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Trae Young Is Making the Leap, As a Player and a Leader for the Hawks

In just one and a half seasons, Young has gone from being known as “not Luka Doncic” to a star in his own right. Now he’s trying to become the fully formed franchise player Atlanta needs him to be.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Just over a year ago, Trae Young sat near one of the practice courts at USC’s Galen Center, slipped off a pair of pink Adidas sneakers, and quietly mumbled responses to the questions of a lone reporter. At that point, there wasn’t much for Young to say. The fifth overall pick had played in only 13 NBA games and was still carrying the baggage of a bleak summer league performance and the trade that had sent the electrifying Luka Doncic to Dallas and him to Atlanta. It was early in Young’s rookie season, but there wasn’t a lot of optimism surrounding the player who was supposed to become the franchise’s cornerstone.

Fast forward to earlier this month: The Hawks were back in Los Angeles for a two-game stint against the Lakers and Clippers, and Young—this time wearing the N3XT L3V3L Adidas sneakers, which he’s become the de facto face of—received the superstar treatment. As the Hawks wrapped up practice at UCLA, multiple cameras followed Young’s every move. Reporters crowded around him, and as he exited the John Wooden Center, a line of people waited for him outside. He took selfies with kids, signed jerseys and pictures of himself on poster boards, and shook hands like a presidential candidate at a rally.

“I’ve obviously made a big jump from last year to this year,” Young said after the practice session, “but we haven’t done anything yet.”

Young has been constructing a chip on his shoulder throughout his entire basketball career, ever since he was the smaller kid who didn’t seem to fit in on the court. That chip only grew in size last season, when, as Young puts it, “people didn’t think I was going to be able to do what I’ve been doing.” A couple of weeks ago, he even sent a tweet asking for an apology from those people who disrespected him during his rookie year. “I think if you feel like ‘Oh, man, he may be talking about me,’ I’m probably talking about you,” Young said about the tweet. “Everyone has their certain type of motivation, and this is what fuels me. And I try to use that to my advantage.”

So far, it seems to be working. After a stellar finish to last season that catapulted him to runner-up in the Rookie of the Year race, Young hasn’t just picked up where he left off; he’s leveled up. In 16 games this season, he’s averaging 26.6 points, 8.7 assists, and 4.5 rebounds with a true-shooting rate of 57 percent—all of which are higher than last season. Games where he drops 30 points and 10 assists are already becoming customary (he’s had four so far this season, and three others with 30-plus points and nine assists). And now he’s focused on new challenges, like improving his effort on defense (which assistant coach Marlon Garnett says has gotten a lot better this year), rounding out his offensive game, and becoming the leader of the Hawks in just his second season. Sometimes the future arrives faster than expected.

“I’m more comfortable. I know what to expect more going into games,” Young said. “I feel like it’s showtime every night.”

The logo is uncharted territory for all but a few daring shooters. Steph Curry popularized the almost-half-court shot earlier this decade, and Young has followed in his tracks. Young has been working on his deep ball since grade school, and now he’s using it to stretch opposing defenses to their breaking points. He’s already made the same number of 3s from 35 to 39 feet this season (two) as he did all of last season, and he’s currently on pace to take 128 shots from beyond 30 feet, which would be 57 more than he took in 2018-19.

“How he goes from his handle into a 3-point shot so quickly, those are some of the things that are similar to what you see with Steph,” said Damian Jones, who played for the Warriors last season and is now a member of the Hawks. “It’s amazing to watch.”

It all comes from the torque Young generates with his hips and legs, which helps offset his Curry-like frame and height. His shot has a flatter arc than the typical shooter’s parabola, which gives the ball a more horizontal pathway to the basket and provides Young with a longer range.

But not every shot can be a 3, and for a player like Young, whose size disadvantage is all but eliminated behind the arc, the midrange is where things can get chaotic. While that space on the court is often maligned from an analytics perspective, Young knew that improving in that area would be essential for his growth in Year 2. So for four weeks this past offseason, he and his trainer Alex Bazzell hunkered down at a high school gym in the San Fernando Valley and prioritized the midrange. Fifty percent of their workouts focused on pull-ups, floaters, and fadeaways from that part of the floor, while the other 50 percent was split between 3-pointers and finishing at the rim.

