wide-open three, or gives the rolling big man a head of steam down the lane.

The latter happens in this example against the Houston Rockets.

The set itself isn’t complex, but Young makes it nearly impossible to defend. He’s so dangerous as a shooter, defenses have to extend themselves to take away that threat.

But asking defenses to cover that much ground leaves them prone to mistakes. When those mistakes happen, Young uses these five tools in his passing kit to make them pay.

1. Lobs

Young’s cotton-soft touch isn’t limited to his jump shot. His passing accuracy rivals elite quarterbacks. He routinely puts the right amount of sauce on his dishes to make sure they’re catchable for his guys.

During All-Star Weekend, Young revealed that lobs are his favorite passes to throw. This shouldn’t shock you, but he especially enjoys connecting with big man John Collins.

”I got a teammate [in Collins] that can go get whatever I throw to him,” Young told SB Nation. “It’s great having a teammate like him.”

It’s hard to overstate Young’s accuracy on these passes and the myriad of ways he pulls them off. He can convert two-hand tosses from a standstill, or on the move.

If he’s short on space or feeling a little fancy, he unleashes a scoop lob to get the job done.

If Young is this era’s Nash, Collins is his Amar’e Stoudemire. As of March 27, Young and Collins have connected on 32 alley oops. Only three duos — headlined by the James Harden-Clint Capela pairing, with 85 — have been more prolific this season. Overall, Young has completed 64 alley-oops, the second-most in the NBA behind Harden, who has 99.

2. Pocket Passes

While lobs are Young’s preferred weapons of choice, he understands he can’t use them all the time. Some centers hang back deep in the paint to take lobs away, in what’s known as “Drop” coverage. Other times, the big man defender will defend the screen so high that Young isn’t able to turn the corner and create a 2-on-1 situation to throw his lob.

But Young counters either decision by unleashing a bounce pass to his big man to give him a runway. He’s able to thread the needle with traditional two-handed pocket passes, but can also rifle one-handed balls ball into tight areas, even with his off hand.

Timing the is key to these passes. Throwing the ball too early gives the defender a chance to ready himself for the big man’s roll, but throwing it too late can make the catch tougher for the cutter.

This sequence showcases the ideal balance. Young makes the dish before Rudy Gay can show too high on the screen and close the window for the bounce pass.

At the same time, Collins is ready for it and has the space to step through, gather, and finish before Gay recovers or DeMar DeRozan rotates.

Making the catch-and-attack sequence as clean as possible is the goal, and it’s one Young’s collection of pocket passes achieves with regularity.

3. Wrap-arounds

Young uses these when he gets downhill, but can’t sneak in a lob or pocket pass.

When those passes are taken away, Young will drive deep into the paint to draw the big man defender. Young isn’t a Curry or Nash-level finisher at the rim yet (52.5 percent on 345 attempts), but he’s good enough to where the defensive big man has to help to prevent an uncontested layup.

Except, that’s exactly what Young wants. In those situations, Young loves to to sling passes around the back of the defender to his rolling big.

As you’ll notice, he doesn’t fire the pass until the second defender is completely out of position to recover.

Young’s main objective when getting downhill is forcing the help defender to commit to him. If there are two players defending the ball, an offensive player is roaming free somewhere, and Young can find him.

With the aid of his scoring reputation, Young has proven to be good enough to force extra help. That allows him to use the vision and pinpoint accuracy needed to thread the needle in close confines.

4. Corner skips

These aren’t just the most impressive passes in Young’s arsenal, they’re also the most important. In today’s NBA, being able to manipulate the help defender on the opposite side of the court is a crucial skill.

It’s also half the battle. Recognizing that the defender is cheating off his man to take away the roller is one thing. Consistently being able to take advantage of that defender being out of position is another. That’s what separates good playmakers from elite ones.

Already, Young is an elite one, in a class with Harden and LeBron James when it comes to zip and accuracy on skip passes despite being smaller than both. Young can thread the needle with either hand.

Or, he can load up with an overhead fling when given the opportunity.

Young doesn’t read his own defender, he reads the man in the corner. As he attacks the basket, he’s watching to see how far the help will come over. If the corner defender takes more than two steps toward the middle, Young will sling a dart across the court, trusting that the opponent won’t be able to turn and recover.

That speaks to the fear Young strikes in defenses already. Teams play him aggressively at the point of attack to take away the three-ball, even with his passing skill. In doing so, the big man defender has to walk the tightrope between cutting off a Young drive and making sure the roller doesn’t sneak behind him. To help him, the corner defender is forced to slide to the middle, because they know that Young can fit the ball in virtually any window if the big man even appears to be open.

All that does, though, is open up corner three opportunities. Amazingly, Young actually leads the league in assists on corner threes, with 96. That’s 18 more than Harden and 20 more than fellow rookie Luka Doncic.

5. Behind-the-back passes

These are the tools Young uses when all others fail. These passes are stylish by nature, but they also serve a tactical purpose.

If teams effectively trap Young, in Double Drag sets or otherwise, they ensure he can’t see over defenders, unlike taller playmakers such as Harden or James. To combat those scenarios, Young must use behind-the-back passes.

Teams have been swarming to Young more in an effort to get the ball out of his hands and take precious seconds off the shot clock by forcing him to retreat. But when Young uses a behind-the-back pass, he keeps the offense flowing while giving his team a 4-on-3 advantage.

That’s how Dedmon ended up wide open despite the Knicks containing Young’s penetration.

Those are the five basics Young uses to pick defenses apart, and he’s adding more advanced gadgets to the collection. No-look passes aren’t challenging to him anymore. He tried a bounce-pass alley-oop in one actual game, and completed one off the backboard in another. He’s thrown 65-foot bombs. He’s faked behind-the-back passes to keep his dribble alive.

But like all of the great passers before him, Young is as selfless as he is effective. He doesn’t pound the ball into the dirt hunting for assists. He keeps the chain moving, and that Nashian ability to empower his teammates makes them all threats.

With the way he bends defenses with his shooting and carves them apart with his passing, he’s on track to be the type of player who leads his team to an elite offense, no matter who else is on the floor.