NEW YORK — A black Lincoln Navigator crept into the parking lot in front of Pier 36 on the water in the Lower East Side of New York City. If the whip was a Google Chrome window, it was in Incognito Mode.
Minutes passed before a teenager and two men exited the SUV and strolled through the front door. At first glance, this kid was just like the others. After all, the National Basketball Player’s Association (NBPA) was hosting its second annual youth summer basketball camp at Basketball City, and kids age 9-17 were roaming the building.
But this teenager — one who could have easily blended in with the crowd had it not been for his silver rope chain and specks of facial hair — had just led college basketball in both scoring and assists, broken records at Oklahoma, and been selected fifth overall in the 2018 NBA Draft as the new face of the Atlanta Hawks. This teenager was the example of what the kids at youth camp could become if they dedicated themselves to their craft and worked as hard as he did.
This teenager was Trae Young, the 19-year-old super shooter and pinpoint passer the Hawks are all-in on as the talent to end a championship drought that has lasted almost 60 years.
“I remember to coming to camps like this, coming to NBA guys’ camps and just admiring them. Trying to ask them questions. Trying to get a picture of them just like they’re trying to get a picture with me,” Young told a small group of reporters. “It’s a crazy feeling that I’m in this position.”
Despite having the weight of a franchise yearning to claw its way from the bottom of the East draped over his shoulders, Young’s ready for the challenge.
“I’m putting all my individual goals aside; it’s all about winning,” he said. “It’s all about getting the culture back to what it was when Al Horford was there, Jeff Teague and they were in the Eastern Conference Finals and won 60 games. That’s my goal. I want to get back to winning, and I know the city of Atlanta wants that, and it’s our job to bring it back.”
If this were a game of King’s Cup, Young was in the hot seat. After all, he was Friday’s guest of honor.
After he posed for pictures, signed about 140 autographs, then posed for more pictures, it was time for the rookie guard to take questions from the crowd.
The kids asked everything. How old was he when he started playing basketball? What motivates him to get better? Where does he get his mental toughness? How did he succeed when everyone counted him out for being too small?
One camper even asked, “Who’s better: You or me?” to which Young deadpanned, “Come on, Matthew.”
Then came the question that broke the ice.
“Is there a team you’d rather play for than the Hawks?”
There was a sea of laughter. Even Young smiled, for a millisecond. Then it got deafeningly quiet, and the rookie’s demeanor shifted.
The Hawks had been a playoff team in 10 of the past 11 years, including a franchise-best 2014-15 season where four starters made the NBA All-Star team and the entire starting five shared the league’s individual honor of Player of the Month of February.
That wasn’t enough to dethrone LeBron James, though, or really come close even at their peak. It rarely is. So after successive years of hanging in the dreaded middle of the NBA, Atlanta begun the slow process of bulldozing the roster, hitting rock bottom with last year’s 24-58 record. It was the franchise’s worst since 2005 and second-worst since the Hawks moved from St. Louis in 1968.
Yeah fam, they were that bad.
Atlanta had to do something bold, and it did. The Hawks traded the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft to Dallas for pick No. 5 and a top-five protected 2019 pick, knowing Young would still be on the board for the taking. They drafted him — passing on the much-hyped Luka Doncic — then traded starting point guard Dennis Schroder to Oklahoma City to clear the way for Young’s development.
This was the guy they wanted, the man for the job. Young was an electrifying guard at Oklahoma where he averaged 27 points and 8.7 assists, and with Atlanta hiring ex-Golden State executive Travis Schlenk as general manager, the rookie point guard could be the Hawks’ rendition of Stephen Curry. Young said Schlenk never makes Curry comparisons when they talk — actually, Young looked up to and modeled his game after Steve Nash growing up. But Young’s deep shooting range, finishing ability, and gorgeous dimes draw similarities to the two-time league Most Valuable Player, whether he likes them or not.
That’s why an awkward, ostensibly harmless question from a youth camper was more than just fun and games. It was part of the beginning of Young’s legacy as an Atlanta Hawk, and all ears were open for his answer:
“I’m in a great situation. I love the Hawks,” he calmly said to the campers. “I was happy that I got to go to Atlanta. This is one of the teams that I really wanted to go to.”
That’s the kind of example Young wanted to set for the kids watching his every move Friday afternoon. He’s confident, but humble. Soft-spoken, but sure of his words. He was only two years older than the eldest camper in the room, and a handful of the kids in attendance may have been taller than the 6’1 Young.
But that’s part of his allure, especially with kids this age. He’s living, breathing, tangible proof you don’t need to be 7’3 like Kristaps Porzingis, or a 270-pound hunk of muscle like LeBron James, or an athletic freak of nature like Russell Westbrook, or a 6’10 unicorn like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, or Ben Simmons. You can be a normal kid from a small city like Lubbock, Texas, who works hard at his game and still make it to the NBA.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think very many people thought I would be here, thought I should be here,” he said. “And I’m just trying to make my mark every where I go and show what I can do at each level I’m at. I’ve done that up to this point, and it’s my job to continue it.
That also explains Young’s beef with his NBA 2K19 rating. While both No. 1 overall pick Deandre Ayton and No. 3 pick Luka Doncic earned a 79 overall rating, and No. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III received a 78, Young was given a 77 by the developers of the game.
NBA players never think they’re rated high enough in video games, but for Young, that number represents another instance of feeling overlooked due to his stature.
“It should be higher. I actually think it should be higher. It’s gonna be way higher next year,” he said, when a camper asked about the rating.
“It’s what general rookies get, around that area. I always felt like I should have been higher. In my eyes, I was underrated,” he explained later. “And when they told me my rating, I thought I was underrated.”
Young’s rating will shoot up if he even resembles the player he was with the Sooners last season. The Hawks may be attempting to build the Warriors 2.0, but these Warriors had their bumps in the road before rattling off three championships in a four-year span.
Atlanta hired a new head coach in Lloyd Pierce, and Pierce told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery he wants these Hawks to “take advantage of our youth” and “hit threes in transition.” That has Young’s name written all over it.
His name should also be written all over the city of Atlanta if everything goes according to Schlenk’s plan.
If it does, it’ll hold an extra meaning for Young. He wants to be a symbol of hope for kids all around the world. You don’t need to have super powers to play basketball. You just have to work hard.
Will that pay off at this level, where countless others have fallen by the wayside? We’ll have to wait and see.
But one thing’s certain: kids all across the country are watching like the ones assembled in New York, hoping they can be the next Trae Young. If he can do it, so can they.