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The Utah Jazz should trade for Trae Young

Please don’t attack me

Atlanta Hawks v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

I’m just preemptively putting this right here.

The Utah Jazz have a boatload of draft picks, young players, and valuable veterans on expiring contracts. They might have the most tradeable assets of any team in the league. If they’re going to spend them in the trade market, now is a wonderful time to do so.

What type of player would Utah be interested in?

The Jazz have begun to build a young core. It’s not complete yet, but there are intriguing pieces. The headliner right now is Lauri Markkanen, who is an All-Star who doesn’t need the ball in his hands much to score a lot of points. Walker Kessler is already an elite rim protector and solid rim-running center. Ochai Agbaji looks to have legitimate ‘3&D’ potential. Keyonte George has shown flashes of dynamic scoring and playmaking. Taylor Hendricks is showing incredible defensive versatility and some shot-making.

The obvious missing ingredient in this core is a creator. Keyonte George is the only player in the group that does much playmaking and self-creation, but he’s still just a rookie, and it’s hard to know just how good he’ll become. However exciting his potential is, it’s unlikely that he ever reaches the level of some of the league’s top playmakers. As the team is, there is nobody to create for the plethora of off-ball players on the roster. Markkanen is good enough to manage to score well despite his lack of creation and the lack of playmaking around him, but other players have struggled with it. Walker Kessler has a hard time getting quality shot attempts. Ochai Agbaji disappears in the offense at times. A true point guard would make a world of difference for this team. That’s why a trade for a player like Trae Young makes sense.

Fit

Trae Young is one of the best creators of offense in the NBA, both for himself and his teammates. Here are a few of Young’s ranks in creation stats league-wide.

  • Assists: 1st
  • Assists per game: 2nd
  • Assist Percentage: 2nd
  • Potential assists per game: 2nd
  • Assist points created per game: 2nd
  • Assist to pass percentage*: 1st
  • Unassisted field goals: 3rd
  • Percent of field goals unassisted: 3rd
  • Percent of 3P field goals unassisted: 1st
  • Unassisted 3P field goals: 2nd

*among players with at least 10 minutes per game

Trae Young is an offensive hub. The only players that compare to him in this area are Luka Doncic and Tyrese Haliburton. Those three make up the top three in every stat listed above, except for Nikola Jokic, who ranks third in total assists. While Doncic, Haliburton, and Jokic would all be dream players for the Jazz, there is no chance they’re available. Their teams would have to be on downward spirals with no real hope of competing in the near future. Luckily for the Jazz, Trae Young is right in their company, and his team fits that description.

Let me put into perspective just how well Trae Young would fit next to Lauri Markkanen, Walker Kessler, and others. Of Lauri Markkanen’s 174 field goals this season, 147 were assisted. Of Walker Kessler’s 92 field goals, 65 were assisted. 77 of Agbaji’s 86 were assisted. 104 of John Collins’ 140. These players need to be set up. They aren’t shot creators. Just about every Jazz fan who has watched the last two seasons can attest that Mike Conley’s passing held the offense together. Trading him left the Jazz with no real playmakers. Young could come in and be exactly that, except so much more. His elite passing alone would boost Utah’s offense to levels it can’t reach now.

Young’s self-created scoring is another major factor. Utah has nobody that can really pressure a defense with the ball in their hands. Markkanen rarely tries. Collin Sexton and Talen Horton-Tucker have their moments, but they aren’t consistent. Neither is a legitimate pull-up shooting threat. Trae Young ranks fourth in the league in pull-up points per game. Among the 35 players with at least six pull-up attempts per game, Young ranks fourth in effective field goal percentage on pull-ups. When we filter it to just pull-up threes, Young also stands out. He attempts the third most pull-up threes per game and hits a blistering 39.3%. The Utah Jazz offense sorely lacks that threat to shoot off the dribble.

