Trae Young thrives in bigger spotlight, but keeps ultimate focus on wins

May 28, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) reacts at the end of the second half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series at State Farm Arena on Friday, May 28, 2021. Atlanta Hawks won 105-94 over New York Knicks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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May 28, 2021 Atlanta - Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) reacts at the end of the second half in Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series at State Farm Arena on Friday, May 28, 2021. Atlanta Hawks won 105-94 over New York Knicks. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Trae Young hoped he could change his time slot shooting the NBA’s 75th anniversary commercial, with a potential schedule conflict later on.

But, which NBA icon filming that day would he trade with? No way was he asking Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Oscar Robertson.

“Everybody who was there was legends. … We were like, ‘That can’t happen,’” Young remembered with a laugh.

So his slot stayed the same, beginning just as Magic Johnson’s ended. On his way out, Johnson walked over to Young’s set: “You did your thing, man. That playoff was stupid. I want some more of that, all right?” Young smiled and said, “Yes, sir.”

A promising rookie season and All-Star starter campaign in Year 2 had already put Young on the map, but leading the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals and dominating on his first playoff run – with some added flair – thrust him into an even bigger spotlight. One that extends far past Atlanta. He gets the call for NBA milestone projects, has his own signature shoe, helped the Hawks earn more exposure with 19 national TV games this season and even paid another visit to New York as the heel for WWE Smackdown, introduced as “someone who actually knows what it takes to win in Madison Square Garden.” Commissioner Adam Silver has heralded Young as one of the NBA’s “new generation of stars.”

Young, signing an extension this offseason, has rejuvenated the Hawks franchise, bringing energy, showmanship and wins after years of rebuilding, and he’s hoping that the passion surrounding the team continues into the 2021-22 season. As brash and daring as Young is on the court, prone to nutmegs, behind-the-back passes, logo shots and thriving on boos and cheers alike, that’s how laid-back and calm he is off it, with one simple goal always in the back of his mind.

“Really, I’ve just got to continue to remain myself,” Young said of the spotlight. “I’m not going to switch up on anybody. I’m the same person, and I’m going to continue to be the same person. I’m always a hardworking person, somebody who’s all for their teammates and all about winning. So my mind-set doesn’t change, whatever’s going on. I always have a clear view of what’s important and what needs to happen. ... I’m very thankful for everything I’ve been doing, and I’m excited that I’m not only representing myself but I’m representing Atlanta while I’m doing it. I’m obviously always aware of what I’m doing and who I’m doing it for.”

For the first time in his career, thanks in part to Young’s own handiwork, the Hawks face sky-high expectations. They return a loaded roster and hope to earn homecourt advantage in the playoffs, and Young sees this as a team capable of going one step further than last season’s group did.

Young and the Hawks earned respect last season, with injuries finally catching up to them against the Bucks, but questions still linger as to what this team’s ceiling truly is. Do they need a second star to compete for a title? Will one emerge already on the roster, or will they have to eventually consolidate and bring in a big name?

But, they certainly raised the stakes. They’ve shown they’re done rebuilding and can be a winning team right now, and that mentality is what Young has been waiting for.

“I definitely feel the expectations are a lot higher,” Young said. “They should be. They should be, especially for the people in the city. People in Atlanta deserve a team to go out and win every night, or is supposed to have a chance to compete every night. They should want that. And I hope everybody’s expectations are high. I don’t want them to be low. That’s not I want or anybody on the team wants. I hope around the city, it’s high. I hope around the country, it gets even higher.

“We’ve got a lot to prove still. … We didn’t win it all. So that’s kind of my mind-set. We made it to the Eastern Conference finals, but that’s not the furthest I want to go. So I’m not satisfied. And nobody’s expectations on our team are going to be higher than mine.”

Entering the first-round playoff series vs. the Knicks, under then-interim coach Nate McMillan, Young had begun to shake off the narrative that he wasn’t a “winning player,” or cared more about individual stats than winning.

