Sophomore slump? Trae Young has never heard of it.
The Atlanta Hawks point guard has proven to be a star in the NBA after shaking his early “bust” label, which critics were quick to place on him after he struggled out of the gate last season. But after last year’s All-Star game, Young ended the second half of the season averaging 24.7 points and 9.2 assists per game and finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Any concerns over a potential slow start to his second season, a phenomena in which a player fails to live up to lofty standards of their first season, have so far been shaken. Three games into the new season, Young is averaging 34 points, six rebounds and nine assists per game in addition to being named the Eastern Conference Player of the Week for the first week of the new season. He also set a record for most points scored in the Hawks’ first two games with 77, breaking a record set by Hall of Famer and former Hawk forward Dominique Wilkins, and became the first Hawks player since forward Joe Johnson in 2006-07 to begin the season with at least three games of 25 or more points. Young sustained an ankle injury on Oct. 29, but the injury doesn’t seem to be serious and the young guard should be back on the court in no time.
To say Young is a good player would be an understatement. He is a flat-out star, and watching him play is downright mesmerizing. He has an intangible “it” factor that can’t be coached. Young’s limitless range, silky-smooth handle and quarterback-esque passing will have you going “ooh” and “ah.”
Young’s hot start began in Detroit where he dropped 38 points, seven rebounds and nine assists in the season opener against the Pistons on Oct. 24. The Oklahoma native added to this strong performance with the Hawks’ home opener, bringing Atlanta to a 103-99 victory on Oct. 26. Throughout the game, Orlando and Atlanta traded buckets, but Young sealed the victory with a 27-foot stepback three off the backboard with 26.2 seconds remaining in the game. After missing their final shot attempts, the Magic were forced to foul Young and send him to the free throw line in order to stop the clock, where he sank one of two free throws. Young’s 39 points, seven rebounds and nine assists triggered the Atlanta crowd’s “MVP!” chants.
“Oh it was cool,” Young said, laughing when asked about the MVP chants. “I was mad I missed the free throw, but it was good to hear.”
The MVP chants didn’t stop there. In the opening minutes of the Hawks’ Oct. 29 game against the Philadelphia 76ers, after Young had accumulated several points in the first three minutes, the crowd again showered Young with MVP chants as he stepped to the free throw line after being fouled on a three-point attempt. He swished all three free throws.
Young’s offensive impact on the Hawks cannot be understated. In the first quarter against the Sixers, Young recorded 13 points, two rebounds and three assists, and the Hawks dropped 40 points against a stout Sixers defense. He finished the game with 25 points and nine assists in a last-second loss.
Sixers’ guard Ben Simmons, who guarded Young for a majority of the fourth quarter after not guarding him at all in the first three periods, said he made an active decision not to guard Young in the first three quarters.
“I told [Sixers Head Coach Brett Brown] I’m not guarding [Young] until the end,” Simmons confessed during a press conference. “I’m saving my energy to the end with Trae.”
Simmons also recognized Young’s basketball brilliance.
“Obviously [Young] is an amazing talent, very gifted, and he gave us a lot of problems tonight,” Simmons said.
Sixers’ wing Josh Richardson, who guarded Young for most of the first three quarters, picked up five fouls while guarding him. Matisse Thybulle, a rookie forward from the University of Washington, guarded Young while Richardson was on the bench and picked up four fouls of his own. While the Sixers defended Young well in comparison to the efforts of competitors in Young’s first two games, their nine combined fouls show just how tough it is to guard Young as he races around the court.
This three-game stretch to start the season has cemented Young as Atlanta’s franchise player, ahead of his young teammates. Third-year, big man John Collins and rookie forwards Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter are all talented players with great potential, but none of them impact the game quite as much as Young. When he’s on the court, the offense just seems to run smoother.
Although it’s too early in the season to determine Young’s statistical value on the Hawks, it’s easy to tell that he is a special player that elevates his team to new heights. With Young on the floor, the Hawks are running and gunning, and each player is always moving because they know that if there’s a window for a pass, Young will thread the ball through it. When he is off the court, the offense is much slower and lacks an identity. It hesitates and turns the ball over far more than it should while failing to be as effective as when Young is in the game.
Before the draft, sports analysts called Young “the next Steph Curry,” the Golden State Warriors MVP point guard who fundamentally changed the league with his shooting prowess. But early into his second season, it’s becoming clear that he is not the next Curry.
He is the first Trae Young.