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If you are surprised, stunned, taken aback or otherwise gobsmacked by the run Trae Young has had in his first taste of the NBA playoffs, I have a question: What have you been watching during his first three years in the league?
The Atlanta Hawks? Sure, they’re a legitimate surprise — and probably a couple years ahead of schedule. After missing last year’s bubble at 20-47 and starting this season 14-20, this is not a team that should have had the Eastern Conference finals in mind. As Young noted with a sly smile after the Hawks’ came back from 26 down to beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5, the Hawks are a team with “no All-Stars, no All-defensive player, no All-NBA players.”
The Hawks may not have had an All-Star this season, but of course, they have a star. And he's always been a star, always been capable of doing this, always been comfortable with the brightest lights on. The surprise would only come from those who either weren’t paying close attention or relying on the stereotype of what they thought a small, high-scoring guard would be — not the player Young has actually been night in and night out since he stepped into the league.
“I think people are surprised until they see it. For us it's not surprising,” said Hawks wing Kevin Huerter, who was drafted alongside Young at No. 19 overall three years ago. “The first two years, he's been just as unguardable as he's been for the first two series.”
Young isn’t the best player still alive for the title, but he’s been the NBA’s most fascinating character over the last month because until the playoffs began, his career had been a study in groupthink, basketball bias and a narrative about a trade that he had nothing to do with.
At the most fundamental level, this was a really simple story. Young was a five-star prospect coming out of high school and led the nation as a freshman in both points (27.4) and assists (8.7) per game at Oklahoma — something that should have tipped people off that he he was not your typical prospect. Then, after a couple tough months in the NBA, Young firmly established himself by the second half of his rookie season as an elite offensive NBA player in every metric despite being surrounded by mediocre talent in both of those situations.
But outside of Atlanta, the NBA’s tastemakers were reticent to anoint Young as one of the superstars that would carry the league into the post-LeBron generation. Because the Hawks were losing — which was by design, to a certain extent — the dreaded label of being a “good stats on a bad team” player began to form.
On a surface level, you can understand how it happens.
Young is a smaller guard with a slight build, not a top-level defender and has the ball in his hands all the time — not the archetype of player around which championship teams are typically built.
Last year, for instance, Young posted a 33.9 percent usage rate — meaning he was involved with a higher percentage of his team’s field goal attempts, free throw attempts or a turnovers than every player in the league except for Giannis Antetekounmpo, James Harden and Luka Doncic. And Young’s team certainly wasn’t getting similar results.
The last name on that list made evaluating Young early on even more complicated. As everyone who follows basketball knows, the Hawks swapped picks with the Mavericks on draft night in 2018 so that Dallas could take Doncic at No. 3 while Atlanta got Young at No. 5 and a first-round pick the next year that became Cam Reddish.
It wasn’t fair to Young, but Doncic’s almost immediate ascent to the NBA’s top tier effectively made his accomplishments as a young player look less impressive than they would have been otherwise. The Hawks weren’t winning because their roster wasn't built to win, but every night, Atlanta fans were seeing the same pick-and-roll mastery, the same proficiency on floaters, the same array of passes finding their way through impossible angles and same long-distance shooting that we’re seeing now.
And they were seeing it while playing a lot of minutes alongside teammates who have been dispersed to lesser roles on other teams or out of the NBA altogether as the Hawks focused on development, gaining cap space and acquiring draft assets.
“Every team since he came into the league has played the Atlanta Hawks trying to stop Trae Young,” Huerter said. "And they haven’t figured it out yet.”
To the extent there were questions about Young’s ability to thrive on a winning team — a sentiment that percolated around the league when Atlanta spent nearly $50 million on free agents this past offseason — it should have been in the context of the same learning curve every star goes through.
It’s never a smooth ride to a title for anyone coming into the league, the best example being the team that Atlanta just dispatched from the playoffs with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. But with Young, the skepticism seemed unnecessarily twinged with a roll of the eyes. It almost seemed personal.
No doubt Young has improved from his rookie year until now — just as he should have. The elevation of Nate McMillan to head coach at the point in this season when the Hawks were underperforming and stuck at 11th in the East seems to have made a difference, too. Young isn’t a vastly different player, but under McMillan — an old school type of personality who played point guard for the 1980s Seattle SuperSonics — Young’s decision-making, pace of play and trust in others has smoothed out.
“Nate has been very straightforward with Trae since the beginning,” veteran forward Danilo Gallinari said.
Though most pundits picked the Knicks to beat Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs, in retrospect they didn’t really have anyone defensively who could keep Young out of the lane. As a result, he averaged 29.2 points in the series, shot 45 percent and had 49 assists in five games.
The 76ers presented a different challenge with their size and ability to throw different looks at Young. They bothered him at times and challenged him to figure stuff out, but ultimately he put up big numbers again and found ways to control the game even when his shot wasn’t going down, like his 5-for-23 performance in Game 7 where he still made all the plays at the end.
"He’s one of these special players,” McMillan said. "This time of the season, you need a player that can create his own offense and win his matchups, and Trae is showing that he’s capable of doing that.”
The truth is, he’s done it since he stepped into the league. The only real surprise is that you're surprised.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trae Young's NBA playoff run for Hawks should be surprising to no one