LAS VEGAS — Trae Young was one of the shortest, lightest and youngest players invited to USA Basketball’s training camp, but that hardly discouraged him from trying to steal the show.
While Young, 20, is unlikely to make the cut for Team USA’s 12-man roster for the FIBA World Cup in China, his participation with the program’s “Select Team” of rising stars is part of a comprehensive offseason regimen aimed at improving his strength, rounding out his game and preparing him to handle greater leadership responsibilities.
For the 2019 rookie of the year runner-up, there are two obvious benchmarks on the horizon: guiding the Hawks to their first playoff appearance since 2017 and claiming a spot on the Eastern Conference all-star team. Young was wary of “setting a bar” for himself or the Hawks, but he eagerly embraced those heightened expectations.
“I think there’s a big opportunity for us,” Young said. “We can go as far as we want to go. I definitely believe we can [compete for a playoff spot]. Depending on how the season goes, anything can happen [with all-star selections], God willing. Once we start winning, all the other accolades, individual awards and all-star, all that stuff will be taken care of.”
Atlanta’s impressive handling of Young has set the stage for such lofty talk. The No. 5 pick in the 2018 draft was installed by Hawks Coach Lloyd Pierce as the full-time starter from Day 1, and he was given every opportunity to learn on the job.
Young kept his head through a ghastly shooting slump in the fall to finish with averages of 19.1 points and 8.1 assists, joining Damon Stoudamire as the only rookies to post those numbers in the modern era. His rare gift for understanding spacing and setting up his teammates was evident early, and his quick-trigger three-point shooting improved as the season unfolded.
“Trae is a stud,” said the Boston Celtics’ Kemba Walker, a fellow undersized point guard and the projected starter for Team USA. “You can tell how much work he puts into his game.”
Young averaged 24.7 points and 9.2 assists in 23 games after the all-star break, production that suggested a second-year breakthrough could be coming.
“Now I know what to expect,” Young said. “How to handle the long road trips and the back-to-backs. How to take care of my body. I’m going to be able to feel more free and have more confidence going into the season.”
Pierce’s summer prescription for his budding star included everything from dietary recommendations to mental development.
As a result, Young has added 10 pounds to his skinny frame while cutting out fried foods and eating more greens. With added strength, he hopes to more effectively handle contact as a ballhandler and to present a more physical defensive presence.
Knowing that his point guard is soft-spoken by nature and a somewhat less-than-intimidating physical presence, Pierce has repeatedly stressed to Young that he will be expected to carry the locker room.
“He’s going to need to be our leader,” Pierce said. “We need him to take this [Team USA] experience back to Atlanta. We need him to be vocal and accountable for our team’s success. It’s a lot to put on any young player, but he wants it.”
After working out in Atlanta in May and June, Young shifted to Southern California to fine-tune the bread-and-butter aspects of his game: shooting and ballhandling.
Young is quick and slithery off the dribble, but his lack of size makes it challenging for him to finish at the rim in traffic. Mastering little-guy counters, such as floaters, runners and stop-and-pop jumpers, will be crucial to improving his overall offensive efficiency.
Atlanta’s coaching staff is also scheming ways to diversify Young’s offensive game. Pierce envisions deploying Young in more off-ball situations, much like the Golden State Warriors utilize Stephen Curry. By mixing it up, the Hawks hope to protect Young from double teams and traps, and to help generate cleaner shots.
“Trae is so creative and dynamic with the ball in his hands, but I want him to be a dual threat,” Pierce said.
As Pierce has reimagined Young’s role, Hawks General Manager Travis Schlenk has reworked the supporting cast.
Atlanta used lottery picks on Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter and Duke’s Cam Reddish in the 2019 draft, adding a pair of big, multi-positional wings to complement Young’s pick-and-roll partnership with John Collins. Young called the moves, which fit with Pierce’s three-point heavy offensive scheme, a “home run at every position we need.”
Schlenk deserves credit for a tidy turnaround, at least on paper. In the two-plus years since he was hired, the first-time GM has identified a potential franchise player in Young, assembled a legitimate core of young talent, established a clear style of play and navigated his organization toward an incredibly flexible salary cap position next summer.
The biggest question at the moment is whether a rosy future has started to overshadow a more complicated present. After all, Atlanta won just 29 games last season. It finished in the bottom 10 in both offense and defense, and Young ranked as one of the league’s worst individual defenders. Veteran contributors Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon also departed over this summer.
Many of the most important players in Pierce’s new-look rotation will be 23 or younger, meaning Atlanta’s anticipated leap forward might still be a year away. Although Young’s potential is enough to make the mind wander, the Hawks’ brass is doing its best not to get ahead of itself.
“Progression is the key word,” Pierce said. “We have to play better defense. We have to play together better. We are preparing our young guys to win games. If we do that, an all-star [selection for Young] is possible and the playoffs are possible.”