It is easy, at first glance, to see Trae Young’s rookie season with the Atlanta Hawks as little more than handing him the ball and seeing how he handles it all.
Young leads the Hawks, by far, in field goals attempted, with 569 as of Friday. Kent Bazemore is a distant second, at 401. Young is the point guard, a ball-dominant rookie and focal point of every other team’s scouting report when they face Atlanta.
It’s an opportunity that rarely comes along for a 20-year-old NBA player. But with the minutes on the floor comes a potential pitfall: avoiding the kind of bad habits and mistakes programmed into muscle memory that will hamper the very development the Hawks want to foster in Young by giving him this time on the court. It’s something that the man sitting in the locker next to Young’s everywhere they go, Vince Carter, knows well.
Twenty years ago, Carter was asked to do the same thing, leading the 1998-99 Toronto Raptors in field goal attempts as a rookie, making the same mistakes and correcting them in real time. So he isn’t afraid to speak up, to serve as Young’s course corrector the way Carter says Kevin Willis and Charles Oakley were for him back in Toronto.
“If I can just give the examples and experiences that I have gone through and the highs and lows of going through it,” Carter said Wednesday night in Brooklyn, following the Hawks game against the Nets. “We have friendly arguments over these different situations of what we go through, and it’s fun, it’s healthy because he gets to share his views on what he’s seeing and I do the same.”
Young pointed out that sitting the two of them next to one another was no accident. Halfway through his rookie season, Young is a sponge. He sat with assistant coach Marvin Garnett, the two of them with fixed gaze upon a silver Mac, looking at the ways the Nets had guarded Young a few weeks earlier. As Pierce pointed out, this is new territory for Young, 41 games into a season, after playing in high school and college, where the seasons end at about this point.
Now Young is at it for another three months, set to integrate those lessons into his regular routine. Guarding against both physical and mental overload is key, something Pierce saw up close from his time throwing young players into the mix right away in Philadelphia, too.
“It’s hard for any player, any coach, any person, to grow without opportunity, and so it’s important for a guy that we’re heavily invested in to grow,” Pierce said prior to Wednesday night’s game. “So you give him opportunity. Like any player, if you give him too much opportunity, you’re going to put him in a disadvantaged situation if they’re not ready for it.”
And so, Pierce is watching Young’s minutes carefully, keeping him under 30 per game. And he uses Jeremy Lin, his backup, as both another mentor on the court and a safety valve. Need a break? Need Young to process? Lin’s up off the bench.
“I think he’s getting the best of both, or I hope he’s getting the best of both worlds,” Pierce said. “Plenty of opportunity, not too much responsibility, and the ability to yank him when he struggles. And things aren’t always gonna go excellent.”
So there is this side to Young, too, the watchful Young, the counterpart to the Young you’ve seen making impossible 30-footers and launching his body into the NBA paint for his floaters. There’s Trae Young, sitting on the bench during warmups in Brooklyn, dribbling a ball back and forth beneath his legs, taking it all in.
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Young has learned to appreciate the breaths in between, the chance to let the knowledge wash over him, all in the service of becoming the player he believes he’s destined to be.
“Any time I see something that’s gonna work in my favor, whether it’s in the game, or it’s the next day, I try to use it to my advantage,” Young said of those moments. “There’s some times when I see it in the game, whether I see Jeremy do it, that I think I can do to help us, I try to do [it, too].”
Pierce sees defensive work as the primary area of improvement for Young so far this season — not just technique, learning the sets, but consistency of effort. And Young is getting rewarded for those moments, too — stepping into a passing lane early in the second quarter on Wednesday night, a savvy move from a young player getting accustomed to precisely where to be on the defensive end, taking the ball the other way for a layup.
Even the failures are successes for what lessons they provide, however. Witness the final moments Tuesday night in Toronto. Young got the ball, Atlanta down one, in the final seconds. He drove to the hoop. It didn’t go down. Atlanta lost. And yet, Pierce sees the process as successful.
“Last night was a great opportunity and I said it after the game,” Pierce said. “He’s got the ball, we’re down one against the elite team in the East, and we have an opportunity to score. And learning time, and score, and situation, and execution, but you have to give him the opportunity. And that’s just part of the growth of any young player and we’re all going to be better for last night.”
In Carter’s mind, the job of being Trae Young in 2018-19 is even harder than the gig Vince Carter had back in 1998-99, simply because of the position involved.
“Because you have to remember, and this is my opinion when I say this, is that when you’re playing the point guard position, you’re playing probably the toughest position in the NBA,” Carter said. “Because not only do you have to be able to score, you have to make sure all of your guys are getting touches, getting involved in the game. And that takes a while… that’s a tough task and he’s learned every day. It’s a tough painful process sometimes for him, but at the same time you can see that he’s grown.”
And so it continues. Pierce doesn’t plan to increase Young’s minutes over the final half of the season, mindful of mitigating his overall stress as he learns. Wednesday was a struggle, and Young, towel around his neck, walked back into the locker room, down the tunnel at Barclays after a loss to Brooklyn, head down.
“I feel like you grow when you make mistakes,” Carter said. “When you’re immediately successful in the first couple months, it’s hard to learn how to outgrow some of the bad habits. Struggles and not seeing all the success you want — that’s when I feel like you grow and you get better at it. Because you focus in on the particulars. You focus in on technique and what really matters. And I think it’s good for him. Obviously, every player comes in wanting to have success and play well immediately, but I think that going through this — ups and downs, highs and lows, really is going to help mature him faster.”
The losing, the mistakes, it takes a toll. But Young knew what to do next. He headed to the Hawks postgame meal spread. And he let Carter go first, looking over what the NBA veteran of veterans was eating, and followed his lead, adding to his plate precisely as Carter did.