Trae Young Voted All-Star Starter

Ben Ladner

When the Hawks got off the team plane in Oklahoma City Thursday afternoon, Trae Young headed south, to his home town of Norman, Oklahoma. Atlanta plays the Thunder on Friday night, which gave Young the opportunity to share the most significant moment of his career to date with his family and friends – all of whom gathered to find out whether Young, in just his second NBA season, would start in the All-Star game. Leading up to the announcement, which aired on TNT, Young was optimistic for good news, having led Eastern-Conference guards in fan votes. But he didn’t allow himself to look ahead to February 16 until results were official.

“We’ll see,” he said after practice on Thursday. “I don’t want to jinx myself.”

A few hours later, in the city where he grew up dreaming of one day participating in this game, Young received confirmation. He was an NBA All Star – the realization of a dream that stretches back to his basketball roots.

The Hawks’ point guard grew up in close proximity to NBA stars, and therefore had a high but tangible standard for which to reach. Growing up in Oklahoma, he witnessed firsthand Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook ascend into superstardom as they led the Thunder into NBA title contention. He saw Chris Paul quickly establish himself as an All Star when the New Orleans Hornets relocated to Oklahoma City for two seasons after Hurricane Katrina. And he watched Blake Griffin capture college basketball’s collective imagination and the 2009 Wooden Award at the University of Oklahoma – the program Young would go on to lead nine years later. 

During those formative years of his basketball life, Young used to watch NBA All-Star weekend every year with his grandfather, Rayford Young Sr. – whose death at age 50 inspired Trae to donate $10,000 toward relieving medical debt earlier this month. Young aspired to reach the same heights Paul, Durant, and his idol, Steve Nash, had. His path to the NBA began with him shooting on a miniature hoop at his grandfather’s house before veering into the AAU basketball scene, where he teamed up with Michael Porter Jr. as a teenager. When he became a top-25 high school recruit, Young eschewed more distinguished college programs to stay home and attend Oklahoma, and used his lone collegiate season to establish himself as a top-five pick. In February, the 21-year-old will make his All-Star debut at a younger age than Nash, Paul, and Westbrook did, and with less NBA experience under his belt than Durant had in his first All-Star game.

“I didn’t necessarily know it would be in my second year,” Young said. “For me being able to watch it and tune in in Oklahoma and being able to play in Oklahoma City tomorrow, that’s a dream.”

His case as a starter is far from iron-clad in a field of many deserving but flawed candidates. Detractors in both the NBA fanbase and the media have fairly pointed out the fact that he is among the very worst defensive players in the NBA and that the Hawks have won only 10 games while Kemba Walker’s Celtics, Kyle Lowry’s Raptors, and Ben Simmons’ 76ers might be in championship contention. Penalizing Young for those particular shortcomings is perfectly valid, and any of the four guards would have been worthy choices in the starting lineup. But while some criticism of his play is fair, it’s hard to pin much of the Hawks’ trouble entirely on Young, who has heard the murmurings that he doesn’t deserve to be an All Star because of Atlanta’s record – that he puts up empty stats for the worst team in the league.

“I think if our team was even in the middle of the pack or just not at the very bottom right now, then I’d be for sure a lock for being an All Star,” he said. “For me, I don’t play for those types of accolades. I play to win, and I know those accolades will follow. So that’s how I approach it. It definitely frustrates me that I couldn’t help our team win a little bit more, but that’s how it is.”

In most situations, Young’s individual play would likely bear more fruit than it has in Atlanta this season. His shortcomings must be weighed against the qualities that make him an elite offensive player. He commands a defense’s undivided attention – in part because of how few threats he has around him but also out of fear for the pain he can inflict if left open. His shooting bends defenses in ways only Steph Curry, Damian Lillard, and James Harden can; Young is a more creative and versatile passer than any of the three. Only Lillard has made more shots from at least 28 feet this season, and Young shoots a meaningfully higher percentage on those looks. His 3-point attempts are among the most difficult in the league, yet he has hit 37 percent of them on over nine attempts per game. He has a deadly floater – a crucial shot for him given his size and how often opponents try to run him off the 3-point line.

“He can score at all three levels, he’s got a good handle, and he can shoot,” Fred VanVleet said after the Raptors played in Atlanta earlier this year. “And he has the freedom and confidence to take and make shots. So it takes your full attention, not only as the guy guarding him, but the entire team.”

Young’s teammates benefit from that attention. He creates over 21 points per game via assist – the fifth-highest mark in the NBA – and Atlanta’s effective field goal percentage improves by seven points with him on the floor compared to when he sits. The Hawks have scored just 94.8 points per 100 possessions with Young off the floor this season, and his 29.2 points and 8.6 assists only begin to capture his value.

“The stuff he’s doing, the numbers he’s put up, the way he’s playing, the way people scheme and gameplan for him – you don’t do that to a regular player,” Lloyd Pierce said. “You do that to All Stars. You do that to elite players.”

Even under the weight of the third-heaviest usage rate in the NBA, Young is one of the league’s most efficient high-volume scorers. As the Hawks dealt with injuries, suspensions, and dry spells, it only foisted more responsibility and attention onto Young, yet he has significantly improved both his production and efficiency since his rookie year while rounding out most every conceivable offensive hole in his game. He’s more accurate from every area of the floor and has grown more adept at drawing fouls, and thus has risen into a rarified echelon of efficiency. And while a flair for the dramatic doesn’t necessarily drive on-court value, Young’s proclivity for highlight plays – unfathomably deep 3-pointers, ingenious ball-handling maneuvers, effortless no-look passes – undoubtedly fit into the All-Star game’s up-tempo, entertainment-forward style of play.

“The thing about the All Star game is it’s a show,” Young said. “It think every year there’s 140-plus points that go up. You see a lot of lobs, you see full-court lobs, you see guys shooting from halfcourt. It’s just a show. It’s something special for the fans.”

On Friday, Young will take the court as an All Star-elect for the first time – the same court that introduced him to so many NBA stars that came before him. It’s only one step in what he and the Hawks hope will be a long career full of greater accomplishments. But for the time being, Young can stop and appreciate how far he has come since he watched Durant, Westbrook, and so many more, dreaming of becoming a star in his own right. He’s one of them now.