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Passing With Flying Colors

Trae Young couldn’t hit a shot to start his NBA career, and the boo birds on social media let him hear it often. But Young could always count on his playmaking. Now it’s the engine of one of the most exhilarating skill sets in the league and the foundation of the Atlanta Hawks’ suddenly bright future.

Pablo Iglesias

Walk into the Atlanta Hawks’ locker room before any game this season and you’re bound to see two white boxes of Krispy Kreme either on a table or lying on the floor. The doughnuts are the Hawks’ harmless form of hazing: All four of the rookies—Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, Omari Spellman, and Jaylen Adams—rotate the task of bringing doughnuts to the team on a game day or on the flight to a road game. Most of the time, no one eats them.

When I visit Young at the Hawks’ practice facility in early March, amid a torrid individual stretch to close out his first season, I ask whether he still gets the doughnuts himself. Young hesitates, runs his hand through his corkscrew curls, and avoids eye contact. His hand was just caught in a cookie jar—or, in this case, the doughnut box.

“Sometimes, I may slip a ball boy a hundred to go get me a couple dozen,” Young says. “But I can’t say that anybody else does it for me.” A dozen doughnuts costs $7.99 at Krispy Kreme, which means he is paying a 525 percent upcharge for the sake of convenience.

But he can’t skirt the assignment, no matter what. On March 1, Young scored a career-high 49 points and played 56 minutes in a four-overtime loss to the Chicago Bulls. The next morning, it was his turn to bring the doughnuts. “I still had to go get them,” he says, shaking his head. It was a friendly reminder from the team’s veterans: No matter what kind of numbers you put up, you’re still a rookie.

For most of the first half of the NBA season, those reminders were far more harsh. Young, the NCAA’s most daring and prolific shooter last season, struggled to shoot well to start his pro career, posting a 19.8 3-point percentage during November. “I’ve never shot that bad in my life, and for me, I was like, ‘This can’t be it, this can’t be how it’s gonna be for the year,’” Young says. On social media, the reaction was harsher still. Every game seemed to be a referendum on who had won the draft-night trade that sent Luka Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Young and a future first-rounder.

As Young struggled, Doncic took the league by storm. Young couldn’t avoid the criticism. He would call his dad, Ray Young, and go through a laundry list of concerns. “Why are people saying this? Why are they tweeting that?” he’d ask.

“One of the big reasons that he struggled is because of [the Doncic comparisons],” Ray says. “He wanted to prove so many people wrong, prove to the world that he is an NBA player, that he can play. He watches all the TV shows. He reads social media, he does all this stuff. It was only fair for him to feel that way.”

Before he had even assimilated to NBA life, the 20-year-old was being labeled a bust. But even when Young’s shooting hit rock bottom, there were signs of hope. For all the attention his shot attracted, passing is Young’s best skill. (His assist percentage in one season at Oklahoma ranks among the best over the past decade.) In the same month Young’s 3-point shot dipped below 20 percent, he averaged eight assists per game.

Eventually, Young struck a balance between his game and how he handled criticism. He says he’s avoiding his mentions as much as possible, though he looks from time to time. Lately, it’s been hard to find much to criticize. Since the All-Star break, Young is averaging a robust 25.1 points and 37.7 percent shooting from 3, and turning the Rookie of the Year conversation into a two-man race with Doncic; after Young hit the game-winner to beat the Sixers on March 23, Donovan Mitchell, Blake Griffin, and Kyle Kuzma all stumped for his candidacy. Young ended that night with 32 points, but he also totaled double-digit assists for the eighth time since the break. His season-long average of 8.0 assists per game not only tops all rookies, it ranks seventh in the NBA this season, just behind Chris Paul, and 14th among rookies in NBA history, just ahead of Paul. Scoring has supercharged Young’s season for the second year in a row, but his playmaking is the foundation, both for his career and the Hawks’ future.

Travis Schlenk didn’t go looking for Trae Young. But when Schlenk walked into the Memorial Coliseum in Portland, Oregon, just trying to pass the time between games he was scheduled to watch at the Phil Knight Invitational in late November 2017, he couldn’t take his eyes off him. Young already had 30 points for Oklahoma, yet what stood out to Schlenk wasn’t the scoring, it was the playmaking. “This is a guy we’re going to have to see again,” Schlenk, the Hawks GM, says he thought to himself. About a month later, Schlenk was in the stands at Wichita State to watch Young go for 29 points and 10 assists, and again, he was impressed by Young’s vision and ability to pass with both hands. Schlenk, the former assistant GM of the Golden State Warriors, took over in Atlanta in 2017 hoping to establish a new culture built around ball movement, 3-pointers, and a healthy dose of fun. In Young, he saw all three.