He squashed it after falling two wins short of the NBA Finals, putting on a show yet sacrificing individual shot attempts to set up teammates along the way. Young embodied a playoff villain against the Knicks, hushing a profanity-jeering Madison Square Garden crowd with a last-second game-winner in Game 1, taking a bow at center court after clinching the series. He joined Johnson, Robertson, Steph Curry, Chris Paul and Kevin Johnson as the only players to record more than 30 assists in their first three career playoff games, per Elias Sports Bureau.

He willed the Hawks to a win against the No. 1-seed 76ers in the conference finals, playmaking like crazy when his shot wasn’t falling in Game 7. Young riled up crowds and used it to his advantage, and has shown he thrives in the spotlight.

“He should,” veteran guard Lou Williams said. “He’s very talented. He has the opportunity to lead a franchise. He’s very young. There’s nothing not to be excited about and not to embrace. He doesn’t play for the Knicks. He doesn’t play for the Sixers. So they should hate him. He was kicking their (expletive). It is what it is. And he’s embraced that, and he’s been a hero in Atlanta.”

It makes sense why Young (wearing a Hawks hoodie) went back to Madison Square Garden to ham it up for WWE. A fierce competitor, he also can be the ultimate performer and appreciates a big stage no matter what.

“I’m the type of person to have fun and be in the moment and live in the moment, and who knows, this moment may never come again,” Young said. “So I had to do it. It was fun. I know a lot of them were booing and a lot of stuff was going on, but it was actually crazy, there were a lot of cheers, too. I heard a couple people from Atlanta in the crowd yelling. But it was a lot of boos, too. It was fun. I love doing that type of stuff. It’s all entertainment.”

Young even occasionally jokes with McMillan, who aims to mix his old-school style with Young’s new-school approach, about the Hawks relishing energy plays, whether it comes from Young, John Collins posterizing someone again or a killer 3-pointer from Kevin Huerter or Bogdan Bogdanovic.

It’s the style of play that helped captivate the city in the playoffs.

“That’s just kind of how we play, that’s just the way we are,” Young said. “We just play with energy, we smile when we play. We’ve got (McMillan) sometimes, I’ll be having to talk to Mac sometimes because he’s so old-school sometimes, he wants me to mix some of my stuff with his, like I’ll just tell him to smile a little bit. Sometimes he’s too focused, he’s too locked in, so sometimes I think it’s good when you have fun, you smile, and your guys are just playing for each other, it just brings everybody together, and it makes you want to fight for the person next to you. So I think that’s why we do that, and I’m glad people love watching us play now. I think the more people watch us play, they’ll learn to love more the style of play. … We just have fun when we play.”

Since last season, the perspective on Young has shifted, Collins thinks, going from respecting what he can do as an individual player to: “‘Yeah, Trae’s a superstar and can put on a show, but he can also win, too.’ … He’s gotten attention, but now it’s the right attention, and attention that I feel like he’s been asking for and saying he wants and for him to continue to say and go after what he wants, that’s what you want from Trae.”

For all the respect that epic playoff run earned Young and the Hawks, and for all the vital experience it provided to the young core players, it’s over now, and a new season beckons.

Young isn’t rattled by the lofty expectations, or any of the responsibility that inevitably falls on his shoulders as the face of the franchise.

“The confidence that I have in myself and my teammates just doesn’t allow me to feel pressure,” Young said. “I love playing with this team, and I know what we’re able to do and what we’re capable of doing. That’s just my mind-set. I live in the moment and enjoy it because I know all the work that’s been put in behind the scenes, so whenever you’re on the court you just have to have fun and enjoy it and let the work you put in just go out and do it on its own. That’s why I have so much confidence, and I have so much fun while I’m doing it.”

Making a name for themselves in the postseason means the Hawks won’t sneak up on anyone this season. They face a steep challenge, but for Young, it’s gratifying to be in this position in the first place.

“I’m not going to take what we have now for granted,” Young said. “I understand where we’ve been, and we haven’t had the attention we’re getting now, but trust me, the more recognition we’re getting, it’s very nice and it’s humbling. We’re excited people are starting to recognize us more. For me personally, I think it’s the same way. I don’t know, I’m so focused on the present. … I just know the recognition we’re getting now, it’s nice and I love it, but I just want more. I want more for my team, I want more for the city, I just want more of it. And it’s only going to come from winning.”