Trae Young continues to prove people wrong.
On Wednesday night, he will lead his Atlanta Hawks onto the floor against Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, a stage many thought Young would never feature on.
But this isn’t uncharted territory for Young, who has been doubted at every step along the way in his basketball career.
Rated a 5-star recruit in high school, Young was ranked behind players like Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Hamidou Diallo. Deciding to stay in Norman and play for his hometown Oklahoma Sooners, the point guard was tabbed as a player who would likely need to spend two years at OU before heading to the NBA.
Then, he took college basketball by storm.
Head coach Lon Kruger handed over the keys to the star and Oklahoma’s explosive offense helped the Sooners rise all the way to No. 4 in the AP Poll by mid-January. But a mid-season collapse led to Young and the Sooners limping into the postseason, eventually getting ousted by Rhode Island in an overtime thriller in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Young set an NCAA single-game record with 22 assists, and became the first player in NCAA history to lead Division I in both scoring and assists
After just one season at Oklahoma, Young made the correct decision to enter the NBA Draft, but still questions about his ability to hold up with the physicality of the NBA remained.
Travis Schlenk, the General Manger of the Atlanta Hawks and a former member of the Golden State Warriors front office, disagreed however. Schlenk saw the potential to get another star the caliber of Steph Curry, and even got a little extra draft capital in the process.
The Dallas Mavericks had fallen in love with Luka Doncic, and so the Hawks took the European star with the No. 3-overall pick, trading him to Dallas in return for Young and a future first round pick. The draft night trade would be a move that will forever link Doncic and Young, and for the first two years of their career it seemed as if Dallas made the correct call.
While the Hawks toiled at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, not even earning an invite to last year’s Orlando Bubble when the NBA season restarted, Doncic dazzled. Exchanging blows with the more talented Los Angeles Clippers, the Mavericks failed to get out of the first round, falling 4-2.
The 2020 season wasn’t for naught, as Young was named to the All-Star team, and in the offseason, the Hawks surrounded him with the players necessary to make a playoff run.
Adding Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanovic, as well as acquiring Clint Capela and Lou Williams at back-to-back trade deadlines, Young led the Hawks to the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
And as the pressure grew, so did Young’s impact for the Hawks.
The third-year star silenced Madison Square Garden and ousted the upstart New York Knicks 4-1, delivering the Hawks their first playoff series win since 2016. Young entered rarified air in the process, joining Michael Jordan as the only players to log three consecutive 30-point performances in the playoffs on the road in Madison Square Garden.
In the second round, Young repeated his heroics, this time matching up against one of the best defenders in the NBA in Ben Simmons. Battling to victory in Game 7 over the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, Young now has his Hawks four wins away from one of the most unlikely runs to the NBA Finals in recent history.
Throughout his first playoff run, Young has averaged 29.1 points and 10.4 assists per game, and is getting to the free throw line 8.8 times per contest, all while embracing his role as public enemy No. 1 to both the New York and Philadelphia fan bases.
Regardless of how Atlanta fares in the Eastern Conference Finals, Young has already proven he can be the centerpiece of a winning team (while Doncic is still looking for his first playoff series victory), and will only grow from his experience gained this year.
Young is clearly more than a flash in the pan, and the NBA will have to take notice of that for years to come.