What Schlenk spotted in Young’s first few games with the Sooners began nearly a decade earlier at a YMCA in Norman, Oklahoma. There, Ray Young would position himself underneath the basket and receive passes from his son at the free throw line. They would go through a sequence—passes with one hand, passes off the dribble, passes on jump stops. Everything that Trae did with his right hand, he would mirror with his left. Executing unorthodox dribbling drills and learning the intricacies of the pick-and-roll rounded out his elementary school extracurriculars.

“I knew he wasn’t gonna be 6-foot-5, 6-foot-8, 6-foot-9. So I always just tried to talk to him about being a playmaker,” said Ray, a 5-foot-11 guard who played four years at Texas Tech before stints in Portugal and Spain. “At the end of the day, he is who he is. He can’t be any taller. Can’t be any much bigger, faster, or stronger. But no one was gonna outwork him.”

From an early age, Trae was challenged to play beyond his years. Ray played his eldest son against older kids to ensure he developed the edge he knew Trae would need. In second grade, Trae played against fourth graders; in third grade, he played fifth graders; and so on. When he got to high school, his days would start with early-morning practices at the Y.

Trae also supplemented his practices with NBA training. From time to time, Ray would ask his friend Tyronn Lue, the former NBA coach and point guard, to talk with Trae over the phone to motivate him. Ray would also get tapes cut by friends who worked in video departments of NBA teams. Each DVD would arrive with a scouting report for the top point guards in the league. From the time Trae turned 11, the Young family living room was a basketball film room.

Courtesy of Ray Young

Trae began taking pieces à la carte from that era’s top point guards. He emulated Steve Nash’s wrap-around pass, jump pass to the opposite side of the court, and crafty finishes around the rim. He took Tony Parker’s willingness to attack the lane and his teardrop floater (which he used to beat the Sixers two weeks ago). From Chris Paul, he stole the nutmeg dribble, among other moves. When the then–New Orleans Hornets spent two seasons in Oklahoma City after Hurricane Katrina, Ray bought season tickets so they could watch Paul’s rookie season up close. One night, they got to meet him. Ray still remembers Trae’s smile as he took a picture with Paul. “[Trae] actually had a lot of hair on his head then,” Ray jokes.

When the Thunder moved to town, Trae got to watch future MVPs Russell Wesbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, but he would still gravitate toward the smaller guards who came through. “I remember going to Thunder games early, when [Nash] was still in the NBA, to watch him warm up,” he says. When Trae warms up before Hawks games, he uses some of Nash’s side-to-side dribbling moves. “I hope people see that in me. I hope they see the creativity I have and the little things like that that I have in my game that I took from a guy like Steve Nash.” The Curry comps and media attention came quickly when Trae began shooting 3-pointers with more frequency and from longer distances, but to those who had been watching him closely, the comps were off. “I maintain, even going back to last year, Trae reminds me a lot more of Steve than he does Steph,” Schlenk says. “From a playmaking standpoint, Steve’s ability to run the pick-and-roll and to make plays better, I see the similarities.”

Schlenk and the Hawks also saw the potential for more. To that end, Young’s predraft workout in Atlanta included a 4-point line. Little things like that were why Young’s camp felt the franchise was a fit for his style ahead of the draft. And yet, as the Youngs sat waiting at their table in Brooklyn on draft night, Ray was certain that Orlando, which picked sixth and had shown interest in the predraft process, would be the team to select Trae. Then the trade happened.

Schlenk says he and his front office had been willing to move back from the third overall pick, but only for a “steep price.” Dallas first approached the Hawks with the idea for the deal, and Schlenk asked his analytics team where they had the Mavericks projected to finish. Eighth-worst record was the answer; they eventually settled on top-five protections the next two years, top-three protections the next two, and unprotected in 2023. (Dallas is currently sixth worst this season.) The deal was done and Young was a Hawk. Atlanta had started to establish an identity, and now the team had the player who would lead it.

Outside the State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, an electronic billboard promotes the 2019 McDonald’s All American Game with a picture of Young in the 2017 game. “Don’t miss a chance to see legends in the making,” it reads in bright yellow letters. Inside, it’s the fourth quarter of a close game between the Hawks and the New Orleans Pelicans, and the ball is in Young’s hands. The fans who have been cheering like ultras from the “6th Man” section are on their feet. The ones who rushed down Dominique Wilkins Lane after the Atlanta United game to buy a $10 ticket to watch the fourth are settling in for the show.

