Trae Young focused on winning, not individual feats, in Year 3

Hawks guard Trae Young smiles as he walks toward reporters after talking with forward Vince Carter (left) during the Atlanta Hawks Media Day Sept. 30, 2019, at Emory Sports Medicine Complex in Atlanta.

Credit: Austin McAfee

Credit: Austin McAfee

Hawks guard Trae Young smiles as he walks toward reporters after talking with forward Vince Carter (left) during the Atlanta Hawks Media Day Sept. 30, 2019, at Emory Sports Medicine Complex in Atlanta.

One of Trae Young’s friends recently pulled up Young’s YouTube highlights from this past season, including his half-court shot at the NBA All-Star game and him scoring a career-high 50 points against Miami.

Those are great feats, yes, but Young couldn’t stomach it.

“I even told him, I couldn’t even watch it,” Young said. “It’s so frustrating just for me. I hate the narrative of just being just a scorer … and I don’t want that narrative to just be like I’m all about stats because I’m not. So for me, stats is the last thing I’m bringing up. If somebody brings it up this year to me, that’s the last thing I’m talking about because that’s not me, and I’m all about winning and that’s what I’m going to be talking about going forward.”

Since joining the Hawks, a narrative emerged painting Young as someone who is all about individual accomplishments and stats. He has consistently said that’s not accurate, but as the best player on a bad team, that narrative has stuck. In his second season in the NBA, Young was fourth in scoring (29.6 points per game) and second in assists (9.3 per game) and was named an All-Star starter, but the Hawks went 20-47, struggling through their truncated season.

The Hawks haven’t made the playoffs since the 2016-17 season and have combined to go 73-158 the past three, dating to Mike Budenholzer’s final season as coach, but Young feels they’re nearing the end of their rebuild. Now, more than ever, Young wants to leave that “individual stats” narrative in the dust and turn the team into a winning franchise.

“Winning is my main key,” Young said, from inside the Hawks' bubble during their minicamp. “Y’all will probably hear me talk about that all year. Ask me about individual things, individual stats, individual accolades, all that, y’all are going to get the same answer all year. My main focus going into my third year is winning. It’s always been my focus but it’s even more now than ever.

"I think watching these games, it’s been tough just watching it and just not being in that position. For me that’s my main focus going into Year 3, is winning and doing whatever I need to do to get us over the top and get into the playoffs.”

It’s a little early to say the Hawks will be a playoff team in the 2020-21 season, since they have only nine players under contract now and will have to build the roster through the draft (picking sixth) and free agency. Making the postseason would require a big leap from where the team has been the past few years, and would necessitate great improvement on defense. But they should be able to take some kind of step forward, considering they return all their Core Five players (Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish) along with Clint Capela, who is now healthy, and will have the most salary-cap space in the league.

Entering his third season, Young is motivated to get the team to the playoffs, especially after watching 22 teams play in the Orlando bubble, with the Hawks one of eight teams that didn’t qualify.

“I don’t ever want to not be in the playoffs again,” Young said. “This is something that, I mean, going through a rebuilding stage, it’s going to happen. It’s going to take years to grow together and be together for it to really click. And now we’re at that point now where we’re going into Year 3 and our chemistry is there, we’re starting to learn different things, talk even more, and it’s, hopefully it clicks, so that’s what I’m hoping going into this year.”

There’s another narrative that Young isn’t an ideal centerpiece for a franchise to build around, whether that’s because of his size (6-foot-1, 180 pounds) or lack of contributions on defense. As the face of the franchise, it seems most of the blame for the Hawks' struggles often falls on Young’s shoulders, but the reality is the roster around him has yet to be built to win.

The outlet HoopsHype polled 15 NBA talent evaluators (four general managers, six executives, five scouts) asking which players under 25 they’d build around, with Young not receiving a vote — when that story made its way to Twitter, Young quote-tweeted it and dismissed it as clickbait.

Young shrugged off the criticism that he often gets on social media, again reiterating his goal is simply to set the Hawks on the right path. He’s gotten this kind of flack since high school, he added.

“Every year, coming into the league, everybody remembers what’s said about me not being ready, not big enough, whatever it was, I had to overcome that,” Young said. “And then now it’s something else and I’ve just got to overcome that. For me, it’s not about fighting for other people’s respect, as far as a fan goes. For me, I play the game the way I know how, and it’s worked for me up to this point, and now I just need to make it, just need to turn around this franchise and hopefully get us to the playoffs next year. That’s my main focus. I don’t want to get into all that; it’s not in my DNA to go back and forth about individual stuff. I’m all about this team.”

Of course, to an extent, all NBA players care somewhat about their reputation and how they’re perceived, and based off his social-media reaction, it did seem to rub Young the wrong way that he didn’t make an All-NBA team.

“To be honest, for me personally, I always strive for more," Young said. "I know the position I’m in; some people would say, they’d be happy just being an All-Star starter in their second year or top five in points and assists, they would say they’re happy about that and go on and live happy, but for me I always want more. That’s kind of how it is for me. I understand maybe why I didn’t get it, but that just happens, and next time, you’ve just got to, for me, it’s all about winning.”

When asked what he wanted to prove in his third season, though, Young said he wants to show the Hawks' pieces of their rebuilding process are coming together, and kept the conversation centered around winning as a team.

As a team, he said, they’ve talked about what it will take to reach the next level, and they’ll be ready whenever the season rolls around.

“We’re in a rebuilding stage, we’ve been in the rebuilding stage, but now it’s time, the pieces are falling together," Young said. "So hopefully that’s something that I’m ready to prove to people is the pieces are kind of together now.”