Two of the more dynamic professional athletes in Atlanta happen to be scarcely older than a really expensive single malt scotch. One that both the Braves’ Ronald Acuna and the Hawks’ Trae Young only recently earned the right to legally sip.
On one hand, having a pair of 21-year-olds like this in your town is a blessing, a great omen for the future.
On the other: Don’t you feel ancient?
Together, they are vessels of hope for two franchises. They are the rallying point for their fan bases, which in some cases must certainly overlap.
That includes this one particular crossover fan. “It’s remarkable to see what he’s doing this year. He’s been killing it,” Young said Monday, before the start of training camp, when asked about Acuna’s exploits heading into the postseason. “Pretty cool to see what he’s doing at a young age.”
Specifically, this is what Young likes about his fellow young star (the two have only briefly met): “His excitement, every time he hits a home run, he has a smile on his face. You can tell he just loves playing the game. It’s super exciting to be able to see that. He was a rookie when I was a rookie. I guess we’re linked up with each other.”
Young just turned 21, on Sept. 19, which makes him nine months younger than Acuna. That only underscores just how green and raw is the man who would lead the Hawks. There is so much expected of Young in terms of taking this franchise to a new day, of reconnecting the Hawks to relevance in their own town. He can’t afford a growth curve. He requires something more straight-up vertical than that.
When the Braves speak of Acuna, it is in the affectionate tones one uses on a younger brother. There is no expectation of real leadership just yet. There are others in the room for that. Confined by a language barrier, Acuna only has to communicate with the majesty of his play.
But with Young, the point guard and point man, there is the need to lead.
“We had our exit meeting in April and spoke about what his growth would look like and what some of the areas were for him to focus on. Most important and the biggest thing was leadership,” said his coach, Lloyd Pierce.
If that means putting a player twice his age in his place, so be it.
“This is his second year, he knows what’s expected, he knows how the offense is run,” Vince Carter, the 42-year-old Hawk, said. “You see him now, he’s putting guys in position — even me — immediately. That’s the start. That’s what you want.”
Upon Young’s slender shoulders rests the reconstruction of the Hawks. Not quite so slender as his rookie season, Young insists, saying he has added 10 pounds to his frame from this time a year ago. “I don’t want to walk around here looking like Dwight (Howard),” he said, smiling, “but at the same time, I definitely need to build bulk and build muscle. The weight I gained this summer has been great. Everyone’s working on getting bigger and stronger. That’s going to come as we get older, too.” (Personal testimony: Trae, you’ll definitely get bigger as you get older. The stronger part, that can be the rub).
Young spent the first half of last season trying to harness his shot and justify the move by the Hawks who swapped out Luka Doncic for him and an additional first round pick. He spent the second half answering his doubters, eventually finishing first among rookies in assists per game (8.1) and second in points (19.1). His presence on the floor by far overshadowed his listed dimensions — 6-foot-2, 180 pounds.
Now, he comes to a season bearing, for one thing, the benefit of one long season of experience. “I’ve always had extremely high confidence but coming into my second year after going through this process, I have a definitely have a little more confidence,” Young said.
And, for another, he brings a long memory. He’ll hold onto every slight that followed him into the league. Doesn’t matter that ESPN just anointed him the NBA’s 28th best player in one of its frivolous preseason exercises. “That (chip on the shoulder) will always be there. It will never be 100 percent of the people on my side and that’s OK. That’s what drives me to be the best I can be. Proving people wrong will always be there. I’ll never forget certain things. It about always improving and getting better,” Young said.
If he just becomes a seamless hybrid of Steve Nash and Steph Curry, then everyone will be satisfied.
Last week Hawks GM Travis Schlenk outlined just a few of the responsibilities heaped upon this particular 21-year-old:
“Every time we sign a guy, reach out to him, text him, welcome him to the team. Little things like that, to take more of a leadership role.
“Obviously on the court it’s vocal. It’s calling the plays. It’s realizing when a guy has got it going, let’s run a play to get him the ball – all those little things that point guards do. Defensively — I think we saw this last year – it’s to continue to compete. Because of his size (the challenge) is always going to be there on the defensive end, but keep competing, that’s what we’re looking for.”
So versatile and so well-versed on all sports is Young that on Hawks media day, he even weighed in on his choice for the Heisman this year. Not surprisingly he sided with the guy at Oklahoma — the school he passed through on the way to Atlanta — while offering an unsolicited recruiting PSA.
“If Jalen doesn’t win the Heisman (Trophy), I don’t know what a Heisman looks like,” Young said. “Jalen has been killing it this year. If I’m a quarterback I don’t know what other school I’d be looking at if OU offered me.”
That’s Jalen as in Jalen Hurts, the college quarterback who is a month older than the fellow charged with keeping this town’s NBA franchise on the tracks.
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