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How Trae Young has elevated his game since villain-themed playoffs

After eliminating New York in the playoffs last season, Trae Young is back in the Big Apple as a more polished version of himself.

Hawks star Trae Young silenced Madison Square Garden during the first round of the playoffs last season.

Several months later, he returns to the scene where there was chaos and hysteria and a bloodthirsty band of eyewitnesses, all emotionally whipped by his presence.

Yes: How can anyone forget Trae Young’s last appearance in MSG, when he put the Mad in Madison Square Garden? Even before his antics that day, the crowd was pushed to the edge right from his introduction over the loudspeaker:

“I’ve arranged for a guest to be in our corner tonight, someone who knows what it takes to win in Madison Square Garden. So please ladies and gentlemen, give a big New York City welcome … to the Atlanta Hawks’ own, Mr. Trae Young!”

With that bit of trolling, Sami Zayn, a noted villain in the pro wrestling world, took the mic at the WWE Smackdown and invited Young back to the menacing Garden mosh pit. This was in September, months after Young gave Knicks fans the finger — the index to the lips, not that other finger, although this was perhaps more insulting — and became this generation’s Reggie Miller when he took great pleasure in bouncing the Knicks from the playoffs.

Young played the heel again, this time at ringside, executing his staged role in the wrestling event ever so smoothly, cupping his ear and waving his arms to encourage the crowd’s harsh feedback, and totally hammed it up.

“Listen to those boos! They hate him in here!” gushed Pat McAfee, the TV commentator.

Those turned to cheers when, after Young reached over and tried to choke wrestler Rey Mysterio on the ropes, he was tossed from the building by the referee. Who knew Young would return to the Garden and go scoreless?

“I thought it was fun, it was a cool thing, being at Smackdown,” he recalled. “I was into it. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but when I got to see everybody again, all those fans, they had so much energy, so I had to have that same energy in return to be with them that night.”

Yes, all in fun. Except: This time, Young will hear the warm welcome back that only New York can muster. It’s all because of what he did last spring to burst the bubble of the beloved Knicks — who haven’t been the same since — and their fans, and the swagger and audacity he showed while doing it. And so it’s on again.

Trae Young … a villain? Really? Well: A showman, no doubt. An All-Star, certified. The savior of the Hawks, definitely. A full-fledged member of Generation Next in the NBA, yes indeed.

Trae grew up idolizing Steph, and Steph is the furthest thing from a villain.”

— Trae Young’s father, Rayford Young

Sure, he did respond to the boos last spring by sushing the crowd after that massive shot in the final second of Atlanta’s Game 1 victory and famously saying “It’s quiet as (bleep) in here” and certainly, that poked the bear even more. In order to stand up to the bully, sometimes you must become the bully.

But the main reason there’ll be so much angst when he reappears at the Garden is because, just maybe … Knicks fans wish he played for their team.

His entertaining style fits that stage. Young is a deep-ball threat who must be checked once he crosses the mid-court logo, if not before. And now, there’s an improved mid-range game. He brings a tricky dribble that allows him to sneak to the rim, or sneak it through the legs of his crossed-up defender. Also, his court vision allows him to spot teammates in their comfort zones. Simply put, Young is among the finest and flashiest offensive forces in the sport, while standing just a shade over 6 feet.

“You saw last year the way he rose to the occasion in big games, could put his team on his back, wasn’t afraid of the moment,” said coach Doc Rivers, whose Sixers were also ousted by Young in the playoffs. “He can hurt you even when he’s not scoring, because he’s such a good passer, with the lob passes, and that makes him very dangerous to play against.”

Watch the best plays from Trae Young so far this season.

But villain? You can’t become one unless you possess the skills to cause great harm to another team, so in that sense, Young is guilty on all counts only because he does not back down from the challenge. You must understand: He’s faced those odds since he first picked up a basketball, a small child raised in Oklahoma with little in his favor except an attentive father — and a natural disaster that forced a hasty relocation for an NBA franchise.

Ray Young, who played at Texas Tech, moved the family to Oklahoma City once his own playing career was over and took his son to Hornets’ games; the team moved temporarily from New Orleans because of Hurricane Katrina.