After a handoff from John Collins near midcourt, Young hesitates for half a second to survey the floor. That pause, along with Collins’s screen, is enough to misdirect Young’s defender, Elfrid Payton. Young dribbles downhill while Collins pops out to the 3-point line on the left wing. Alex Len stays at the top of the key long enough to tag Payton before diving hard to the basket. As Young wades into the paint, he dribbles deceptively, shifting his body horizontally while slowly ambling toward the rim, like he’s buffering on purpose. Payton tries to tattoo himself on Young’s back, but Young uses him as a springboard instead, pushing off before quickly releasing a bounce pass to a wide-open Len for a dunk. It’s one of the 10 assists Young racks up amid a poor shooting night, and it begins a run of seven straight points to seal the win for Atlanta.

“The way he plays, he’s going to build his own name and brand, and that’s what you want as a franchise, that’s what you want as a city,” says Wilkins, the Hawks legend who serves as the team’s vice president of basketball operations and TV analyst. “I think his passing is better than anything else he does because he brings so much value from that standpoint alone; everything else is a bonus.”

Two days after the win over the Pelicans, the more detailed story of the play that earned Young his seventh assist of the game is displayed on a large TV in the team’s practice facility. On their “assist board,” the Hawks keep a running tally of the team’s assists, and not just the traditional ones. The spreadsheet, which they first used at last year’s summer league, also includes hockey (or secondary) assists, space assists, dive (or roll) assists, and screen assists. Young received a traditional assist for his dish to Len, but Collins also earned a space assist for positioning himself behind the 3-point line and opening a lane for the easy bucket. Young is the overall leader this season.

“There’s other ways of assisting,” Lloyd Pierce says. “If John gets a lob, guess what: They’re not gonna let him get a lob the next four positions, so Kevin [Huerter] may get three 3s now. We gotta reward John to make sure he continues to roll.”

Pierce won’t take full credit for the idea, but he loves how it incentivizes the little things that have immense importance and how the competitiveness it sparks between players gets them to prioritize ball movement.

“I think I’m fourth or fifth on that list!” Len says when I ask him about it. “It’s actually pretty cool that it gets tracked, so everybody recognizes you made something happen. You roll hard and the guys acknowledge it.”

When Schlenk and the Hawks talked to Len last summer about signing a free-agent deal, they sold him on getting more shots, taking more 3s, and playing with a point guard they deemed special. Len, a top-five pick turned reserve, couldn’t pass on the opportunity. But the perception that Young was the next Steph Curry had reached Len, too; he thought he would come to Atlanta and see Young constantly launching it from deep. “I was with the Suns, so that’s all I knew,” Len says. “All the guards were shooting the ball all the time.”

Instead, Len saw Young glide his way around the court, finish at the rim with smoothness, and throw passes like darts on the first day of Hawks practice. As he watched, he flashed back to his days in Phoenix, when he used to practice in the backyard court of a former Suns player’s home. “That’s some Steve Nash shit,” he thought about Young.

When Len was open on a roll to the rim, Young would find him for an easy bucket. If he popped out to the 3-point line with some room—which, for a 24 percent 3-point shooter in Phoenix, was often—a Young pass would likely arrive with pinpoint precision. Len says Young’s unselfishness has helped him rediscover a joy for the game he lost earlier in his career, and the young guard’s creativity has put him and other Hawks on high notice: If Young can see the window for a pass, he will make it. “I don’t even know how some of his passes get through,” Len says. “He’s always trying to make plays for everybody else. That’s his game.”

Young’s playmaking has filled highlight reels this season, but when it comes to everyone’s favorite Young play, the answer is easy:

Assistant coach Marlon Garnett had to stop himself from reacting like a player on the bench when Young pulled that one off. “You forget you’re on the job sometimes,” he says.

Meet me on the court. When the text came across Ray’s iPhone, he knew what would come next. Even through college, Ray rebounded for Trae when his son needed to get extra shots up. So following a 6-for-17 night in a mid-January loss to the Boston Celtics, Ray shagged balls for an hour at State Farm Arena as Trae tried to diffuse his frustration with shots from all over the court. Trae’s percentages were down to 40 from the field and 29 from 3, but to Ray, getting Trae’s shot right didn’t matter as much as rehabbing his mind-set. He wanted Trae to think about taking smarter shots, and if he wasn’t making them, to try to impact the game another way. The turnaround didn’t come immediately, but since that night, Trae is averaging nine assists per game and shooting 44 percent from the field and 37.2 percent from deep.

Once his shot came alive, Young’s whole game came together. Now he can drill a shot from deep or use the threat of one to break down a defense. He averages 7.8 points per game in pick-and-rolls—three spots ahead of LeBron. Only three other players have averaged more drives to the rim this season than Young, and he’s second in the league in assists off those drives. If you add his points and the points he creates off of assists, Young is manufacturing an average of 38.7 points per game, more than Nikola Jokic, Paul George, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, and Doncic.

“You have guys now trapping him with a double as soon as he crosses half court,” Huerter says. “The fact that he’s willing to pass and can pass out of those double-teams helps my own game too.”

