As his career takes wing, Trae Young stays grounded

Trae leads Hawks to Game 4 victory: Trae Young draws a foul from 76ers center Joel Embiid in the final minute of Monday's 103-100 victory at State Farm Arena. Young had 25 points and 18 assists in the win. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
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Trae leads Hawks to Game 4 victory: Trae Young draws a foul from 76ers center Joel Embiid in the final minute of Monday's 103-100 victory at State Farm Arena. Young had 25 points and 18 assists in the win. (Curtis Compton/Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

We can’t yet know where this postseason will lead. At the rate big names are getting hurt/sick, the Hawks – who themselves lost De’Andre Hunter – could be the last team standing in the East if not the whole-wide NBA. One thing we do know, and this is the best thing about these rebuilt Hawks we could possibly know, is that we have our proof. Trae Young is big-time.

On June 21, 2018, the Hawks drafted Luka Doncic and shipped him to Dallas for the rights to Young and a Round 1 pick that would, a year later, become Cam Reddish. Doncic became the NBA’s Next Big Thing. For two seasons, the second of which was halted by COVID-19, we wondered if Young was the sort of player whose numbers, which were nice, looked better than they were. Even a bad team has a leading scorer.

The Hawks missed the playoffs in Young’s first two seasons. It took the firing of Lloyd Pierce and the promotion of Nate McMillan for them finally to start winning, and now they’ve won so much – they’re 33-14 under McMillan – that you wonder if they’ll ever stop. And all those questions we had regarding this smallish guard? They’ve been wadded up and tossed in yonder trash can.

Young’s averages over his first nine playoff games: 28.3 points, 10.7 assists against 3.1 turnovers. He hasn’t been held under 21 points. His playoff opener came in a reopened and raucous Madison Square Garden. He hit the game-winning floater with 0.9 seconds left. In the Round 1 clinch, also in MSG, he had 36 points and nine assists.

Philadelphia in Round 2 was supposed to be tougher. Young scored 35 with 10 assists in Game 1, which the Hawks took in Philly. Over the final 6:26 of Game 4, he scored or assisted on all 15 of the Hawks’ points. They won 103-100 after trailing by 18 in the first half. They drew even in a series that seemed to have swung irrevocably toward the 76ers, but that has been our latest lesson: Young has it within him to change bad to good. He’s not just fun to watch.

We wondered about his temperament. He hasn’t been flustered by anything the Knicks or Sixers have flung at him. The winning shot in Game 1 of Round 1 came when he waved off the screen John Collins was supposed to set – the screener had lost a sneaker – and dispensed with defender Frank Nkilitina via his own devices, which are considerable.

For all the fine nights Young had had as a Hawk, regular-season work in the NBA always carries a shadow of a doubt. To be really, you have to be really good when it matters. Young has held the Hawks together, and not just by making a bunch of shots. The key play of the vital Game 4 came on the pass he whipped along the baseline to Collins for the 3-pointer that drew the Hawks within a point. Young’s floater would put them ahead. His free throws kept them there.

It hadn’t been his greatest night. He missed 18 of 28 shots. He missed two free throws. His right shoulder was hurting. But he was the best player on the floor at game’s end, which tells us – though we’ve long suspected as much – he has a knack for timing. The great ones do.

He’s 22. In olden days, he would have just completed his senior season at Oklahoma. But here he is, four games into a series the Hawks weren’t supposed to win but still might. If you were the biggest Young fan in the world – that would be general manager Travis Schlenk, whose reputation hinges on his choice of Young over Doncic – you couldn’t have diagrammed a better postseason debut. Opposing fans haven’t rankled him. Opposing teams haven’t stopped him. Even after losses, Young hasn’t seemed irked. He’s having the time of his life.

For all the lovely moments Young has given us on the court, it’s an off-the-court exchange that makes me smile. When he takes his postgame seat before the Zoom camera, Young makes it a point to greet the Hawks’ staffer/moderator – who’s in a different location. “Hello, Jelani,” he says, and Jelani Downing responds, “Hello, Trae.”

We sportswriters sometimes group the famous people we cover into two camps – those who say hello first, and those who never do. The second category heavily outnumbers the first, so we note the exceptions. At a time when Trae Young is writing his name across the NBA sky, he’s grounded enough to say hello first. Good for him.

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