Trae Young can be great player Hawks long have lacked

Trae Young of the Hawks will start in the NBA All-Star Game.  Curtis Compton
Trae Young of the Hawks will start in the NBA All-Star Game. Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

There's a gap between fans of the NBA and fans of the Hawks. Interest in the local NBA team has never matched the strong television ratings for the NBA finals. Trae Young can change that.

Young will start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star game Sunday in Chicago. The Hawks have had plenty of All-Stars in recent years. None of them have been as young (21) or as exciting as Young.

Young gives the Hawks a real chance to hit the trifecta: great player, good team, fun to watch. He already delivers on the last part. Young dazzles with pinpoint passes from all angles and long-range shots from anywhere past half-court. He plays with a sense of joy and showmanship.

Young isn’t yet great, but he has that potential. The Hawks can keep him around for at least four more seasons. The Hawks aren’t good. Recent trades made them better. If Young and the Hawks stay on the come, they eventually will convert more of those fans of the league into fans of the local team.

Dominique Wilkins was the last great Hawks player to put on a good show for winning teams. (No disrespect to Dikembe Mutombo, but a great defensive big men doesn’t move the needle that way.) The Hawks have had good players and teams since then. That hasn’t been enough to get the city’s attention for more than fleeting moments.

I was on the Hawks beat for one of them, in 2011. They finally conquered their playoff nemesis, the Magic, then stunned the favored Bulls in Chicago in Game 1 of semifinals. The Hawks had the city buzzing from then until they tied the series with a victory in Game 4.

It didn’t last. The Hawks lost the next two games of the series. They had diminishing returns over the next two years.

The Hawks rediscovered the good vibes in 2014-15. They won 60 games before making it to the conference finals for the first time in their Atlanta history. The run ended with an anti-climatic sweep by the Cavaliers.

Two years later team owner Tony Ressler hired general manager Travis Schlenk to orchestrate a rebuild. That approach ultimately led to acquiring Young in the draft. He can be the kind of player those previous Hawks playoff teams lacked.

The 2010-11 and 2014-15 Hawks were strong defensive teams with multiple All-Stars. They did not include a player voted to one of the top two All-NBA teams. Nearly every NBA champion had at least one such player in the year they won it all.

The Hawks haven’t had one since Wilkins in 1992-93. Michael Jordan’s Bulls swept them in the first round of the playoffs that season. It’s been a tradition for the best players to set the ceiling for the Hawks even when they have a very good team.

The 2010-11 Hawks were eliminated by Bulls guard Derrick Rose (first-team All-NBA). The year before that it was Magic enter Dwight Howard (first-team All-NBA). The 2014-15 Hawks were swept by LeBron James (all-time great). Those losses ended the illusion of teams with very good players overcoming opponents with a great one.

Hawks supporters have long wished for their own great player. The best free agents barely look in this direction. Now the Hawks can grow Young into their superstar. After a promising rookie campaign, Young sprouted into an All-Star this season.

Young has pulled off the tough task of dramatically increasing both his offensive production and efficiency. He ranks third in the league in scoring (29.7 point per game) and second in assists (9.2). Young has improved his field-goal percentages across the board: catch-and-shoot jumpers, pull-ups and shots near the basket.

Young had outstanding court vision and feel for the game in college. Now he’s developed an effective floater and craftiness in drawing fouls. It didn’t take long for opponents to focus their defensive strategy on slowing Young. His counters came more quickly than usual for a young player.

Most of Young’s weaknesses are at the other end of the court. Every metric and the eye test confirm that he’s one of the worst defensive point guards in the league. Schlenk’s answer to that, in the draft and with recent trades, is to surround Young with strong defensive players. That should help.

But for the Hawks to be better, Young eventually must do more to hold up his end on defense. His size always will be a limiting factor. There is no such cap on his engagement and effort.

It’s very difficult to be a great player on offense who’s also average or better on defense. Players who fit that bill have been MVP and All-NBA: James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant. Five off those players needed at least three seasons to reach that level. The exception is LeBron, who was great almost immediately.

Young already is one of the NBA’s better players on offense. He can be better still, but defense is where there’s the most room for improvement. An exceptional offensive player who’s bad on defense can be an All-Star on a losing team. Great players tend to be two-way players who lead winning teams.

I like Young’s chances to become that kind of player. He’s talented, tough and competitive. Young can be the most important piece for a good, fun Hawks team. If that happens, more NBA fans in this city will become Hawks fans for years to come.

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