The pick-and-roll is the lifeblood of modern NBA offenses, and Trae Young is a pick-and-roll maestro. He leads the league in points per game as a P&R ball-handler with 13.5 per game. The Utah Jazz as a team only score 12.1 points per game from P&R ball-handlers. Young scores a respectable 1.03 points per possession on these plays compared to Utah’s 0.76. Young scores on 45.1% of possessions as a P&R ball-handler. Utah scores on only 34.7% of them. Utah has a desperate need, and Trae Young would fill it perfectly.

The risks

Trae Young’s weaknesses are well known. He’s among the most criticized players in the NBA, primarily due to his defensive struggles. Those struggles are legitimate, although I’d argue that they are both overblown and outdated.

Estimated Plus-Minus (EPM) is generally regarded by NBA personnel as one of the best advanced metrics available. EPM measures a player’s impact on their team as accurately as possible and how they contribute to winning or losing. The complex methodology captures both offensive and defensive impact. Trae Young has been regularly called one of the worst defenders in the league. EPM showed that for a couple of years, that was accurate. Young’s -3.0 Defensive EPM was in the 2nd percentile league-wide in his first season. He slightly improved to the 5th percentile in his sophomore season with a -2.5 Defensive EPM. Young was legitimately a terrible defensive player.

What many NBA fans don’t realize is that Trae Young has improved significantly year over year since then. He currently has a -0.6 Defensive EPM, in the 44th percentile in the NBA. Of course, that’s still not good. Defense is still a weakness of his game, but it’s important to know that he isn’t the historically bad defender he once was, and many seem to think he still is. Comparing his DEPM to some similar players shows that he is comparable to his peers.

Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus for Young, Haliburton, Doncic, Mitchell, Curry

He has the same DEPM as Luka Doncic, ranks higher than Steph Curry, Lemelo Ball, Tyrese Maxey, and Jalen Brunson, and is far higher than Tyrese Haliburton. Among the 40 point guards playing at least 25 minutes per game, Young ranks 25th in Defensive EPM. Again, it’s not a strength, but he has improved from one of the league’s worst to a middle-of-the-pack point guard on the defensive end. That improvement to average defensive performance, combined with his elite offensive stats (+5.5 Offensive EPM, 98th percentile) has launched him to the upper echelon of the league at 12th overall in EPM.

Possible trade packages

Young currently makes $40M per year. The Jazz have multiple avenues available to match that money. Unfortunately, John Collins cannot be traded back to Atlanta until after this season, so his $25M salary is off the table. Jordan Clarkson’s $23M salary is the easiest place to start. Combining him with Collin Sexton works money-wise. Clarkson with Horton-Tucker and a smaller-salary player like Keyonte George also fits the bill. If Atlanta didn’t want to take on Clarkson’s three-year deal, a combination of Sexton, Horton-Tucker, and Kelly Olynyk would match Young’s contract.

Now, that’s just the money-matching side. Trae Young is a top-15 player in this league, under contract, and young. If Atlanta is even willing to deal him, he will not be cheap. Utah has a war chest of first-round picks at their disposal, as well as three rookies and multiple other young players. Utah would not be interested in sending Markkanen back in this trade, as the idea would be to pair him with Young. I would assume that Kessler would be in that same category. I think anybody else could be on the table outside of those two players.

Keyonte George would probably be the gem of the trade for Atlanta, along with a plethora of picks and matching salaries. It’s also possible that they would prefer Hendricks, but Utah may prefer to send George as his role would overlap significantly with Young’s. How many picks it would take is a mystery and ultimately very dependent on the amount of young talent included in the deal. It would likely take at least five solid assets and a matching salary.

That’s a hefty price tag. Luckily, the Utah Jazz own enough picks to make that kind of trade and have some left over to improve the roster further. A core of Young, Markkanen, Kessler, and supporting players like Agbaji and Hendricks is exciting and much better than Utah’s current roster, but it’s still not a contender. This wouldn’t be the final move. This would be acquiring the lead ball-handler that the team’s core needs. Utah would finally have a legitimate core to build around.

Stats via nba.com, basketball-reference.com, dunksandthrees.com

Stats are as of 12/28/2023