CHARLOTTE — Trae Young sees the bigger picture. The rookie guard out of Oklahoma is part of an Atlanta Hawks squad that has plans to be great, one that revolves largely out of the No. 5 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. To the untrained eye, of course, it might not be obvious when you see that the Hawks sit at 19-39, eight games back of a postseason spot at the NBA’s All-Star Break.
Young is not someone who likes losing, but even though his team has caught a whole lot of Ls this season, college basketball’s most recent consensus All-American understands there’s a plan in place … even if it goes against his natural tendencies toward losses.
“I’ll never agree and say that losing is okay, and that losing feels okay and feels alright cause that’s just not in my DNA,” Young told Dime at the adidas NBA All-Star suite. “But at the same time, we all know the process and the plan of what we need to do and what we’re all together here to do, so we just really focus on that and focus on the end goal. Like I said, how to get better each day and help win championships.”
It helps that Atlanta, Young says, makes it a point to lay out the road map “a lot.” Building together, working together, and getting better together is something the Hawks preach, and in a way, there is not a player on the roster who better represents this than Young.
Like many rookie point guards in the Association, it took Young some time to have the results on the floor match up to his perception as an offensive dynamo. The months of October and November were not kind to Young, and while his 15.6 points and 7.6 assists per game look fine on the surface, getting to that point was rough — he shot 37.8 percent from the field, and for someone with perceived limitless range from downtown, his 24.8 percent clip from deep was nowhere near what Atlanta wanted to see out of its lottery pick.
When there’s a team-wide commitment to getting better, though, taking these licks is, above all else, a learning experience. Young has made it a point to build on his start to the season, something that has led to noticeable improvement over the year.
“I think I’ve played really well, actually,” Young says. “I’ve grown tremendously. I’ve progressed in the right direction, I feel like. From game one of Summer League to now, I think I’ve grown a lot, learned a lot, and just gotten better overall.”
This is backed up by the numbers Young puts up on a nightly basis. While the first month and a half or so weren’t kind to him, he’s found a way to get into a rhythm since December. In his last 35 games, Young’s scoring (17.8 points per game) and three-point shooting (35.6 percent) have taken steps forward. In that time, the Hawks have gone 14-21, hardly elite, but a noticeable improvement over the 5-18 mark they started the season with.
Young admits that it took some time to get settled to life in the NBA. He admitted that getting his shot to come around didn’t happen right away in his first few months in the Association.
“I think everybody knows I can shoot better than what I shot this year,” Young says. “I think it’s that beginning stretch in November, I wouldn’t shoot the ball like I know I can, like I’ve been doing my whole life. I think that comes from learning how to play at a certain pace and not rushing things and going at my pace. I think that’s when I realized that.”
Everyone knows Young can score in bunches — even when he’s struggling, Young prides himself on having a short memory on the court that doesn’t lead to him getting hung up on makes or misses — but as you’ve likely read countless times between draft season and now is that his ability to distribute makes him so dangerous. Young’s gotten better at reading defenses, with it getting easier and easier for him to figure out what he’s being given and how to attack.
“I’m noticing little things, every now and then, throughout the game and I can kind of tell what type of night it’s gonna be,” Young says. “Just by me beginning the game, and the things I learn and see, early on in the game I can tell what type of night is gonna be, whether I’mma have to score or get my teammates involved even more that night.”
These skills will be on display during Young’s All-Star Saturday Night debut. One day after participating in the Rising Stars game, the rookie will show off his jumper and his ability to drop dimes — along with his slippery handles — during the evening’s first event, the Skills Challenge.
It’s quite the honor to be asked to participate in the Saturday night festivities during your first year in the league, a testament to what you’re capable of doing at such a young age. For Young, though, there’s something bittersweet about getting his duties out of the way early and having Sunday off.
“I’m very honored to be participating in Friday and Saturday, but at the same time, my end goal is to be participating on Sunday,” Young says. “I want to be an All-Star, but I know winning takes care of that. And I can’t necessarily say that we won a lot of games this year, so for me, that’s my main focus — to come in next year and how can I help my team win.”
The wins haven’t come for the Hawks yet, sure, but the foundation is in place for Atlanta to do something special in the future. When that happens, you can bet Young will be at the center of it all, building on the foundation put in place during his eventful first season in the league.