Trae Young: ‘It’s all about winning, and it’s always been about that’

As the Hawks rebuilt and Trae Young enjoyed individual success the past two years, two narratives emerged.

The first one suggested Young couldn’t lead a team to wins, or simply wasn’t “a winner.”

Using that as motivation, Young entered this season wanting to prove that narrative wrong – after helping the Hawks to a 41-31 record and the No. 5 seed in the NBA playoffs, with a first-round playoff series vs. the No. 4-seed Knicks looming, it’s safe to say he has done so. As time goes by, Young’s perspective on the criticism itself has evolved.

“I don’t think people are going to say that about me this year,” Young said in an exclusive interview with the AJC, ahead of Game 1 on Sunday in New York. “That’s a good thing. So that’s the thing, for me, it’s all about winning, and it’s always been about that. … I don’t know if (proving that narrative wrong) is as gratifying as much as proving people right. Proving people that were with me the whole time, or beside me, I think it’s proving those people right, is the most gratifying thing.”

Now, Young and the Hawks get the opportunity to win on a bigger stage.

In his third season with the Hawks, Young led the team to its first playoff appearance since 2016-17, paving the way with his scoring and playmaking (finishing No. 14 in the league in scoring at 25.3 points per game and, for the second time in a row, No. 2 in assists with 9.4). With more weapons around him, Young’s scoring numbers actually have dipped slightly (from 29.6 last year), and interim coach Nate McMillan has praised him for trusting his teammates more and more.

That brings us to the second narrative, which suggests that Young, an All-Star starter last year, cares more about individual stats than about team wins. That one maybe is even more frustrating for Young, especially as he sees it shift to suggest that he’s only recently started caring more about winning.

“I hear people talk about my growth and people talk about me going from a guy who only cares about stats to now it’s more about winning,” Young said. “It’s super frustrating, hearing those types of things. Those are compliments, but it’s a frustrating one, just because that’s not who I was to begin with. For me, I’ve always been about winning since high school, playing with (AAU team MOKAN), been the same way. With last year and the year before, obviously we weren’t winning, but I’m still out there trying to do whatever it takes to win. And if I’m scoring a lot, then that narrative gets brought on to you even though it’s not (right), because of that. For me, it’s always been about winning and I’ve always tried to keep that the thing. And it’s happening now.”

It’s certainly happening now.

All things considered, this rebuild didn’t take long, and came to fruition the first season Young had a deep roster around him, one that was built with enough talent to win. The past two seasons, the Hawks clearly were still trying to prepare for the future, and the roster reflected that.

Young became the face of the franchise when drafted in 2018, and his star rose in Year 2, when he finished No. 4 in the league in scoring (29.6) and No. 2 in assists (9.3). At age 21, he was voted an All-Star starter for the Eastern Conference, despite the Hawks’ losing record.

That’s when Young guesses those narratives really picked up steam. But, the Hawks were missing their second-leading scorer, power forward John Collins, for 25 games because of a suspension, in addition to several injured guys.

He also carried most of the load on offense. If you didn’t watch the Hawks (who often aren’t on national TV) night in and night out, but looked only at box scores, it might appear Young was vying for stats.

“We weren’t winning, but I was putting up numbers and still doing well individually, but I don’t think people understood, we were missing a lot of guys. … We missed (Collins) for a lot of the season, so there’s a lot of things that go on,” Young said. “And for our team, we’re not on TV a lot, so people from a distance don’t get to see what goes on behind the scenes with our team. And I think just that narrative, when you look online and you see I’m scoring all these points, but we’re not winning, you get that narrative that way. So I feel like that could have been a reason.”

Young grew up with social media, which has the power to amplify criticism and opinion far and wide. Some players care about that criticism (founded or unfounded) more and use it as motivation, which Young said he tended toward while in college.

As time goes by, though, he feels himself shifting away from that mindset. He knows who he is, and what he’s trying to accomplish.

“Why even focus on it, why even let that ruin your day, you know what I’m saying?” Young said. “I don’t let that, I can’t let that affect me, or do anything, because then that’s hurting my team and hurting my (mentality), being focused. Especially at this time of year. This is the most important.”

Even as Young insulates himself from that, it seems the goalposts move for him with individual recognition. Last year, he scored plenty, but caught flack for not winning more. This year, he’s winning and still putting up good numbers, but hasn’t gotten much All-NBA attention.

Amid the playoffs, and the opportunity for the Hawks to showcase what they’ve got, Young isn’t focused on any of that, he said.

“I feel like I should be in the conversation, but at the end of the day… my thought process about individual awards right now is just out the door,” Young said, though he mentioned he thinks teammate Clint Capela should make the All-Defensive team. “If you look at my season last year, everybody said I just needed to win, win, win, my numbers were high like they are now, and I didn’t make All-NBA. But this year, they’re still high, and it hasn’t been brought up or people haven’t talked about it a lot. So for me, I can’t worry about that, I can only worry about what we’ve got going on as a team, and focus on that.”

Under McMillan, the Hawks went 27-11, surging in the second half after a disappointing 14-20 start under Lloyd Pierce. They learned how to play a full 48 minutes, and how to buckle down and win close games.

The team goal is to keep that going in the postseason. As for an individual goal, Young hadn’t really thought about it.

“We’ve been winning a lot lately and want to keep it going and continue to play the way we’ve been playing, and if we do that, we’ll be good,” Young said. “And I’m excited about playing on this stage in front of everybody, with this group. It’s going to be fun. Individually, I don’t know. Like I said from the beginning of this year, I don’t get into the individual stuff at all. Especially this year, wanting to get into the playoffs and make noise in the playoffs, it’s never been about individual accolades for me.”

About the Author