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Trae Young: ‘I need to perform and show everybody why they brought me here’

Atlanta’s rookie point guard already has high hopes and famous friends

ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks used to have a box-office attraction in Dominique Wilkins. With his acrobatic jams and high-scoring games, fans all over the nation paid to see “The Human Highlight Film.”

Many stars have represented the Hawks since the days of Wilkins — Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Joe Johnson, Al Horford and Paul Millsap — but none garnered the excitement Wilkins did leaguewide.

Enter Trae Young, the Hawks’ rookie point guard and fifth overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft.

“I love what Trae Young brings to the game,” said Wilkins, who is now a TV analyst for the Hawks. “He brings excitement. He brings electricity into the building. He has the ability to put the crowd and fans on his back and make this a fun game to watch.

“The thing I love about him is his attitude as far as his toughness. He’s not afraid of the moments. And that is what star players are made of.”

High praise coming from the Hawks’ all-time leading scorer, who was also a nine-time All-Star and two-time slam dunk champion. While the 6-foot-2 Young will never be the dunker that Wilkins was, the former Oklahoma star is a high-volume scorer who can shoot from deep and cross over foes like Stephen Curry.

Young is averaging 19.1 points, 6.6 assists and 2.9 rebounds through seven games, including three games with at least 20 points.

“I need to perform and show everybody why they brought me here,” Young, 20, told The Undefeated.

While scoring is what Young is known for, the Hawks were more attracted to another skill: his ability to pass like his idol, Steve Nash.

“He got a lot of notoriety for his deep shooting in college, which is obviously great,” Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said. “But his court vision at his age, 19 years old, to be able to see the floor like he does, and ability to pass left hand, right hand, off the bounce, hitting the guys down the floor, that is what really stood out.”

On draft night, the Hawks selected Slovenian swingman Luka Doncic with the No. 3 pick, then traded Doncic to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for Young and a future first-round pick in 2019 (top-5 protected).

Young was the first rookie in his class to reach 30 points this season when he scored 35 points and nailed six 3-pointers during a 133-111 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Oct. 21. Afterward, Young’s cellphone was buzzing with congratulatory messages from family, friends and Atlanta rap royalty.

The huge music fan said he has become close to Quavo of the Migos. Young met Quavo on draft night, and they regularly text and FaceTime one another. Young said he is also friends with Bow Wow and 2 Chainz.

“The cool thing about the Atlanta rappers is a lot of them used to hoop,” Young said. “Quavo can play a little bit. 2 Chainz can play a little bit and was out in L.A. during the summer when guys were doing pre-draft workouts and he was playing pickup. They know the sports game. And they can just rap.”

Rapper and Atlanta native Killer Mike, who owns the SWAG Shop barbershop in State Farm Arena, is also a big fan of Young’s.

“I love Trae,” said Killer Mike. “He’s a kind, humble kid, and he will put a dagger in your heart with a trey.”

Quavo has nicknamed Young “Ice Trae,” which actually came from Quavo and Lil Yachty’s 2017 song “Ice Tray.” Hawks fans have embraced “Ice Trae” as well, while Young sang the hook, Ice tray the gang … Ice tray the gang, during a filming for the video game NBA 2K.

“Ice Trae the Gang because he is cold on the court. We’ve adopted him here. We love him here in the city,” SWAG Shop barber Kimario “K-Fresh” Cornish said.

Young has embraced the city too, even though his favorite restaurant in Atlanta is, of all things, Waffle House. There is a cartoon picture on Young’s Instagram page of him sitting for a meal at Waffle House with rappers 2 Chainz, Quavo and Gucci Mane.

“There is a Waffle House on every street and every corner,” Young said. “It’s so cool. There is different food on every corner that stay open late. I just like that there is a Waffle House everywhere. Waffle House is my spot back home.”

Young has made appearances all around town. He was at the Atlanta Falcons game against the New York Giants. He threw out the first pitch at an Atlanta Braves game. He also took in a Major League Soccer game with Atlanta United FC.

“I can walk down the street and it’s crazy,” Young said. “People are running down the street asking for pictures. Quickly they have embraced me. It is perfect for me. … I don’t think I could have picked a better city to move to away from home for my first place.”

Young, whose father is black, also wants to know more about the storied black history of the city that the late Martin Luther King Jr. hailed from. He has met politician, diplomat and activist Andrew Young.

Said Hawks CEO Steve Koonin: “He is every bit as good of a person as he is a basketball player. That means something to connect to the community.”

The Hawks, meanwhile, are a rebuilding franchise that has lost elite talent in recent years in Johnson, Horford and Millsap. The Hawks reopened their arena after making improvements the past two offseasons that cost about $200 million. The upgrades include a courtside bar, Killer Mike’s SWAG Shop barbershop with a view of the court, cabana suites, TopGolf in two suites and much more.

Atlanta opened this season with a 2-5 record and suffered a 136-114 road loss to previously winless Cleveland on Tuesday. It should be noted that center John Collins has yet to play this season because of an ankle injury.

There is hope for the future with young talent, possibly four first-round draft picks the next two years and new head coach Lloyd Pierce, but winning is not expected this season. Still, Young is putting pressure on himself to bring winning back to Atlanta.

“If we don’t do something special now, I think it’s on me,” Young said. “I feel like we can do something special now.”

It remains to be seen whether Young will have the same kind of success as Wilkins in Atlanta, but he is ready for the challenge.

“Two years ago, at this time, I was about to start my senior year in high school and I was hearing that folks had me the fourth- or fifth-best point guard in my class,” Young said. “People weren’t even talking about me being an NBA player. It’s crazy how things can change in just two years. It definitely has changed a lot.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.