Hawks pay up for Trae Young, one of NBA’s best bargains

The Hawks will employ Trae Young for one more season at a bargain salary before paying up for their star point guard. And the five-year maximum contract extension Young will sign, worth at least $172 million and up to $207 million, doesn’t reflect his true value. The Hawks will pay Young as much as they can under the NBA’s salary cap, which means his contract is one of the better deals in the league.

ExploreHummer: Young positioned to be the face of Atlanta sports

General manager Travis Schlenk acquired the franchise centerpiece with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2018 draft. The Hawks got Young for four seasons under the rookie salary-scale limits with the ability to entice him to stay longer with a bigger contract than other teams. Schlenk wasted little time doing that.

The contract extension with Young was agreed to soon after midnight Monday, the earliest allowed by rule. Young likely would have gotten the max offer even if he hadn’t just finished one of the better playoff debuts in league history. That performance just made it even clearer that the Hawks should be all-in for Young, who turns 23 years old in September.

The Hawks don’t need to worry about Young becoming a free agent anytime soon. They own his contract through his age-28 season. Star player and franchise are aligned in their ambitions.

For two seasons, Young took heat for putting up big numbers while losing a lot of games. Schlenk fortified the roster with better players before 2020-21. He replaced coach Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan in March. The Hawks surged to the Eastern Conference finals, and weeks later, Young committed to the franchise long-term.

Schlenk got the hardest part of the rebuild right when he picked a future star in the draft. Now he faces the same challenge as every GM trying to prevent the best players from getting a wandering eye. After building a winning team around Young, Schlenk must keep improving the roster so the Hawks can become championship contenders with Young.

Young retained some of his future leverage by getting the right to terminate the extension after four seasons. The deal begins during the 2022-23 season and runs through 2026-27. The $172 million is guaranteed. It escalates to $207 million if Young is among the 15 players voted to one of three All-NBA teams next season.

Young is the first of the five core players Schlenk acquired in the draft to get a long-term deal from the Hawks. Another, Kevin Huerter, also is eligible for an extension this summer and may get one after he was good in the playoffs. The more pressing issue for Schlenk: John Collins is a restricted free agent who can sign an outside offer that the Hawks can match.

Young joined the Hawks the year after Collins, and they immediately became formidable pick-and-roll partners. Collins developed into a good NBA starter by improving his jump shot and defense. His free-agent market is limited, though. After the early frenzy of agreements, there are only a couple of teams with enough cap space to sign Collins to a maximum deal.

If Collins doesn’t sign an offer sheet, his options basically would be to agree to an extension with the Hawks or play on a one-year contract for $7.7 million and test the market as an unrestricted free agent in 2022. Collins is the only Hawks rotation player from 2020-21 who isn’t under contract. The Hawks still could return essentially the same squad to make another playoff run, with Young and Co. setting out to prove the last one wasn’t a fluke.

A maximum contract extension for Young might have raised eyebrows not long ago. He’s made one All-Star team in three seasons. Young received one vote for the All-NBA second team in 2019-20 and none in 2020-21. His shares of third-team votes declined from 10 in 2019-20 to two last season.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Meanwhile Luka Doncic, the player Schlenk traded for Young on draft night, was voted first-team All-NBA twice. That makes Doncic eligible for the richer extension from the Mavericks. Award voters seemed to believe that Young was topping out as Doncic was ascendant.

I never saw it that way. Young needed only a few weeks to show his NBA star potential and not much longer to prove he belongs in the league. He evolved his style in Year 2 as a counter to opponents ganging up on him. Young wobbled a bit during last season, but as always, he added nuances to his game so foes couldn’t corral him for long.

Young’s sensational playoff debut included a game-winner against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. He went on to average 28.8 points and 9.5 assists during the playoffs while confounding defensive schemes designed to stop him. Young sometimes got caught in defensive mismatches, but he made himself enough of a nuisance to prove that his weaknesses at that end aren’t fatal to winning.

Young suffered a freak ankle injury in Game 3 of the East finals, sat out the next two games and was limited when he returned for Game 6. It’s a stretch to say the Hawks would have gone further if not for Young’s injury. The Bucks won in six games with superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting out two of them. It’s a shame that we didn’t get to see if Young could find another level and somehow lift the Hawks past the eventual NBA champions.

Young’s fine play in the postseason made Schlenk’s decision to offer a max extension relatively easy. Young already is among the better players in the league and has room to get better. Yet the Hawks are not a franchise who can take this development for granted. They don’t have a history of drafting players who are clear candidates to offer maximum contracts.

The NBA implemented a rookie salary scale for the 1995 draft. From that year through 2018, the Hawks drafted or acquired 26 players in the first round of the draft. Young and Al Horford are the only players among that group to be selected to an All-Star team before their rookie contracts expired (Jeff Teague was on his second contract when he was named a 2015 All-Star).

Young is the first Hawks draftee to get a maximum contract extension. Not even Horford, a franchise great, could do the things Young can do. Young is worth every dollar the Hawks will invest in him, plus a lot more.