OKLAHOMA CITY — Dribbling around young kids in a white hoodie and mint green basketball sneakers during his youth skills camp on Saturday, Trae Young looked calm, settled.
The scene was a far cry from where the former Norman North and Oklahoma star guard stood this time last year, when terms like “bust” and “overrated” were being slung his way with every turnover or missed shot as Young struggled through the NBA Summer League as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.
The look he wears now is one of confidence, the sort of swagger that comes with averaging 19.1 points per game for the Hawks and emerging as a finalist for NBA Rookie of the Year. And now with a full season under his belt, the 20-year-old said he feels ready for his sophomore season in the league.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence,” Young said. “For me going into Year 2, I can now come out with the same confidence I had at the end of last year. Having that from the start will be great this season.”
Fresh off his first year in the NBA, Young returned home to host his annual youth camp at the Santa Fe Family Life Center. The camp, which continues Sunday, was open to boys and girls in grades 1-12 who each received coaching instruction along with an opportunity to meet Young and bring home an autographed souvenir from the two-time Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year.
During his meeting with the media, Young was asked about a number of the topics swirling around the NBA this summer.
On the Thunder’s trade of Russell Westbrook, Young, who attended games at Chesapeake Energy Arena since the team arrived in 2008, said it was tough to see the fiery point guard go.
“I remember going and seeing Russ play,” Young said. “I’ve had season tickets here since he was a rookie. It’s crazy seeing him go. I know people in Oklahoma will welcome him back whenever he comes back with the Rockets because of everything he’s done for this city.”
On the wild summer transactions that have swept the league this month, Young admitted it has been interesting and enlightening to watch up close.
And when the discussion finally turned to his debut season and the next one that lies ahead starting in October, the No. 5 overall pick in 2018 dove into his initially rocky rookie year and expressed optimism about what lies ahead.
This summer, Young is experiencing his first NBA offseason and settling into a season preparation unlike any he has had before. Solidified in his role but no longer saddled with events like the Summer League or the expectations and pressures of a rookie season, he has been able to step back and simply work on his game. That opportunity, paired with the self-assurance he gained over the second half of 2019, has Young feeling better than ever.
Even after overcoming his underwhelming performance in the Las Vegas Summer League a year ago, where he famously opened his career with consecutive air balls, Young struggled during the early months of the 2018-19 NBA season.
There were growing pains, he admits, that came with adjusting to life in the NBA. Not only was he forced to grapple with the very real challenge of facing the toughest point guards in the league night to night, he also had to learn to handle aspects of pro life like travel and publicity. All of it required some time to settle in.
“There’s no nights off,” Young said. “You’re going up against a different type of point guard every night. Every single night is a different test. That was the major adjustment for me.”
His slow acclimation to the NBA robbed Young of the confidence that had made him a star in college and thrust him onto the national stage a year earlier at OU. In fact, it took until the All-Star break in February for him to finally hit his stride, he said. From there, Young caught fire.
Over the final two and a half months of the season, Young was a menace for Atlanta and carried the Hawks with 24.7 points and 9.2 assists per game, flashing the kind of skill and talent that made him a top-five draft pick.
Nothing, Young said, really changed over that span, only that he finally felt comfortable and settled into his role on the Hawks and in the league.
Looking back, Young said he wishes he could tell his rookie self one thing: Be who you are.
For a brief time last fall, he got lost in trying to fit in and that’s where his struggles began.
Nothing Young can do now can change what happened then, but as Year 2 appears on the horizon, that same advice is on his mind. He’s not going to let himself forget it this time, and now, he’s ready for what comes next.
“It’s going to be a fun year,” he said. “And I can’t wait to get it going.”