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NBA

Trae Young Is The Best Enemy

Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

There is something about Trae Young. Trevor Ariza was not the first person to notice it, but he did perhaps notice it most primally. It was a regular-season game last February. Young’s Hawks led Ariza’s Blazers by 16 in the third. Young came down the floor and tried to dribble the ball right between Ariza’s legs and catch it on the other side; Ariza realized what was unfolding and enthusiastically introduced his shoulder to Young’s windpipe. For good measure, Ariza, some seven inches and 35 pounds bigger than the would-be nutmegger, shoved him away with both hands. The whistle blew. On replay it’d be ruled a flagrant 1. Young pursed his lips, nodded, and gestured for more. This was as genuine a flash of violence as you’ll ever see in a sport that generally dwells at much lower level of violence (smushing your face really close to the other guy’s face as if threatening to kiss). Here in Trae Young was something Ariza genuinely could not abide. Some dark magicks. Something against nature.

It was this same Trae Young motionless on the court last night, the basketball pinned to his hip as the final seconds of Game 7 slipped away, eyes alive with malice, surveying the crowd as if trying to sort each and every gutted Sixers hopeful into a manila folder labeled “Motivation.” He marinates in these boos. After spending the last month feasting on the collective hatred of the Northeast’s most hateful cities, he might be more powerful than ever. Young’s emergence as a perfect supervillain should not go unnoticed, amid the pantsing of the secretly incompetent Thibodeau Knicks, or the hamfisted futility of the Sixers foiled by injury (Joel Embiid’s right meniscus, Ben Simmons’s prefrontal cortex). Sure, the sport is now ruled by players who have grafted little-guard skills onto bigger and stronger frames. It will soon be their domain. A single glance at the talent funneling into the league over the next few years will convince anyone of this trend. But for now, this postseason, standing among the corpses of the blindingly polished seven-footers (Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis) and the burly all-seeing ball-handlers (Luka Doncic, James Harden, LeBron James), still standing, still alive, is a man who could be fairly described as a “twerp.” And therein lies his power.

Young’s postgame pose was a little strong for a man had just gone 5-for-23 from the field in that Game 7. But the last one he shot was a swoosh from 29 feet, over Simmons’s outstretched hand, which put the Hawks up by six and put the game away. Young controls the show even when his shot isn’t falling—and it really wasn’t, over this whole second-round series—because his bag of tricks keeps going. His range is the film negative of Ben Simmons’s range. When it comes to the pocket pass, no one since Steve Nash has seen this many imaginative possibilities—over, through, around, behind. From behind the arc he throws one-handed bolts to teammates who fling up their hands in self-defense and only realize, as the leather hits their fingertips, that they are open. He has no shame faking a timeout if it means he can turn the corner. No dribble move has escaped his mastery. And that handle lets him glide through the first line of defense, slip into the middle of the paint, and baffle the defense with his preferred Sphinx riddle: “Floater or lob?” Both the pass and the shot are flicked up with insouciant ease, the way Tony Soprano might flick olive juice off his fingertips. There’s no easy tell. It’s enough to fool both the defense and, in many cases, hypothetical dunker Clint Capela, who has hopped all the way up only to watch, at eye level, a teardrop fall through the net. If not for those passages of every game he spends studiously hunting the most wretched foul calls, Young would be one of the best watches in basketball. At least the league agrees, and plans to sort those “unnatural motions” out.

Shifting over to Trae Young appreciation admittedly required some personal growth. In Game 1 of the Hawks-Knicks series, Frank Ntilikina entered the game, ice-cold, to guard Trae Young in the decisive possession of a tie game. For all his many deficiencies, I believed (and will continue, to my death, to believe) that he was the one man on the Knicks roster suited to the task of clamping (or at least exhausting) Trae Young. Reality will have the last say, however, and on this particular play, Young extracted the sad soul of Ntilikina. In a sequence of moves so fast as to be barely parsable on replay, Young went through the legs to get Ntilikina leaning left—even though Taj Gibson had already sprung a trap on that left side—then went back through the legs to slip right and dust both Knicks. Then came the floater, and then it was game, Hawks. Trae Young scowled and put a finger to his lips to shush Madison Square Garden. He rubbed his crossed upper arms as if chilly, in reference to his apparent “Ice Trae” nickname. This image, and the attendant dead sinking feeling, may never leave me.

He would spend the remainder of the series toying with the already precarious mental health of the opposing fandom. There is no phrasing more accurate than our accursèd modern idiom: They were triggered. It’s hard to discern if his skillset or his scalp was more upsetting. In person, “Fuck Trae Young” chants boomed through MSG even while the Hawks played defense; “Trae is balding” suffused the air as he shot free throws. On the internet, Knicks fans likened him to a hairier Goomba from Mario, to a lollipop covered in pocket lint. “I take that as a compliment, to be honest with you,” he said of the taunting. “Obviously I’m doing something right if you hate me this much.” Sometimes this skewed towards dehumanization: Even a pandemic couldn’t stop a cretin from spitting on Trae Young. But mostly it was good clean mortal hatred.

And the frustration was not relegated to the seats. A humiliated Julius Randle dropped a dead ball directly into Young’s crotch. All of this made him even better. After zipping up the bodybag with a 36-point Game 5 performance, Young took a literal bow at halfcourt in the Garden. “I know it’s a bunch of shows around this city and I know what they do when the show is over,” he said after. I had much more fun watching Trae Young take his show off-Broadway, to Philly, where he mean-mugged and did pushups upon hitting the floor and pursued every petty beef available. And the show is not over. Maybe his defensive weakness has been overstated as a postseason risk; maybe it’s just that Tom Thibodeau and Doc Rivers are not smart enough coaches to exploit his presence on the court. But now there is a damn Trae Young in the Eastern Conference Final, and the haters will be legion.