Trae Young had just hit the biggest shot of his NBA career, and he couldn’t help punctuating the moment for the crowd at Madison Square Garden. With the score tied and the clock winding down to the final seconds of Sunday’s Game 1, Young easily dribbled around Frank Ntilinkina and loafted a floater over the outstretched arms of Julius Randle for the go-ahead bucket. Knicks fans were stunned. And Young wanted to twist the knife.
“It’s quiet as fuck in here!” he yelled, putting his pointer finger to his mouth to shush them.
He didn’t stop talking after the 107-105 Hawks victory went final.
“It got real quiet in there!” he barked in the bowels of the Garden.
Young’s third NBA season has been marked by backlash. After making his first All-Star Game and putting up monster numbers as a sophomore, this year Young has faced heaps of criticism—sometimes, reportedly, from his own teammates. He’s been called selfish. His defensive effort has been widely panned. And his methods for foul-drawing have drawn the ire of fans and coaches alike.
But Young remains undeterred. After a rough start to the season, he helped lead the Hawks to one of the best second-half records in the NBA. Now, he’s using the name-calling and jeers of one of the biggest and loudest basketball crowds in over a year as motivation. Like Reggie Miller before him, he’s been cast as a Garden villain, and he’s relishing the role.
“The moment wasn’t too big for him. He was ready to go,” teammate Lou Williams said after the Game 1 win. “He was excited about the opportunity, took full advantage of it, and he belongs.”
Big moments are nothing new for Young—and neither is that chip on his shoulder. Young was a talented high school prospect, with a father who played ball professionally overseas, but he was also short and lanky. When he was 14, he would push himself to the front of the line on drills, only to be sent to the back by more veteran players. Rejections fueled him—first propelling him to a scholarship at Oklahoma, and later to becoming the no. 5 pick in the 2018 draft. Sometimes his edge would border on arrogance, but it’s also what made him great.
“I think you learn that with Trae pretty quick,” former Oklahoma assistant coach Kevin Kruger said by phone this week. “It’s somebody that definitely plays with an edge, and he’s always used that to his advantage of being doubted, or had that chip-on-his-shoulder mentality.”
The mindset helped the Sooners become one of the nation’s best teams at the start of Young’s freshman year. During a matchup against Texas Tech in February 2018, the Lubbock crowd chanted “fuck you” at him. Fans spewing ugly words Young’s way quickly became a common occurrence.
“I think back about games where, on the road, the team would run out on the court, and that was the loudest the arena would even get because they were rooting against us and him so hard,” Kruger said.
The harsh words in Lubbock could have been particularly hard for Young, whose father starred there. But he didn’t flinch.
“He never seemed to show it, whether it ever bothered him or not,” Kruger said. “At that age, it was pretty impressive.”
The negativity followed him to the NBA. Young was quickly labeled a bust when he struggled early on in his rookie season, and even when he did show star potential, constant comparisons to Luka Doncic, the player Atlanta traded on draft night, diminished his accomplishments.
Young’s brash style of play didn’t earn him much love in the league, either. During his second season, Young developed a habit of dribbling through defender’s legs. He did it once to JJ Redick in a preseason game and to Deandre Ayton in the Rising Stars game, then tried to do it to Trevor Ariza, who promptly gave him a shoulder to his chest.
He became a master of drawing fouls this season, often stopping on a dime or backing into defenders to draw contact. But after earning 16 trips to the foul line this season in a December game against the Nets, Brooklyn coach Steve Nash, a Hall of Fame point guard Young grew up emulating, dismissed his tactics. “That’s not basketball,” Nash said.
Young’s boldness is his allure. The deep 3s and audacious passes he unleashes are made for highlight reels. Fans voted him an All-Star starter last season, and though he didn’t make the team this year, he has one of the best-selling jerseys in the league. But the same qualities that attract fans also breed resentment.
“I talk to him about it,” his father told ESPN earlier this season. “I want him to stay healthy. I don’t want anyone to cheap-shot him. He tells me, ‘Dad, I’m fine. This is part of my game.’”
Young has even clashed with his teammates and coaches over his play. In January, The Athletic reported that forward John Collins told Young during a film session to stop taking shots early in the shot clock. Tensions with Lloyd Pierce also grew, as Young didn’t respond well to the coach’s tough-love approach. Pierce was fired in March, a move Young reportedly supported.
“Not everyone thinks the way I do,” Young told ESPN earlier this season. “I’m learning how to adjust and adapt to different people. But there’s one thing I hope my teammates all understand. There’s two different people in me: the basketball version and the personal version.
“The basketball version is willing to do whatever it takes to win,” he continued. “Sometimes, that will come along with controversy. I want to bring out the best in everybody and I hope they will bring out the best in me. The teammates who understand that are the ones I’m closest with.”
It’s hard to argue with the results. Under interim coach Nate McMillan, Young averaged 24 points, nine assists, and four rebounds. In his playoff debut on Sunday, he finished with 32 points, 10 assists, and seven rebounds.
“He’s a guy that I’ve enjoyed working with, and he’s showing some growth,” McMillan said. “I think he has to, like any young player, adjust, adapt to the year, the season, the things that are going. This is his first playoff. It’s another level that he has to take his game to, and we’ve seen him in his first playoff game do some good things, so this will continue.”
In Game 2, the Garden was even harsher toward Young. They booed when he touched the ball. Fans coordinated a “Trae is balding!” chant before the game by distributing sheets of paper with instructions. Things turned ugly in the fourth quarter, when a fan spit on Young as he prepared to inbound the ball.
“Completely unacceptable,” Collins said on Thursday. The Knicks later banned the fan indefinitely.
But if Young noticed, he certainly didn’t show it. He scored 20 of his team-high 30 points in the first 24 minutes. He used 3s, the midrange, and off-balance layups to keep the Knicks at bay for much of the game. The Hawks lost 101-92, evening the series, and the crowd let their feelings known yet again when the final buzzer sounded. Young, however, made sure not to leave without a response:
“I’ll see you in the A!”