While sitting in the nosebleeds, Trae caught the basketball bug. Then, and later when OKC got the Thunder and the seats improved, Ray Young used old basketball connections to allow Trae to meet players after games. That fed the desire even more within the kid.

“I was able to make contact with Chauncey Billups, who I played against in college, and he introduced himself to Trae,” Ray Young said. “Then we walked across the hall to the other side, and Trae had the chance to talk to Chris Paul. It kind of changed his life to be able to talk to and touch a real-life NBA player. Then he was able to meet Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook when they played for the Thunder. When he was in junior high and high school and got real good, suddenly these guys knew about him. Suddenly they were meeting him and saying, `What’s up Trae?’”

In the short span of three years, from his senior year in high school to his second NBA season when he had his breakthrough, Young was quickly approaching the level of the stars whose posters were on his bedroom wall. That was a weird if not startling development for him.

Ray Young said: “In his rookie year, the games where he struggled the most was when he played against those guys, because they were his heroes, and still are. But now he knows it’s a job and while those guys are gonna hug him after the game, they’re trying to kill him. It took him a few times playing against KD and Russ to realize that they weren’t going to take it easy on him.”

Young played at Oklahoma for only one season yet became the first player to lead the country in scoring and assists in the same season. His college roommate, Kameron McGusty, knew Young would be special even before that season, when Young held his own against former OU star Buddy Hield in summer pickup games.

“I could tell even on his visit, he just carried himself like a pro and always had a pro mindset, always had a pro approach to everything,” McGusty said. “Everything he did there was a reason for it. He’s not a dude that just does stuff. Coming into college he had the confidence and swagger of a pro already. You could feel it. He gave off the vibe.”

It was at OU road games when Young began hearing taunts — nothing like those yelled at the Garden, but still — and used it as fuel. He was small and shot the ball often and carried the Sooners and that made him a lightning rod.

McGusty said: “He really embraces being a smaller guard, being made fun of, someone that the crowd targets. He doesn’t let that affect him. I’m not going to say he enjoys it but he embraces it. He’s a hooper. He gets in his bag, he gets to his spot, he makes his teammates better. So you can’t do nothing but respect it. I just like how he takes on the challenge. This is the same stuff we went through in college. And he’s like, ‘Man these people feel like this about me? Let me shut them up.’ And he’s gonna let you know when he does. That confidence and swagger that he has, that’s one of the biggest things I like about him.”

Trae Young reacts and embraces the TCU crowd as a freshman at Oklahoma.

Young often put opposing players on the nightly highlights when he perfected the art of passing the ball between their legs. These nutmeg passes led to layups for teammates, or for himself, and made defenders look foolish. Trevor Ariza famously took exception last season and had words, but otherwise, Young said players took those moments in stride.

“When I do those passes, it’s a flow, a natural thing,” he said. “After the game, or if I see them in the summertime, it’s all jokes, all part of the game, we’re having fun, they don’t take it the wrong way. I’ve gotten crossed before and dunked on, too, so I know the feeling.”

Told that those victimized players have families watching the game, he laughed and said: “I got family watching, too.”

Trae Young used the nutmeg quite often during his first couple of NBA seasons, and some took offense to it.

Back to the villain tag: From a persona standpoint, Young is anything but; he’s laid back and doesn’t bring attention to himself other than through his play. And Ray Young, his father, finds the whole thing amusing.

“Trae grew up idolizing Steph (Curry), and Steph is the furthest thing from a villain,” the father said. “Trae wanted to emulate his career like Steph or Steve Nash or Chris Paul. Those guys play the game the right way, carry themselves the right way, and so does Trae. Now, all of a sudden, it’s kind of out of control, and he’s the villain.”

Before the Draft, Young had a workout with the Knicks and sparkled. The club was high on him, but the Knicks held the No. 9 pick. Young was off the board at No. 5.

Suppose the Knicks traded up? What would the New York reaction be towards Young? “Things would be a lot different,” the father said.

