THINK OF THE MOMENT as Trae Young doing exactly what he says he’s going to do, knowing and trusting his path.
Think of the decision Trae didn’t make.
Early in Trae’s senior high school season, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari flew to Oklahoma hoping to get a commitment from the five-star recruit.
Coach Cal sat in the Young family’s living room. The house smelled like Pine-Sol — Trae’s mother had been cleaning in preparation. Calipari made small talk with Timothy, Trae’s little brother, and then pulled out a notebook and started his pitch. He read off names like Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker. … And draft rounds: first, first, first. … And the NBA contract figures of his former players, totaling in the billions of dollars.
Come to Kentucky, Calipari said. I’ll make you a first-round pick. I’ll make you millions of dollars.
Trae listened to this calmly, politely. He asked questions about Kentucky’s style of play but mostly gave nothing away, as his parents had taught him. Interested, not needy. A couple of weeks before Calipari it was Duke’s Coach K, a couple of weeks before that it was Kansas’ Bill Self.
Trae listened and said, No thank you. It would be Oklahoma, a few minutes down the road.
“Nobody has more confidence in me than myself, because I knew the work that I put in at 6:30 in the morning when everybody was asleep,” Trae says. “It was an honor to hear Coach Calipari say that stuff about me, but I knew I could do it anywhere.”
Believe it or not, life as 11-year-old Timothy Young doesn’t look half-bad to Trae Young. Todd Kirkland/Getty Images
NOW THINK OF the contradictions in the moment — the gaudy star-making turn of a soft-spoken, private young man. A player who shoots from logos, nutmegs defenders, jaws with fans, who has a signature Adidas shoe, a top-10 selling jersey and one of the most marketable profiles in the league but who will nevertheless tell you the person he’d most like to be besides himself is his 11-year-old little brother, and the place in the world he’d most like to live besides Atlanta is where he grew up, in Norman, Oklahoma.
Rudd, who is still in touch with Trae, describes him “as a very boring person. He’s about basketball and getting better. That’s who Trae is.” Quavo calls him a “homebody.” After games, Trae goes home and re-watches his games. On his off-days, he does recovery work or mostly watches movies at home. The new “Venom” and Kevin Hart’s “True Story” are a couple of his favorite movies and shows right now; Lee’s “He Got Game” might be his favorite movie of all time. He loves the “Superman” films, the Christopher Reeve ones. “The new one, where he be getting beat up by Batman? That’s another story. I can’t stand that,” he says.
So Trae takes the bow, that preplanned bit of showmanship, and longs for quiet pleasures — the baby brother “able to go to NBA basketball games and be a kid.”
And Trae takes the Garden by storm, but knows what a stage is and what it’s not: “I like Oklahoma,” he says. “I like the privacy it brings, and people don’t like it, but if you’ve been there, you know everywhere. It’s really a nice place to live.”
THINK OF THE QUESTIONS that hang over him and his moment. Questions about how to be.
When I tell his father that Trae said if he could be anyone but himself he’d be his little brother, Ray reflects on their relationship.
“He made that comment because he knows I don’t push Timothy as hard as I pushed him,” he says.
“And I know sometimes Trae and I, we would butt heads and we would argue and he wouldn’t agree with a lot of stuff that I wanted him to do because maybe he felt that I was living my life through him. And he doesn’t see that with Timothy and I in our relationship.”
Candice interjects, “I think what Rayford said, a lot of that is true, but I also think that Trae likes Timothy’s swag.”
Young has always been his team’s best player, and now he understands he also needs to be a leader. “Trae blends in in a locker room,” Hawks guard Lou Williams says. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
THINK THAT THE MOMENT isn’t enough. That if Trae Young doesn’t make us basically forget about that step-back in the Garden, if he doesn’t create bigger, more consequential moments, he would have failed his own promise.
Trae is 23 years old, recently engaged, and in his fourth season in the NBA and heading to his second All-Star Game this weekend. Last season, he led the Hawks on a thrilling playoff run during which they throttled the Knicks and ended Philadelphia’s ballyhooed Process™ before succumbing to the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. This season, Trae is fifth in points per game (27.8) and tied for third in assists (9.3), the only player in the league to be top five in both categories. He is a virtuoso of the ball screen, effortlessly manipulating its variations. Despite his size, he can at times seem unguardable.
