Hawks guard Trae Young.
Photo: Jason Miller/NBAE/Getty Images
Photo: Jason Miller/NBAE/Getty Images

Hawks on clock to build better team for All-Star Trae Young

You probably don’t know much about NBA Twitter. Trust me when I say it matters to the league’s players. It’s no surprise that when Hawks guard Trae Young decided to publicly admonish his many critics, he did it on Twitter. No place has more haters per capita.

Young is getting the last laugh (or at least the latest one). He will start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star game next month. But it’s notable that much of The Discourse on NBA Twitter after the announcement centered on whether Young deserved his spot. 

Young won the fan vote, so obviously he’s popular with the public. But his detractors pointed to the Hawks standing last in the Eastern Conference. If Young is so good, why are the Hawks so bad? 

Anyone paying close attention to the Hawks knows the answer to that question. But it’s out there, and we already know Young pays attention to that kind of chatter. In December he told ESPN he was “annoyed” by the comparisons with Dallas forward Luka Doncic because they are in “two totally different situations.” 

The Hawks traded Doncic for Young on draft night. The Mavericks are built to win now. The Hawks are not. Doncic was voted to start for the West All-Star team. The Mavericks were fifth in their conference entering Thursday. 

Young is going to hear all about it when he goes to Chicago for All-Star weekend. He will spend time with great players on good teams. Conversations in those type of settings have been the genesis for star players deciding they want a new team. I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but this is what NBA Twitter can do to the brain (hey, it’s dumb fun).

Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, citing Young’s mental toughness, said he’s not worried about Young getting too caught up in the outside talk. 

“He wants to create a championship team and be part of a championship-caliber team in Atlanta,” Schlenk said. “That’s where his mindset is. I don’t have any reason to think it’s changed.” 

Schlenk eventually can ease Young’s mind by assembling such a team. There are opportunities to make more moves before the trade deadline Feb. 6. The draft is in June (the Hawks have two picks for potential trade fodder). The free-agency period begins soon after that. 

Schlenk’s plan is to add complementary players who are experienced but still have room to grow with Young and Company. 

“We may not look for a one-year rental sort of thing,” he said. “We can give a guy a two- or three-year (deal) and add him to the mix.” 

The Hawks are on the clock. They have Young under contractual control through the 2022-23 season. That’s at least two more seasons of paying an All-Star caliber player a salary that’s millions of dollars below his true value. It will be three more seasons at a bargain price if the Hawks don’t have to match a restricted free agency offer for Young in the summer of 2022. 

The rookie-scale contract is a big reason why snagging a star in the draft is such a windfall. Teams that pay stars a bargain salary have more cap room to spend on other priorities. The Hawks already did the hard part by acquiring Young in the draft. 

He hasn’t played two full seasons in the NBA, and Young already is one of its better offensive players. Young is a fantastic playmaker (fourth in assists entering Thursday) and scorer (third in scoring). His scoring efficiency is great for any lead player, especially a young one. Young already has veteran savvy with drawing fouls and scoring near the basket. 

The Hawks aren’t winning more because they don’t have enough other good players. Unforeseen circumstances have been a factor. John Collins served a 25-game suspension for violating the NBA’s anti-drug program. Kevin Huerter missed 11 games because of injury. 

The Hawks have been better lately with Young, Collins and Huerter all available. The team defense, awful for most of the season, has been respectable since Jabari Parker and Damian Jones started playing less. The Hawks are fun to watch again. 

I never thought the Hawks would be good under the best of circumstances. They’re a young team overall, and most of their veterans would have smaller roles on better teams. The focus for Schlenk this season was adding three rookies alongside three promising young pros and developing them all together. 

Young is the cornerstone. Collins, Schlenk’s first draft pick in 2017, is a good big man. Huerter could develop into a starter for a good team. That’s a Big Three to work with. The jury’s still out on the rookies. 

Cam Reddish is trying to find his way on offense, but he’s already a solid wing defender. Forward D’Andre Hunter had a good start to the season before seemingly wearing down. Center Bruno Fernando has a chance to become a good rim protector, which the Hawks desperately need. 

“Core” used to be a dirty word in these parts. That’s back when it meant keeping an older team intact when it had topped out. Now it means a group of talented young players with the potential to become the foundation for a great team. 

Young is the best among them. Everybody knows it. Another theme on NBA Twitter: Young needs to be saved from the Hawks because he’s too good to be stuck on a losing team. 

That’s another silly narrative. It’s not as if Young has been toiling for years on bad teams. He has room for improvement, with defense at the top of the list. Young has some good, young teammates who will get better. 

NBA Twitter can talk, but Young doesn’t need to be saved. At least not yet. Young already is an All-Star. The Hawks are on the clock to build a playoff team around him.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010. 
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