That’s New York’s loss. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Young is easily the biggest hoop attraction since Dominique Wilkins. He has turned Hawks home games into a see-and-be-seen event for fans. Around the city, Young is embraced and he, in turn, has embraced all that Atlanta offers, especially the music scene, where he’s a favorite among the rap and hip-hop community.

None of this happens unless Young is pulling weight on the court. Last year, he was an All-Star and took the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals where they lost to the Bucks, the eventual NBA champs.

This season, he was voted an All-Star starter. His vital numbers are up across the board. In a recent four-game stretch, he averaged 37 points on 53% shooting and 10 assists. He’s a wiser player and one of the few positives for the Hawks this season. Roughly 13% of his shots come from mid-range now, whereas two years ago it was 5.4%, meaning, he’s not strictly a long-ball specialist, and that his game is maturing.

“I’m making more shots, taking my time, making my shots more efficiently right now,” he said. “I’m focused and locked in every game to do that. I wanted to work on the mid-range, add that to my game, and it gives me another tool, another weapon. Me hitting the mid-range and getting to the middle is the key. If I continue to knock those down, people will have to respect it and maybe it helps my teammates get open looks. I could be more consistent, but the hard work I put in during the summer is paying off.”

Young has taken his game to the next level and a festive crowd awaits, especially since he missed the first game (sidelined because of Health and Safety Protocols). Basketball fans have long memories, so imagine the atmosphere.

Ray Young can still remember how the arena shook the last time his son played a basketball game there.

“It was amazing and crazy at the same time,” he said. “We’re getting ready to go into the arena and fans were chanting `F-Trae Young.’ I’m there with my wife, my 11-year-old and Trae’s girlfriend. I’m like, ‘Whoa. This might be a crazy game.’ But I thought if they’re going to chant that during the game, they’re going to be in for a rude awakening because Trae feeds off that type of stuff.

“After Trae put his finger to his mouth, the next game the NBA had to have security for my family and we had to enter through the back way because it was even crazier. That was an experience of a lifetime.”

Trae Young joined Michael Jordan as the only visiting players with 3 straight 30-point games at MSG in the playoffs.

Young averaged 29 points and almost 10 assists in the five-game series. In the elimination game, he had 18 of his 36 points in a splashy fourth quarter. Then, in a finishing touch that only an A-list performer could supply, Young took a theatrical bow (as a salute to Reggie Miller, who did the same gesture roughly 25 years earlier), and added, “I know what they do when the show is over” on Broadway. Perfect.

And with that, Young cemented himself a spot in New York’s Hatred Hall of Fame, along with Miller, Tom Brady, Curt Schilling and the Michael Jordan Bulls.

Ray Young wants to keep it all into perspective: Although the spiked atmosphere lent itself to a certain image and narrative, he didn’t fully buy into it.

“The people in the stands who threw some things were just a small number of young kids who didn’t respect the game because New York has some of the best fans in the world,” he said. “And after that series was over, me and Spike Lee hugged each other and so many fans came up and said, `I may not like Trae Young but I respect him and love his game.’ I would say 99% of Knick fans were great. Just that 1%, as you know, that’s all it takes.”

In a short amount of time, Trae Young has shaken free of multiple unflattering tags thrown his way — too small and slight, too much of a stats guy, shoots too much and from too far away, not good enough to drag a team deep into the playoffs, Hawks blew it by not keeping Luka Doncic instead, etc., etc. That slander is history. Young met those challenges and dismissed them.

“He’s not playing for the approval of anyone but himself and his family,” the father said. “I told him to go out there and have fun. He’s always had this little man syndrome where people think you can’t do something. Basketball is a tall man’s game and he’s always wanted to prove he belongs. He still doesn’t feel like he’s there yet, even with the numbers he’s putting up.”

As for being an enemy of the people in New York? In some ways, that’s probably anything but disrespectful. In some ways, that’s an honor and privilege.

McGusty said: “The villain mindset started before the NBA, and he embraced it. I think it’s funny, it’s hilarious, just crazy to see how nothing has changed from college to the NBA. He’s still getting the same type of jokes, the same type of treatment, the same type of hate, but at the same time, he’s just a regular dude, showing out on the court, doing his thing.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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