Trae was shut out of last year’s All-Star Game, held in Atlanta. Ray insists that Trae isn’t going into this year’s All-Star Game with an agenda. “He’s past the point of wanting to prove people wrong,” Ray says. “It’s more about going out there and making his close family members proud and proving the fans who voted for him, proving them right.”
But Trae was left so disappointed with his omission last season that he couldn’t stand to be in Atlanta the weekend of the game, decamping to Florida for a few days. Ray told Trae to think about how it was in high school, how it had always been on the court for him. “If there’s gonna be a question, you’re never gonna get the benefit of the doubt,” Ray said. “So you have to leave it where there’s no doubt.”
His scoring was down from the season before, but the Hawks were winning more, and playing better basketball, Trae thought. The next few months would prove him right. By March 7, the day of the All-Star Game, the Hawks were two games into an eight-game winning streak that would see them finish on a 27-11 run under interim head coach Nate McMillan, who had replaced Lloyd Pierce in the middle of the season. They took that momentum all the way to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Hawks this season hover under .500, clinging to the last play-in position and struggling to cohere in the face of injuries and illness that have troubled the consistency of their lineup and rotation. Their offense remains elite, bolstered by Young’s exceptional productivity and increased efficiency. He has scored 40 or more five times this season, tied for fourth most in the NBA. And ranks second in assist percentage. But if they want to win titles, he’s going to need to do more.
“He knows for his team to win he’s got to be a leader and put up stats and help make all his teammates better,” Ray says.
SO, FINALLY, CONSIDER the possible futures Trae Young’s moment suggests.
Trae is very much a developing player, with a team that’s growing up with him. McMillan, keen to emphasize all the ways in which Trae is learning and growing, won’t even talk about what kind of leader Trae is. He considers the answer TBD. “You can’t force people to be leaders,” McMillan says. “I don’t think you can force that on a guy. I think he has to develop that and that’s something that he’s working on. Again, the expectations change, it changed from last year to this year. We’ll see what that becomes, but I think it’s too early in his career to say what that is.”
This is no secret; Trae’s teammates will tell you. “Trae blends in in a locker room,” says veteran Hawks guard and three-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams. “I think he’s still trying to find his way, as far as being a leader. … He has tremendous respect for the older guys. … He just shows a lot of respect, he don’t really demand much. He don’t really ask for much. He kind of follows our lead. And so, in his maturation, that’ll be his next step is to kind of command that respect from guys and run a locker room how he likes it to run. Because that’ll translate out on the floor.”
Trae’s high school and college coaches say, at those levels, his on-court brilliance preempted the skill of leading a locker room with his voice, of managing personalities. Trae himself will tell you it’s an area of growth.
“Being that younger kid playing with older guys, I was never the loudest in the room,” Trae says. “I was always just the good player, and everybody would just follow my lead. But now as I’m getting older, a point guard in the league has got to be able to be vocal.”
“You ever see ‘Drumline’?” McMillan asks.
“OK, you remember when the director said: We’re going to mix a little old school with the new? And they went and put out a performance that won them the BET classic. That’s pretty much what I want from Trae, that’s the things that we talk about, but I don’t want, we’re not going to take your game, I don’t want to take your game away from you. He goes, and he pushes, and he attacks, but sometimes you got to put a little old school in there and you got to slow up … so mix a little old school in there with your new school.”
Then McMillan turns to one of his favorite metaphors.
“At that point guard position, you could be a cloud or you could be sunshine. And sunshine is a player that your teammates, they just light up when they play with you, because they know that it’s going to be fun,” McMillan says.
Think of Trae Young’s moment as light, then — and the Garden a dichroic crystal. Think of the moment as a property of light — its ability to be dispersed into its component colors.
“Steve Nash was sunshine, Magic Johnson’s sunshine and Steph Curry is sunshine,” McMillan continues.
Trae Young is …?
“I think he has a special talent that we haven’t really seen at that position, his ability to score, as well as facilitate,” McMillan says. “I think he can be sunshine.”
Photography & Design by Artist Temi Coker; Managed by: Atrbute, @atrbute; Motion Animator: Haley Hennier; Wardrobe Stylist: Wesmore Perriott for Defending Champs LLC; Prop Stylist: Stacy Suvino, with The Spin Style Agency; Barber: Victor Fontanez;
Source: ESPN NBA