Over the last month and a half, Trae Young is looking much more like the sharpshooter who took college basketball by storm last year and proving he could be a franchise cornerstone for the Atlanta Hawks moving forward.
In February, the 20-year-old averaged 23.3 points, 9.3 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 threes (on 43.7 percent shooting). Over his last seven games, he’s putting up 28.3 points, 8.9 assists, 5.4 rebounds and 3.2 threes (on 44.9 percent shooting) – including the first triple-double by a rookie in Hawks’ history.
HoopsHype sat down with Young to discuss his rise to stardom, NBA transition, recent dominance, fear of birds, excitement about Atlanta, ability to recruit free agents and more.
When you started dominating at Oklahoma, you sort of became an overnight celebrity. You were all over ESPN and were constantly getting recognized. I heard that Chris Paul FaceTimed you and Donovan Mitchell reached out to you. Stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry were praising your game. That must have been a whirlwind.
Trae Young: I mean, that was such a crazy time for me. There were so many surreal moments, for sure. It was all surreal, honestly. It was so much fun. I worked extremely hard to get to that point, and I was still working extremely hard on my game. To have NBA players reaching out to me and talking about me on ESPN – to get recognition from all these people who I had looked up to for a long time – it was just unbelievable.
What was it like trying to move around campus?
TY: That was the hard part. It really was hard. Sometimes, I’d be late to a class because I was getting stopped for pictures and stuff like that. For the second half of my semester, I actually had to take all online classes because it started to get to the point where it was… a lot. It was crazy (laughs).
People may not know this, but you were a ball boy for the Sooners when you were a kid. You actually became friends with Blake Griffin when he was playing at Oklahoma. Did you guys stay in touch over the years and, once you started blowing up, did he offer you any advice?
TY: Yeah, he did. Growing up, I was a ball boy for the Sooners. I was there during Blake Griffin’s sophomore year [in 2008-09] and I actually went to a basketball camp of his when I was a kid too. As I got older, my name started getting out there a bit more and he reached out to me and told me to stay in contact. He’d reach out every now and then, and I’d reach out to him sometimes too. We developed a pretty good relationship. He’s a really good dude.
I think your game is a perfect fit for today’s NBA. You’re only 20 years old, so you have so much potential and I love your work ethic too. How good do you think you can be?
TY: I don’t like setting a limit on it. I feel like I can be as good as I want to be. I don’t know what [my ceiling] is, but I want there to be a lot of championships involved and maybe a couple of MVPs (laughs). I never like to set a bar for myself, though, because I feel like I can go as far as I want to go – God willing.
I know your family is very close. You’re from Oklahoma and you stayed there for school, so this is the first time you’ve been away from them this much. With the NBA schedule and everything on your plate, has it been difficult not being around your family as much?
TY: It’s been tough. It’s definitely something I’ve had to work on and get used to because I’ve always been really close with my family – whether we’re talking about in distance or just in general. It’s definitely been tough. They’re out here in Atlanta as much as they can be to see me and come to some of my games, and it’s always great when they’re around. But being away from them this has definitely been an adjustment for me. I think I’ve handled it pretty well, though.
I’ve gotten to know your dad, Ray, a bit. He told me a funny story that I think fans will appreciate because it shows a different side of you.
TY: Oh goodness…
He told me that a few days before the 2018 NBA Draft, your family decided to have a movie night and because it was your big week, your parents and three siblings let you choose the movie. He said you chose to watch ‘Hannah Montana: The Movie’.
TY: Oh my God (laughs). He’s telling all my stories! He’s giving you the inside scoop. Wow. Look, I’m a kid at heart. I play in a grown man’s league – I play in the NBA – but at the same time, when I’m around my family, I can be a kid and be who I am. Sometimes I like watching kid movies, like the Hannah Montana movie! (laughs)
It’s your guilty pleasure. I get it!
TY: Yeah, it’s a pretty cool movie! (laughs)
I love that story and I had to share it. What’s been the toughest part of the transition from college to the NBA?
TY: Really, the lifestyle is the main adjustment – the long road trips, the back-to-backs, the 82-game season. The schedule and travel have been the main things that I’ve had to adjust to this season. It’s just so different; I’ve never done anything like that in my life. Coming in, you think it’ll be easy and it doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s definitely an adjustment.
It’s interesting because looking at your production, you’ve gotten better as the season has gone on. In February, your points per game, assists per game and three-point percentage went way up. You went from shooting 31.2 percent from three before the All-Star break to 43.5 percent after the break. What’s changed for you lately?
