Trae Young was in Atlanta when he first put the basketball world on notice.
He arrived in the city as many other names and top talent received more attention. Once the games began, however, it immediately became clear Young had an advantage over some of the best defenders in the country.
Young left his impression on respected basketball minds for the first time in Atlanta, but it wasn’t in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. It wasn’t even in his 2018-19 rookie season campaign with the Atlanta Hawks.
It was when a lanky 6-foot-1 ninth grader participated in the Future150 Prospect camp in Atlanta in fall 2013.
“I want to say like a week before the camp, one of the directors of the organization made a comment and was like, ‘We’ve got this kid from Oklahoma coming. Heard he’s the truth,’” player development coach Adam Barnes said to Peachtree Hoops. “Then he comes and puts himself, pretty much puts the whole world on notice essentially.”
The biggest name entering the camp was Atlanta native Wendell Carter Jr. Many of the top prospects at the camp didn’t have to pay to participate in Future150, but Young’s father, Rayford Young, paid a total of $4,000 to make the trip possible for his son. It was an amount Rayford admitted he didn’t immediately have available at the time of making the investment, so he put the expenses on his credit card.
“I wouldn’t suggest everybody do that, but that’s just what I did,” Rayford said to Peachtree Hoops. “I just remember getting those flights to Atlanta through Delta, and they’re pretty expensive buying them at the last minute.”
Young made one promise to his father as he spent thousands of dollars on hotel reservations, the flight tickets and meals.
“I told him it would be worth it,” Trae Young said to Peachtree Hoops. “And I went out there and got MVP.”
Scouting reporter, and then college student, Garrett Tucker wrote Young had a high basketball IQ who picked his spots wisely on the floor and would be a hot commodity throughout his high school career as a Stephen Curry-type prospect that weekend after the camp.
Now, in his late 20s as the father to a four-month-old baby, Tucker occasionally sits back in his Alabama home and pats himself on the back for his evaluation on the then-teenage guard from Norman, Oklahoma. Tucker puts the Young review up there with Ja Morant and De’Aaron Fox as standout guards he watched from an early age.
Tucker admitted he knew little-to-nothing about Young before the 2013 camp in Atlanta, but he had a feeling he saw a special talent when he witnessed the guard’s skill firsthand.
“(After the camp), we knew he was going to be pretty good,” Tucker said to Peachtree Hoops. “Now, would I say I think he’d be as good as he is now? I don’t think I would probably say that, but it’s been awesome to look back like, ‘Yeah. Whenever he was in eighth grade going into ninth grade, nobody really knew anything about him and he was leaps and bounds the most impressive player there.’”
Barnes said Young’s style of play at the time was exciting, but effective. He called the guard’s performance one of the best he’s seen in his 16 years of coaching.
“It’s flashy, but he’s not out there doing any of the gimmicky stuff,” Barnes said.
“One person wants to get paid playing basketball, the other wants to get paid through Instagram, I don’t know, but that’s the thing with Trae. There’s flashy moments and you’re like, ‘How did he do that? That’s an impossible shot,’ or ‘he’s pulling up from,’ but he does it consistently and it’s against the best defenses that’s there. Some (other players) might make it look effortless, but what are you getting accomplished out of it? What’s the end game, what’s the final reward, what are we working towards here? So I think that’s something Trae has done a good job of, thinking of the big picture of ‘is this going to help me in a game when I’m playing against grown men in the NBA?’ Whereas, (other players might have the mindset of) ‘Is this going to get me on a highlight reel?”
The MVP performance had Future150 evaluators pushing Young’s name out to ranking services, and the All-Star guard said it’s the camp he earned his first four-star rating from. Rayford said he wouldn’t call the lack of attention on his son disrespectful before the camp, but moreso people simply didn’t know who his son was.
“At that age, it was more about how high you could jump or how big you were or how fast you were,” Rayford said. “At that time, Trae was probably one of the top five most-skilled players in his class, but that really wasn’t that important to the people who were evaluating basketball at the time. It was more about if you were in the eighth grade going to the ninth grade and you could dunk, (if) you could run really fast, you were really quick or you had good handles, that’s what was most important. Not a kid who could catch it off a screen and shoot a deep three, or not a kid or could pull up and shoot.”
After the Future150 camp, Young would no longer play as an unknown preps prospect and the evaluators knew who he was. He had camera crews coming to events, games and camps he was featured in for the rest of his basketball journey.
Fast forward nearly eight years later, and Young just wrapped his third NBA season as the starting point guard for the Atlanta Hawks. This past season, he led the Hawks to the franchise’s best postseason run since moving to Atlanta in 1968.
“For me to start my, basically, basketball career and to really take off there, it’s crazy how it comes full circle,” the guard said. “Like I said, it’s just the beginning, but it’s crazy how it comes full circle.”
Young had many other various connections to Atlanta growing up as well. Rayford raised him with frequent early-morning workout sessions and many nights watching the games and tendencies of NBA point guards like former Hawks starter Mike Bibby.
“Mike Bibby was one of my favorite players because we’re around that same age,” Rayford said. “I always had Trae watching guys like Mike Bibby, Baron Davis, Andre Miller played around that time. Those are some of my favorite players, but really Mike Bibby. I would say Trae was more similar to Bibby in junior high because he just played within himself. He didn’t do anything fancy or flashy, he just made plays. He could shoot the ball. He didn’t wow you with any athleticism, but he was always on a winning team.”
The Hawks acquired Bibby from the Sacramento Kings at the 2008 NBA All-Star break, a veteran point guard who had 51 games of postseason experience under his belt. After the mid-season deal, Bibby immediately helped solidify Atlanta’s first playoff berth in a decade. The Hawks made the playoffs every season of Bibby’s tenure, which lasted until 2011.
Rayford also played a lot of Atlanta hip-hop around Trae growing up. The father said he likens music to the game of basketball, and artists like Ludacris and T.I. had sounds of hunger, like they were always trying to prove something to other elite rappers in different regions in the country when they rapped. While Young didn’t have the most size or athleticism, his hunger to become great is what separated him from most of his peers, and his willingness to study the game is what gave him such an advanced understanding at a young age.
Atlanta is a city many young athletes frequent for regional and national youth events, but for Trae, it’s also where he got his professional start and has claimed stake as a future face of the NBA.
“I can’t thank (former Hawks coach) Lloyd Pierce and (current Hawks) coach Nate (McMillan) enough because they gave him opportunities,” Rayford said. “As much as people give Lloyd Pierce a hard time, I’ve got to show him love for throwing my son into the fire and letting Trae make mistakes. He could’ve easily said after the first 10 or 15 games like, ‘Hey, Trae, let me start Jeremy Lin and see what happens, but he stuck with my son. Then, you know, Nate just came on and took it to another level and said, ‘Hey, man. This is how you become a great NBA point guard.”
For Trae, while he’s thankful for the opportunities that have been presented to him in Atlanta, his mission in the city is not complete yet.
“It’s cool we’ve been in the playoffs, we’ve been to the Eastern (Conference) Finals, but now we want more,” Trae said in his media exit availability. “We want to be playing in the Finals and competing for a championship, so we’ve just got to get better in all our games in every area just to take that next step.”