It took less than two NBA seasons for Trae Young to prove that he’s one of the best basketball players in the world. Young’s reputation has fallen even faster.
A year after being voted All-NBA, Young isn’t even an All-Star. His standing as an elite NBA player has taken a hit because he’s not having the same impact on winning, and his leadership ability is an open question. I’m sure Young’s ego is bruised by not being selected to play in Sunday’s All-Star game in Utah, but individual accolades don’t really matter.
Ultimately, people will judge Young for how much he wins for the franchise that acquired him when he was the No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft. That’s to be determined, but there are diminishing returns in Year 5.
Young is having a good season, which is below his previous standard of great. That’s a big reason why the Hawks (29-30) staggered into the All-Star break with four losses in their past six games. They’ve set a goal of finishing at least sixth in the Eastern Conference and thus guaranteeing a playoff spot. They’re closer to 11th place, which is out of the play-in tournament and in the draft lottery.
This was supposed to be the year that Young’s Hawks became East contenders again. They made it to the 2021 conference finals behind brilliant play from Young. The Hawks lost in the 2022 first round as Young played poorly. In response, the Hawks surrendered three first-round draft picks last summer to acquire a player Young wanted, Dejounte Murray.
The idea was that opponents couldn’t gang up on Young if he has another high-level scorer and playmaker in the backcourt. It made sense in theory. In practice, that partnership has been hit-or-miss so far.
Murray is scoring at about the same rate and efficiency as last season, when he was an All-Star with the Spurs, but his deliberate style of play has been an awkward fit at times. Young’s scoring efficiency is the lowest since his rookie season. He ranks second in the league in assists per game (10.2), yet the Hawks have plummeted to 17th in offensive rating a year after they were second.
Then there’s Young’s role in off-court drama. He clashed with coach Nate McMillan and chafed at the fallout when the incident became public. Young’s close relationship with Hawks executive Nick Ressler, a son of franchise owner Tony, has raised question about whether Young and the younger Ressler are having a negative influence on the team’s basketball operations.
Star players should have a say in an organization’s direction. They also should be prepared to shoulder some blame when those decisions go wrong. They should expect criticism when their job performance isn’t acceptable. It’s not clear that Young gets that part of the gig.
When news got out about his conflict with McMillan, Young bristled that it was a “private” matter. Well, Young should blame himself for that. The only reason the incident became public is that Young wasn’t on the bench for the game later that day, as is standard. There’s no story if Young shows up.
If Young thinks that was bad, he should notice amount of attention the league’s superstars receive for matters more trifling than arguing with a coach. That’s how it goes for players who are the faces of their respective franchises. That’s why Young gets most of the scrutiny for the Hawks underachieving even though the struggles aren’t solely his fault.
The expectations increased for Young when received a “supermax” contract extension last summer that pays him $37.1 million this season. Some other players with supermax deals: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Stephen Curry. They’ve won seven league MVP awards between them. That’s Young’s peer group now.
Maybe Young never will be an MVP-level player. His relatively small stature always will be a limiting factor. The history of the best small guards in NBA history is that they must be paired with bigger stars to have a real chance to win a ring. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Young’s impact has declined along with the play of frontcourt teammates Clint Capela and John Collins.
It would be silly for the Hawks to give up on Young as the franchise centerpiece by trading him now. Young, 24, is entering what’s typically the prime years for players, and he’s still learning to lead. The better path for the Hawks is to keep altering the roster until they find the group of players that best accentuate Young’s many talents while mitigating his few weaknesses.
Remember, the Hawks have been trying to win for only two-plus years with Young. Before that, they were tanking for the chance to draft a player like him. Then they tanked some more to accumulate draft picks to add more talent around him. Since the Hawks started trying to win with Young, they’ve made it to the East finals and lost in the first round.
Now the Hawks are in danger of sliding out of the playoffs. For much of the season they’ve looked like a mid-tier East team at best. A simple way for them to be better is for Young to make more shots, which unlocks so much of the offense. Young’s floater is working still, but his shooting percentages are down for every other area of the floor, especially behind the 3-point line.
Young is an exceptional talent. His toughness and fearlessness have allowed him to become a world-class player despite usually being the smallest guy on the court. When Young has it going, there’s no better combination scorer and playmaker in the NBA. Young still sets his teammates up with quality shots, and his defense has improved this season from terrible to (usually) passable.
Young wasn’t voted to the All-Star team because he’s not having a great season by his standards. Young’s case probably also was hurt by his team’s so-so record and questions about his leadership. It’s the third time in five seasons that Young won’t play in the NBA’s talent showcase.
That’s not as important as what Young does the rest of the season. He still can lift the Hawks to the playoffs over the final 23 games and make a strong showing once he makes it there. In the end, that would matter a lot more than an All-Star selection.
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