CHICAGO — Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young is proof of how fortunes can change in a split-second — both to his benefit and detriment.
It only takes a sliver of time, a hint of daylight, for him to break free and unleash a 30-foot jumper — the same amount of time it took for him to be ejected early in the third quarter for his second technical foul in Sunday’s win at Chicago after staring at the Bulls’ bench following a long three.
Such is life for Young, who had to watch his team beat the Bulls without him and had to endure Hawks assistant coach Melvin Hunt playfully proclaiming in the back hallways of the United Center, “No Trae, no problem!”
Young had been bumped by Bulls guard Kris Dunn, whom the Hawks rookie torched in a 49-point, 16-assist outing less than 36 hours before, resulting in double technicals. Whether it was because Dunn had enough or because Young’s barely 6-foot frame makes him an easy target, retribution was coming and that stare cost Young a potential repeat performance.
“You can say what you want to about size, but when you're the most dangerous person on the court, it doesn’t matter,” he told Yahoo Sports earlier that day. “Size was never a factor growing up. College, I faced the same criticism. In the NBA, same thing.”
Young’s outward confidence is complemented by a hint of a smile and a smirk as he’s re-entered the NBA Rookie of the Year conversation with the player for whom he was traded: Luka Doncic. Young has blitzed teams after the All-Star break, averaging 29.4 points and 9.3 assists on 47-47-91 splits and adapting to the game much quicker than expected.
He’s also reached the point where his ejection, as egregious as it was, set off a social-media frenzy. And it wasn’t just because there was an appetite to see a follow-up to his career night against the Bulls.
It’s because Young has become must-see TV, a player with whom the Atlanta Hawks will create an identity and one the NBA will market in the future.
That may sound somewhat surprising considering the early returns had some calling him a bust and saying the Hawks — who gained an additional first-round pick in the Doncic-Young swap — were fleeced in the deal.
“When you haven't been through anything, it's gonna be a little bit of stress, a little pressure,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce told Yahoo Sports. “How bad did we talk about Oklahoma City at the beginning of the year? Houston? Those guys that know they're gonna end up in the playoffs, it doesn't weigh on them.”
The nightly Doncic highlights piled up, while Young’s successes seemed to pale in comparison, presenting an unfair, or at least incomplete, assessment of his rookie campaign. Young’s struggles were real, as he shot under 30 percent from 3-point land until his 51st game, but the labels came too strong and too quickly.
“It wasn’t [unfair], especially the first month. I wasn't shooting well,” Young said. “[But] I still was making plays, averaging eight dimes, distributing the ball. I kind of laughed at it. I knew things would turn eventually. I told everybody at the beginning of the year that.”
Phone calls from the NBA’s made men — most notably two-time Finals MVP Kevin Durant — kept him afloat while the criticism mounted.
“KD reached out to me. He said remain [yourself], keep going, things are gonna turn and go the right way for you,” Young said. “Just to keep my head straight. I've known KD a long time, and he's given me a lot of advice growing up.”
Chris Paul also shared some wisdom with Young, a usual practice among the fraternity of point guards.
“It's a humbling feeling just because I have the respect from guys like that,” Young said. “You play at this level, you want the respect of those type of guys. For me to have it as a rookie, it's an unbelievable feeling. That just pushes me to work harder because I wanna be at their level, too.”
While Young and Doncic will be forever linked, there’s no denying Young is in an excellent situation, perhaps for the right franchise, in the perfect time in this age of offensive freedom in the NBA.
Pierce gave Young the keys to play through his early struggles instead of trying to corral the young prospect, and the Hawks have grown with him as Young has blossomed with second-year big man John Collins.
“What you have now is he's played everybody and you have a kid that's comfortable in himself,” Pierce said. “He knows he belongs, he knows he's a good player at this level. He's talking about angles, adjustments. He's figuring out the nuances of the game, and you don't figure that out until you play it.”
It’s easy to compare Young to Stephen Curry because of the deep range, but he also has some Steve Nash to his game, probing and stressing defenses while looking for effective passing angles.
He’s becoming a style of play all his own, a catalyst for the Hawks (22-43) already surpassing their preseason win projection.
“The freedom is for everybody. There's no restrictions on who's taking the shots or who's making the plays. It starts with Trae,” Pierce said. “There's a time and place, what's a good or bad shot, a quick shot. I probably yell at guys more for passing up shots than for taking shots. Brian Shaw said something years ago at a camp, ‘Don't pass up good [expletive] for bull[expletive].’ So I don't care if it's further back. If it's an open shot and you're in rhythm, take it.”
Young hardly needs that level of encouragement, going through a steady progression the last few months, firmly nestling himself into the conversation of players to watch among the next generation.
“As far as skill level, I can do a lot of things,” Young said. “When that's how you play, it doesn't matter how big you are.”
Talking the talk
“What have we done? We’ve had a good stretch. A lot of teams have had good stretches. Being in the sixth or seventh seed is absolutely nothing to be proud of. We tricked off two months of basketball.”
— Detroit Pistons forward Blake Griffin on his team’s hot stretch that brought it back to .500 for the first time since December. The Pistons have been begging for leadership for years now, and Griffin’s harsh words were necessary.
1. The Lakers’ struggles make for easy TV topics and column space because their soap opera is like watching a car crash. But who wants an April, May and June without LeBron James? Like it or not, the playoffs won’t be as entertaining with him making movies instead of basketball magic.
2. Oh, Jeanie: Jeanie Buss has done so many positive things since taking the helm of the Lakers, culminating with James joining the purple and gold. But to blame social media for trade rumors regarding her players and Anthony Davis? That sure is a big-time way to take responsibility for the season going sideways, isn’t it?
3. OK. So Dwyane Wade has said this is his last dance, but man, his magic moments are undeniably delightful. And seeing a legend on his last legs not only embrace his basketball mortality but still be so effective toward the end? Bravo.
4. James Harden … are you changing MVP votes one 50-bomb at a time? Or was the slow start too detrimental to your chances, with Giannis Antetokounmpo already lapping the field?
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