When I tell Young about his teammates’ and coaches’ praise for his passing, he beams. “I love how happy it makes my teammates,” he says. “It’s dope seeing my teammates get hyped and pointing at me ’cause I’m the one who gave it to them. I love hearing teammates come to me and saying, ‘Man, I’ve never had a point guard who passes like you.’” Oftentimes, Young will be so eager to see his teammate finish his alley-oop tosses that he will jump along with them.

Hawks officials recognized Young’s infectious spirit when they talked to him before the draft. Schlenk says Young was more than just the player they were looking for, he was also the right personality: driven and ambitious, the type of guy who could easily create chemistry with others. Young’s game, the Hawks say, isn’t the only thing with shades of Steve Nash.

The coaching staff also tries to spread Nash’s habits to the entire roster. Pierce and Garnett were college teammates of Nash’s at Santa Clara back in the ’90s; now they use his approach to team-building in the Hawks’ daily routines. “Steve was really big on high fives,” Garnett says. “We took that and we call it ‘touches.’ So before we do anything, everybody’s high-fiving and we’re trying to create that synergy.” The touches are a staple before video sessions, practice, and when they finish for the day. It’s all part of the “culture of connectivity” Atlanta is trying to build.

The Hawks have a saying plastered on a tunnel at their home arena and on a circular screen in their locker room: Tomorrow starts today. It’s a way to narrow the focus on the little things that could have big results later, but it’s also a fitting way to describe a rebuild that’s way ahead of schedule. Atlanta still has the NBA’s fifth-worst record, but it has looked more like a playoff team since the All-Star break, with a 9-10 record and a net rating just ahead of the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers.

Paolo Uggetti

Pierce says he makes a point not to talk in terms of wins or losses, instead focusing on smaller victories—say, 30 assists or more in a game. Schlenk says he’s pleased with winning, but that patience is the key to not forcing rapid growth. Still, it’s hard not to look at a team that’s nailed most of its draft picks so far (in addition to Young, Collins and Huerter also look like foundational players), will likely have two lottery picks this year, and has a virtually clean cap sheet from here on out and not think about the type of team they could be in the very near future. Young can see it now.

“I think people enjoy playing with me because of my passing,” he says. “One day we’re gonna get big free agents because of that.”

“You saw that, right?”

Young is asking me about the dunk—the two dunks, actually—he had just completed after Hawks practice. DeAndre’ Bembry didn’t think the 6-foot-2 (in shoes) Young could do it, so he bet him $500 earlier this season. He was right—Young failed to do it. But the rookie wanted his money back, so he tries it again on one of the team’s practice courts. He finishes the first with one hand, then he does it again with two. The roar from his teammates echoed throughout the practice court. “They didn’t think I could do it,” he scoffs playfully.

When I relay the story to Ray later, he laughs at his son’s bravado. Trae’s self-confidence, Ray says, is as essential as any skill he has on the court. It’s what allows him to go behind his back or through a defender’s legs, or to pull up from the logo. Amid his struggles, Trae says he reached out to former players like Rod Strickland and Grant Hill, and to current players like Chris Paul, and that they all delivered a similar message: Don’t change anything; have patience. It paid off, and as he’s played teams a second or third time this season, Trae has been more comfortable.

“I’ve been way better mentally,” Trae says. “The mental health thing is real; and especially me being a young person, I think people forget that we’re human beings too. For me, I realized that so I don’t get mad, I can’t get too high, too low anymore. I still see things on social media, but I don’t let it change who I am.”

The goal now is to build on what Young already brings to the table. Garnett, the assistant coach who works the closest with Young, has flooded him with film, and not just the conventional kind; he will send Young clips of Paul talking with a teammate or leading in a huddle, hoping to hone his leadership skills as much as his ability to read defensive coverages. Alex Bazzell, Young’s personal trainer, says he is already looking forward to this offseason, when he wants to work with Young on strengthening his finishing at the rim and his midrange game. Both want him to learn off-ball movement from Curry. Adding that could help turn him from an offensive threat to a true offensive force, the kind of player fit to lead a team some outside the program call “Warriors East.”

Ray, meanwhile, says he wants to slowly fade into the background. He still watches every one of Trae’s games twice—once in person, once on DVR the next day—and discusses it with Trae within 24 hours of the final buzzer. All these years later, father and son are still going through a version of the sessions that first spawned Trae’s career. The difference now is that the roles have been reversed. Some of the players Young grew up studying are now his opponents, and the player facing off against them on the tape he plays on his iPad or on his TV is him. He’s an NBA player worth watching now, and no one can tell him otherwise.

“I think I had to go through the beginning of the season to be where I’m at now,” Young says. “People want greatness now. Everybody wants the best now, the best version of them now. But it’s not the case, it’s not always the case. It takes time.”

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