For a minute, Travis Schlenk's 2018 draft-night decision to trade Luka Doncic for Trae Young, and the future lottery pick that became Cam Reddish, had the makings of an all-time blunder. That wasn't a knock on Young, who was an All-Star in his second season and made it obvious early in his rookie season that he was going to be a really good player. It's just that Doncic was almost immediately one of the best players in the world.
Almost exactly three calendar years later, Doncic still hasn't gotten the Mavericks out of the first round while Young has the Hawks up 1-0 on the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals. That, in turn, isn't a knock on Doncic, who still has a legit claim as one of the five best players in the world and simply isn't working with the supporting cast Schlenk has constructed around Young. This is merely to say: The Hawks, just to put this narrative that won't die to bed for at least a while, are pretty damn thrilled with how this has all turned out.
Young absolutely blistered the Bucks in Game 1 on Wednesday to the tune of a career-high 48 points. The Hawks also scored 24 points off his 11 assists. Do the math, and Young just did something no player in NBA history has ever done in a conference finals game.
He also joined some GOAT-like under-23 scoring company:
Even if you scratch the age qualification, Young's performance stacks up with some of the greatest showings we've ever seen in a conference finals game.
We're reaching the point where it's not hyperbolic to put Young, who didn't even make the All-Star team this season, among the best players in the game right now. As a result, as we sit this moment, the Hawks -- the Atlanta freaking Hawks, who fired their coach in early March and were a .500 team at the start of April -- are in an honest position to win the whole thing. I'm not saying they're going to, or that I would even bet on it. But they can win it all. This is happening. Trae Young is happening.
Young gets anywhere he wants to get on the court. His defense isn't nearly the liability it was supposed to be. He's a brilliant passer with an elite floater and a sixth-sense, last-second feel for when to deploy each skill. His confidence is off the charts. His teammates have gone from quietly questioning his shot selection and overall ball dominance to trusting him with their basketball lives. His coach, Nate McMillan, who took over midseason for the fired Lloyd Pierce, said it best after Game 1:
Nate McMillan on Trae Young: "I think he just has the skills that these top players have in this league. You have to put him with the top guys in the league."— Tim Bontemps (@TimBontemps) June 24, 2021
Young can still make a coach squirm from time to time. Over a four-minute span late in the fourth quarter, he jacked up four long 3-pointers off the dribble, three of them from beyond 30 feet, missing them all. Those are high-leverage possessions to be firing away with such apparent disregard for potential consequences. Before Young had earned all this clout, those were the shots that people, myself included, questioned him taking. But the Hawks always had a plan. They never intended to cage their wildest bird.
"Trae is a very special and unique talent. The ceiling is super high for him, and you want him to keep developing and growing without too much restriction," Hawks assistant GM Landry Fields told CBS Sports earlier in the playoffs. "You try to meet guys where they're at in their development, and you understand that sometimes Trae is going to take some shots that are going to have you scratching your head a little bit. But at the same time, for what he could be, I think the way we've always looked at it, it's better to let that freedom kind of exist in a player like Trae, and then in the right time try to tailor it back."
Indeed, Young, at just the right time, has landed in almost perfect balance between playing with and without fear. It's a fine line to walk, to rein yourself in from time to time -- when you know you can make any play in the book -- without compromising the very aggression that makes you special in the first place.
Young isn't just walking that line; he's dancing on it. The dude threw a shimmy on Jrue Holiday after crossing him into oblivion before lacing a 3 on Wednesday. He tossed an in-traffic, off-the-backboard alley-oop to John Collins. He's doing these things in the second half of a neck-and-neck conference finals game as though he's playing in his driveway. He's not scared even one little bit. That rubs off. People respond to this stuff. Leaders are born this way.
If you're a Hawks fan, there isn't anyone else you'd rather have the ball as this incredible story continues to take shape. Make or miss, brilliant pass or turnover, you're riding with Young, and not just because he's a hell of a fun ride, as he's always been. Now, he's proving how far he can actually take you.