Trae Young’s fuel: ‘Changing that narrative that I can’t win’

Hawks point guard Trae Young
Hawks point guard Trae Young

Trae Young’s Hawks career was barely two weeks old when I declared him to be the real deal. He was an instant hit with obvious star potential. My view then: “As Young gets more minutes and muscle, and the Hawks add more talent around him, look out.”

Young rapidly improved with experience. I’m not sure about the muscle, but it hardly mattered. Young was an All-Star point guard last season, his second as a pro. He’s among the NBA’s best scorers and playmakers. And now the Hawks have added talent around Young.

The season begins later this month. For the first time, Young will play with more than more than one or two good veteran players. Here is Young’s chance to show that he can be more than a star player for losing teams.

Young, who always has used slights as motivation, identified that as fuel for his third NBA season.

“It’s changing that narrative that I can’t win,” Young said Tuesday.

Much of that is a function of being forever tied with Luka Doncic. The Hawks drafted Doncic No. 3 overall in 2018 and traded him for Young, who was picked sixth. Doncic was All-NBA first team last season and led the Mavericks to the playoffs. The Hawks were focused more on rebuilding than winning.

Those days are over. Young played most of his second season alongside only two average or better teammates, power forward John Collins and center Alex Len. Now there should be at least seven. The number will be higher that if the Hawks get more from three of their so-called Core Five: Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter and Kevin Huerter.

What does Young need to do to make the leap from best player on a bad squad to lead guy for a winner?

“I don’t know,” Young said. “It’s not something you can really say. It’s about going out and playing and proving (it). It’s hard for me to sit here and tell you. It’s all about action.”

OK, then, allow me to give it a try.

Young needs more discerning shot selection at winning time. He needs to do better work away from the ball when the Hawks have it. Most of all, Young must be a better defender after the advanced metrics and eyeballs both indicate that he’s one of the worst in the league.

The Hawks believe Young can improve his defense by getting in better shape and letting others handle the ball more. A higher level of conditioning would mean more energy to chase defenders. Opponents constantly trap and harass Young when he has the ball, so letting someone else run the offense also could save his legs.

About his conditioning, Young said: “I feel like I can play right now.” There should be no problems there. We’ll see if Young will cede control of the offense more often.

I thought coach Lloyd Pierce could have created more chances for Young as a spot-up shooter last season. Then again, Young always wants the ball. It must be difficult to defer when he’s the No. 1 playmaker and scorer, and there’s a big gap to the next guy.

But Young also loves putting on a show, and at times, he tried to do that at the expense of making better plays. The Hawks have more secondary options for 2020-21. New teammates Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari are good dribble, pass and shoot players.

Last season Young made 47 percent of his 103 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. That was third-best accuracy in the league among players with 100 tries or more. It will be good for the Hawks if Young takes more spot-up 3′s.

“I’ve been able to play in different styles,” Young said. “Whatever is necessary for us to win, I’m going to do.”

If all goes as planned, a lighter scoring and playmaking load will leave Young more energy for defense. It’s on him to go harder at that end. Defense is a collective effort, but the Hawks can’t be good at it when their point guard has too many one-screen-and-done possessions.

Young’s size always will limit him defensively. But I’m not writing off his chances to become adequate at it. Young became an undersized star in the NBA because he’s tough, competitive and crafty. I believe those attributes will start showing up on defense.

Said Young: “Being a smaller guard, it’s (about) finding new tools and little tricks to get steals or being there as a presence on ‘bigs’ or switches.”

It will help Young that the Hawks have more defensive talent overall. They drafted Reddish and Hunter in 2019 for that purpose. They’ve since added veterans who do the same.

New guard Kris Dunn just missed making the All-Defensive team last season. Rajon Rondo will turn 35 in February, but he’s still a smart defender. Collins and Clint Capela provide resistance on the back line. Rookie big man Onyeka Okongwu, a first-round draft pick, has the potential to be a defender once he adjusts to the NBA’s speed and athleticism.

Young’s team is better now. The frontcourt went from OK but thin, to good and deep. The Hawks had no good options at backup point guard last season and now have at least two. The wing positions are deep after the Hawks didn’t have one average player at shooting guard or small forward last season.

“On paper, you see everything,” Young said. “You see the sky. Everything is in front of us, whatever we want. It’s up to us to go and get it.”

The Hawks could have as many seven new players in the rotation. They don’t have much time to figure things out. Team practices begin this weekend, and the 72-game season starts Dec. 22. Pierce will have to find the right combinations from among many options.

Young also will face greater scrutiny. The playoffs are the goal. It’s no longer the case that he doesn’t have enough good, experienced teammates to help him get the Hawks there.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” he said. “It’s me going out and playing basketball the way I know how.”

Young is so good at basketball that he’s already among the best players in the world before he turns 23. He has a chance to change the narrative by lifting the Hawks from bad to good. I wouldn’t bet against him.

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