Trae Young Pushes Atlanta Hawks into Uncharted Territory with a Rare Trait

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Prior to the start of the postseason, the fifth-seeded Atlanta Hawks had the 12th-best odds to win the title. After beating the New York Knicks and the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers, they’re now up 1-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals following a 116-113 win over the Milwaukee Bucks.

And though he’s often the smallest player on the floor, Trae Young (and more specifically, the audacity of Trae Young) is the biggest reason why the Hawks have reached this point.

On Wednesday, Young started his third straight series as an underdog. He’s now 3-0 (for his career, by the way) in Game 1s.

Against the Bucks, he looked like the next link in an evolutionary chain that includes multi-time MVPs Steve Nash and Stephen Curry. When he’s on, as he was in Game 1, Young appears to have the confidence and range of Curry, as well as the vision and willingness to distribute of Nash.

The result was a truly unprecedented line for a Conference Finals debut: 48 points (on 17-of-34 shooting), 11 assists and seven rebounds.

StatMuse @statmuse

Most points in Conference Finals debut:

48 — Trae Young
47
46
45
44
43
42
41 — Amar’e Stoudemire
40 — Kevin Durant
40 — Devin Booker

He is 22 years old. https://t.co/5bKkgYayKK

And beyond the numbers, Young continued showing himself to be perhaps this postseason’s most confident player.

In the third quarter, he prompted LeBron James to tweet, “CHILL THE HELL OUT MAN!!” between a snowflake emoji and five laughing faces. After truly losing one of the game’s most respected defenders, Jrue Holiday, with a crossover, Young gathered himself with a shimmy before hitting a three.

Yes, a shimmy.

Ballislife.com @Ballislife

TRAE YOUNG in GM1 ❄️

48 PTS (playoff high)
17/34 FG
11 AST
7 REB
1 SHIMMY https://t.co/cent1XAqhw https://t.co/Fn7Nlbqhem

“I had a lot of time,” Young said after the game. “I got a little second to take a deep breath.”

The explanation was understated. His game was not.

Earlier in the frame, he went off the glass for an in-traffic alley-oop to John Collins.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

JOHN COLLINS UNREAL OFF-THE BACKBOARD LOB ??? https://t.co/kLUkC3l5fJ

The latter tapping his head after the finish has become a common sight in this postseason. Atlanta’s bigs, Collins and Clint Capela, have been spoon-fed scores of dunks (though Collins obviously deserves plenty of the credit on this one) from Young. Their repeated celebration could go down as a lasting image of this playoff run.

“They used to do that in practice and I told them no way they’d pull that off,” Kent Bazemore tweeted. “They do it in the EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS”

All the capital letters around the internet somehow feel appropriate. It was an awe-inspiring game from Young that is now a part of an awe-inspiring playoff run.

He trails only Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard in 2021 postseason wins over replacement player. He’s averaging 30.5 points and 10.5 assists and is on pace for the fifth 30-10 playoff stretch in NBA history.

And perhaps most importantly, all the points, assists, long-range bombs and audacious feeds are leading to wins. Wednesday, the Hawks secured their first Conference Finals win since moving to Atlanta.

“I believe that win makes this Atlanta Hawks team the most successful in franchise history,” Hawks.com’s Kevin Chouinard tweeted. “That’s open to interpretation, but if you’re going by playoff wins, this one is it.”

Young has taken Atlanta somewhere that Dominique Wilkins never could. He’s gotten further than the 60-win Hawks of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. And he’s doing it in a distinctly Trae way.

He doesn’t shy away from what makes him unique. The shimmying is reminiscent of Curry. Shushing opposing crowds shows he’s not afraid of playing the villain, a la LeBron in his second season with the Miami Heat. Deploying his “ice cold” celebration in Madison Square Garden showed he’s not afraid of big stages.

Ray Young @rayfordyoung

I say this in the most HUMBLE way possible. But @TheTraeYoung has been doing this since the 8th grade…he’s just on a bigger stage now & he has always had coaches that would “LET HIM BE HIM!” I’m not surprised cause I’ve seen this ALL B4?❤️?? go @ATLHawks

Everything Young does beyond the box score is fueling a superstar turn. It’s like you can see him assuming Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Mentality in real time.

And even if the Bucks turn this series around and represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals (FiveThirtyEight’s projection system still favors them), this is a run we won’t soon forget.

For most of his first three seasons, Young couldn’t escape the comparisons to Luka Doncic. The two were, of course, traded for each other on draft night. And while Luka had ascended to perennial MVP candidate in Year 2, Young was largely surrounded by criticism.

If this postseason has reminded us of anything, it’s that old axiom: Comparison is the thief of joy.

The No. 1 pick from that draft, Deandre Ayton is still playing. His Phoenix Suns are the statistical favorites to win it all. Young continues to defy expectations, game after game and round after round.

The 2018 draft class has a chance to be an all-timer. It also gave us Jaren Jackson Jr., Mikal Bridges, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Michael Porter Jr., to name a few more potential stars.

And even in that ultra-talented crop of players, Young is unique in his audacity. Maybe we should’ve realized it on draft night, when he wore a suit with shorts. A teenager with that kind of confidence doesn’t come around often, even among NBA players.

If we didn’t realize it then, after his first postseason—complete with 30-footers, shushing, shimmying and off-the-glass dimes—we certainly do now.

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