Physical. Defensive. Low-Scoring. Paint dominant. None of these terms apply to Trae Young. The play style of the NBA back in the 1990s is unrecognizable compared to today’s game. But after watching the first eight episodes of The Last Dance, it could be argued that Atlanta’s All-Star point guard would have been just as effective if placed in a time machine set for 1998.
Let’s start with the lowest hanging fruit. Almost every player in today’s game shoots more 3-pointers than his predecessor from previous decades. This season Trae took 9.5 attempts per game, making 3.4 of them for a percentage of 34%.
In 1998, Joe Dumars led the league with 5.9 attempts per game (on 37.1%), while Dale Ellis knocked down 46.4% (on 3.5 attempts per game). It would be safe to assume that none of those 3-pointers came from the logo. Instead, they happened against a defense that was happy to let offenses “settle” for shots beyond the arc.
Put Trae in that league, and he stretches defenses past their breaking point. His teammates Dikembe Mutumbo and Steve Smith, are finding more relaxed looks at the rim.
Speaking of teammates, everyone from Christian Laettner to Mookie Blaylock is getting fat off Trae’s dimes. This season Young averaged 9.3 assists per game. That number would put him second in the league in 1998, behind Rod Strickland (10.5) and above Jason Kidd (9.1). Pick Trae up, and he is finding open teammates for easy buckets left and right.
Before the season suspension, Trae was hunting for fouls like a young James Harden (*author of this article wipes away tear from pride*), taking 9.3 attempts per game from the charity stripe.
Only Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone took more free throws per game in the 1998 season. Point guard leaders Sam Cassell and Allen Iverson both took nearly seven foul shots per contest — in a more physical era.
This isn’t a stat that you can chalk up to inflation or a faster pace of the game. The 2019 Clippers led the league with 26.2 free throw attempts per game. That would put them at 14th most free throw attempts during the 1998 season.
Even if Trae was dropped in 1998, he would still have aspects of his game that would need improvement. He has to commit fewer turnovers and play better defense. But we are talking about a second-year player on one of the worst teams in the league.
I would love to see Young nutmeg Gary Payton or fade Penny Hardaway. 1998 Trae Young would likely get even more technicals, have a shaved head, and play cards rather than film TikTok videos. There is no doubt that he would not only survive but thrive during Jordan’s Last Dance season.