TY: I think the game is starting to really slow down for me. Now, I’ve kind of seen a little bit of everything in terms of what teams are throwing at me and how defenses are trying to guard me. Also, I’ve seen most teams multiple times; in some cases, it’s my second or third time playing against a certain team. I know more about who I’m playing against too. I feel like I’m getting more used to the NBA game, the style, as well. I think I’m starting to feel more comfortable. I’m much more comfortable than I was during that first month, when I was shooting 19 percent from three. That was just… terrible. (sighs).
It seems like you’re playing with a lot more confidence too. You’re pulling up from deep and it seems like your swagger is back.
TY: Yeah, for sure. My confidence has always been high, but right now it’s definitely standing out – as you can tell because I’m playing with a lot of flair and excitement. I think you can see the joy on my face when I’m playing now, and I think that’s what I was missing early on in the season.
It feels like I’m supposed to be here, knowing all the hard work that I’ve put in. I’m just trying to enjoy it all. I’m appreciating and enjoying all the little moments, all the little details.
I love talking to rookies because it’s such an exciting time in your life. You’re experiencing so many new things and meeting so many people. What have been some of the coolest moments for you over this past year – on and off the court?
TY: There have been so many. It still feels surreal. One of the coolest things that I’ve been able to do was go to the Legends Brunch at All-Star Weekend. I think I was the only rookie who was there. At my table, I was sitting next to George Gervin! For him to recognize me and know who I am, that was just crazy. He congratulated me on my success and I got to talk with him. I loved being able to talk to everyone there and meet so many greats. That had to be one of the coolest moments from the past year. That was special.
You’ve had the chance to interact with a lot of non-NBA celebrities too. I know Quavo was practically begging the Hawks to pick you before the draft and I know you catch up with a lot of the local artists at games too. What have those interactions been like?
TY: All of the artists from here in Atlanta are always coming to our games, so I’ve gotten to know rappers like Gucci [Mane] and 2 Chainz and all of those guys, which has been really cool as well. I was able to meet Jamie Foxx over the summer and getting the chance to talk to him was pretty cool. Jamie Foxx was probably the coolest non-basketball [interaction] I’ve had. He’s so talented.
All season, everyone has assumed Luka Doncic will win the Rookie of the Year award. But with your recent play, there’s now some talk that you may be able to make this race interesting. Is that a goal of yours and do you feel Rookie of the Year is still a realistic possibility for you?
TY: I want to be the best rookie in my class – this year and beyond. Of course I want to win it, and I still think there’s a chance. Luka has had a tremendous year. He’s played well all year and done a lot of tremendous things, and I’m really pulling for him because I want our rookie class to look good. But I think I’ve had a pretty good year as well. And with the way I’ve been playing lately, I think if I continue to play this way, there’s definitely a chance that I’ll win it. Both of our teams are sitting in 12th or 13th in our conference, so it’s not like making the playoffs or winning is going to be a [deciding] factor, but I obviously want to win games as well. We’ll see.
What’s more annoying: Constantly getting compared to Luka Doncic or Steph Curry? I hate to bring those guys up to you.
TY: (Laughs) It’s all good. I’ve heard it so much that it’s become second nature for me. I know Luka and I are going to be connected and talked about together until the end of our careers just because we were traded for each other. And I get the Steph comparison all the time, ever since college. I’ve heard it all and I’m used to it. I know how to handle it by now.
Two readers – Devonair Jackson and Patrick Cunningham – asked: With a solid core of yourself, John Collins, Taurean Prince, Kevin Huerter and others, do you think Atlanta could become an attractive destination for free agents? And, within the rules, are you open to recruiting players to the Hawks?
TY: Oh, I definitely think this is going to be a big spot that free agents look at. I mean, we’re a very young team, but we’ve been playing really well lately and this is an exciting team and an exciting city. I think we’re maybe one or two pieces away from really making that jump and taking off. I definitely think this is an attractive city [and situation]. And I’m not a tampering guy or anything like that, but I think I’m a good recruiter – for sure.
You have unlimited range. I know you put a ton of work in, but a lot of people work extremely hard and put up a lot of shots and they can’t get to your level. This may be a dumb question, but what advice would you give someone who’s trying to become an elite shooter like you?
TY: I think I just focused on all the little details. When it comes to shooting, everyone’s mechanics are different. But I think the arc of the ball is really important. I was always told that if you shoot a line drive, your percentages go way down. You have to get the ball up in the air and get a good arc under it. If it hits the rim and bounces around, it’s more likely to drop in if you got a good arc under it. Focusing on shooting the ball up instead of out is something that I always paid attention to.