“The midrange shot is completely different from your 3-point shot,” Bazzell said. “In the midrange, you have to be able to raise up and shoot at the top of your jump, otherwise it’s going to be hard to get it over those defenders. Especially for Trae—he’s coming off a lot of ball screens, and they put a lot of longer, taller defenders on him.”

To help Young maximize his effectiveness in midrange situations, Bazzell sent him clips of Clippers guard Lou Williams—a known midrange maestro—to study over the summer. Williams is an expert at using his body and his dribble to create space, and given that Young runs some of the same actions with the Hawks as Williams does with the Clippers, Bazzell wanted Young to duplicate the balance and high arc Williams maintains on his shot while fading away from defenders.

Bazzell also trained Kyrie Irving this offseason, and in those sessions he picked up more specific tips for Young. “Kyrie is a lot stronger than people realize, and there’s a reason he’s able to hang, get the space, and not get blocked in a lot of his pull-ups,” Bazzell said. “I learned just what he was doing with his hands, his shoulders, just to separate and get space. After seeing that and guarding that up close, it was much easier to implement that when training with Trae.”

So far, those tactics have been paying dividends. From 10 feet out to the 3-point line, Young is shooting more than 5 percentage points better this season than he did his rookie year. And for a player who already has a top-five usage rate in the league (33.4), any kind of improvement in efficiency goes a long way.

Young’s foundation as a play-maker—from shooting to passing to finishing at the rim—is already so advanced that his teammates trust him to lead their efforts on the floor. Take Jabari Parker, for example. Just a few weeks into the season, Parker (who signed with the Hawks in July) told me that Young already knew that Parker needed to get a dunk early in games to get his energy going. Now, thanks to Young’s passing, Parker is tied for second in the league in dunks with 47. “He has court vision like Jason Kidd, like Pete Maravich,” Parker said. “[He’s] got eyes everywhere.”

”For him it’s always more about learning about personnel and what the teams throw at him,” Hawks teammate Alex Len said. “When he sees the trap coming, he splits it or gets around his player so quick and then makes a decision, whether it’s to score, or going to be the big on the roll or the long pass—he reads it so quick. There’s only a few players who can do it like that—Rubio, LeBron—players who have that level of vision.”

As Young started to speak to reporters on Sunday night following a second straight blowout loss in Los Angeles, his voice cracked. He stopped, asked for water, Gatorade, anything, and then started over. It was a moment that made even Young laugh, and it served as a reminder that he is still only 21 years old. Around this Hawks team, that fact is easy to forget.

When head coach Lloyd Pierce mentioned that Young talked to rookies De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish after the tough loss, the fact that Young is nine months younger than Hunter didn’t seem to cross his mind. “We know what Trae is capable of doing on the court, getting a shot off, facilitating, getting downhill, making big plays,” Pierce said. “The growth for him is … emotional and mental leadership. We’ve asked a lot of Trae, to lead this team in his second year, and he does that on the court by example. We’re also asking him to do that with his voice, his leadership, encouraging his teammates, because he’s the guy who can facilitate and communicate.”

One of the reasons Young and Bazzell got only about four weeks to train this summer was because Young spent much of the offseason in Atlanta getting acquainted with his new team (only half of the top-12 players in minutes from the 2018-19 Hawks returned this season). It was an anticipatory move, as both Young and the organization knew that the leap he’d need to take this season wouldn’t just come on the court.

His veteran teammates have been helping him step into that role, too. Evan Turner, who’s been in the league for 10 years and has experience mentoring younger guys at previous stops, is trying to find the balance between giving Young pointers and letting him learn as he goes. “When things are falling apart, or are tough, I tell him, ‘Keep your composure. Lead. You’re a leader—lead,’” Turner said. “I just remind him of that. I think he’s stepped up and tried to be mature and do that. He’s really trying.”

In a lot of ways, Young’s rapid improvement contrasts with where the Hawks are as a franchise; while the rest of the basketball world has caught on to how good Young is already, Atlanta is 4-13 and going through the growing pains of a young team. But both the Hawks’ coaching staff and their front office have the same long-term goal—to build a contender around Young. Even if it requires time, there is no greater value in the NBA than having both a plan and a star. The Hawks continue to look like they have both.

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