Do you think your passing is still a bit underrated?
TY: Yeah, I think sometimes my passing can get overlooked. There’s more flair when you’re scoring the ball and shooting the ball, so I think sometimes those things can cause my passing to be overlooked. But, to be honest, I think [my facilitating] is one of the best parts of my game and I take pride in it. I try to create for others as much as I can.
A while back, you told GQ that your diet was a work in progress and that you were eating chicken tenders and pizza every day. I can definitely relate. How is your diet now? If it’s improved, have you noticed any difference in how you feel?
TY: My diet is definitely getting better. Every now and then, I’ll still have chicken tenders and fries and a burger. I’m only 20 years old, so I can still eat that stuff a little bit [and not gain weight]. But I’ve definitely worked on my diet. It’s getting better. I can feel how it’s affected my body, for sure, especially with the way I’m holding up. Knock on wood, but I’ve played and started in every game this season. I’ve been able to play quite a bit of minutes as well. I think the way I’ve been eating and taking care of my body this year has been good, but it’s something I can keep improving too.
These days, fans are quick to overreact to a player’s struggles and be critical – especially on social media. With the way you’re playing now, you’re silencing those doubters. How nice is it to shut them up and what was it like dealing with that hate earlier in the season? Did it give you thicker skin?
TY: Yeah, it did . I think after what I went through last year in college where we climbed so high [to No. 7 in the country at 12-2] and then lost all those games to finish the year [at 18-13], it felt like everybody in the world was going against me. I think going through that is why I was able to handle what happened this year and deal all of the criticism and negative things that people said about me. I think going through that last year ultimately helped me develop thick skin. With everything this year, I wanted to prove everybody wrong, but at the same time be a professional and always have a smile on my face. I think I’ve handled it well.
I read that you’re really, really afraid of birds. Is that true and, if so, how did that fear start?
TY: Yeah, I’m super afraid of birds. I really can’t stand birds. Any bird freaks me out. It started when I was a kid. Maybe it was from when I’d feed ducks as a kid and throw them bread and then when I’d run out, they’d still keep coming after me thinking I had some more. Maybe it was from bad dreams too. I don’t know exactly why, but I’ve always been afraid of birds ever since I was a kid.
It’s pretty ironic that you’re a Hawk now.
TY: Yeah, I can hang out with Harry the Hawk, but he’s the only bird I’ll mess with (laughs).
Do you have any kind of relationship with Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray? You guys all sort of went through the same thing – becoming household names while at Oklahoma and getting picked near the top of your respective drafts.
TY: Yeah, we all talk. I talk to Baker every now and then throughout the season. He’s wished me luck a couple times and I’ve done the same to him. Same with Kyler. I’m really pulling for him and hoping that he gets drafted No. 1 overall [in the NFL Draft]. It’s crazy to see the type of athletes, the high-level players, that are coming out of Oklahoma – not only on the men’s side, but on the women’s side as well. It’s really cool to see and I’m really happy for Baker and Kyler. We all support each other and talk every now and then.
How are you liking Atlanta? With year one almost over, what are your thoughts on the city and culture?
TY: I love it. I love Atlanta. I love the people here and how much they’re into their sports, how dedicated they are to their city and how much they support the people in their community. I love it here and it’s starting to feel like a second home to me already.
A reader – Shane C. Foster – asked: This offseason, what’s the one aspect of your game you want to work on the most?
TY: I really just want to continue to work on my body. Hopefully I can finish this year out strong and [play every game]. Then, this summer, I want to focus on my body even more and look for ways I can be even [stronger and more durable]. And I’m going to continue working on all aspects of my craft as well.
This season, you’ve had a number of quality veterans around you like Vince Carter and Jeremy Lin. How much have those guys helped you – on and off the court?
TY: Those guys have helped me a lot. I’ve learned so much from being around those guys throughout my first year. And the advice that Jeremy gives me is different from the advice that Vince gives me; they all help me in different ways. Vince has helped with things like being a professional and dealing with the media and handling life outside of basketball. He’s also talked to me about just staying who I am and things like that. With Jeremy, it was more on-court advice like how to navigate the pick-and-roll and how to do a lot of different things on the court. There are a bunch of different on-court things that Jeremy helped me with before he left.
With everything you’ve experienced in the last 12 months, it probably feels like you’ve matured and aged a lot in this one year.
TY: Yeah, I definitely feel that way. I’ve learned so much and experienced so much. I think I’ve aged well over this past year (laughs). I definitely feel like I’ve grown a lot and I think I’ve gotten much better as a player, which is all I can ask for. It’s definitely been a great first year.