An Old Lesson for Young N.B.A. Players: It Takes Heat to Make a Star
The crowd at TD Garden in Boston was serenading the star Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young with chants of “overrated!” It was late in Game 2 of Atlanta’s first-round playoff series against the Celtics, and the Hawks were down by double digits and well on their way to another loss in the series.
It was a far cry from just two years ago, when Young was the up-and-coming N.B.A. darling who unexpectedly led the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals after the team had missed the postseason three years in a row. This time, Young gave the Celtics fits — averaging 29.2 points and 10.2 assists over the series — but Boston dumped Young’s Hawks from the playoffs in six games.
Now Young, who just finished his fifth season, is facing an existential challenge more daunting than any one playoff round: the Narrative. It once made him a star. It can also take that distinction away.
“I understand there’s always the fiction in the narrative of, ‘That’s the superstar; that’s where he should be; and X, Y, Z,’” Hawks General Manager Landry Fields said in an interview before Game 4 against Boston. “And I understand that from the broader perspective. But for us internally, we see Trae, the human. Trae, the man. And how is he continuously taking his game 1 percent better, 2 percent better over time? So the expectation is really to grow.”
In basketball, where individual players arguably have more impact on the game than in any other team sport, stars become lightning rods as they become more established, and playoff failures are magnified further. Every year, the Narrative adjusts its star player pecking order based on some amorphous combination of stats, team success and factors out of the player’s control, such as injuries. Narrative Setters — loosely defined as the news media, fans and league observers, like players, coaches and executives — shape the perception of a player’s evolution from rising star to star with expectations.
Players like Young, 24, and Boston’s Jaylen Brown, 26 — top-five draft picks and two-time All-Stars — are undergoing this transition as so many other top-level players would expect. But others, like Nets forward Mikal Bridges, 26, have been thrust into the metamorphosis unexpectedly.
“Consistency, your work ethic and your confidence puts you in that category,” said Gilbert Arenas, a former N.B.A. All-Star turned podcast host. “Now, what ends up happening is it’s outside influence that puts: ‘Oh, he needs to win a championship. He needs to do this.’ But reality will speak different. If my team is not a championship team, then that goal is unrealistic. So as a player, you don’t really put those pressures on you.”
If a player fails, criticism often loudly follows. On ESPN’s TV panels. On Reddit. On Twitter. In living rooms. At bars. Through arena jeers and chants of “overrated.” On podcasts like the one Arenas hosts.
By his mid-20s, Arenas, a second-round draft pick in 2001, had come out of nowhere to make three All-N.B.A. and three All-Star teams and was one of the most exciting young players in the league. But injuries dogged him for the rest of his career, and his decision to jokingly bring a gun into the Wizards locker room marred his reputation. With minimal playoff success for Arenas, the Narrative switched to questions about his maturity and his commitment to the game.
Jeff Van Gundy, the ESPN analyst and former coach, said criticism and greater expectations usually came when a player signed a big contract or regressed after playoff success. He added that stars were also judged on their attitudes with coaches, teammates and referees.
Young’s name surfaced in trade rumors on the eve of the playoffs, even though he is in the first year of a maximum contract extension. Young said in an interview on TNT that he “can’t control all the outside noise.”
“I can only control what I can control, and that’s what I do on this court and for my teammates,” he continued, adding, “let everything else take care of itself.”
He is on his third permanent head coach in the last three seasons, and while his regular-season offensive stats are stellar (26.2 points and 10.2 assists per game), teams often exploit him on defense. He was not named to the All-Star team this year.
Young, of course, isn’t the only star with perpetually shifting perceptions. Some players are seen as ascending — like the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who carried his young team to the play-in tournament. Others players are on the dreaded descending side, like Dallas’s Luka Doncic, who failed to make the playoffs a year after going to the Western Conference finals.
Gilgeous-Alexander, Doncic and Young are all the same age, but Doncic and Young receive far more criticism, despite their superior résumés. If that sounds illogical, welcome to sports fandom, said Paul Pierce, a Hall of Famer who hosts a podcast for Showtime.
“This is what comes with this,” Pierce said. “Guys get paid millions of dollars, so we can voice our opinions.”
In the 2000s, Pierce emerged as one of the best young players in the N.B.A. He was a 10-time All-Star, but short playoff runs prompted some to say he was overrated. He quieted most critics when he helped lead the Celtics to a championship in 2008 alongside Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.
“Most players who reached the star status were players who come up in the league,” Pierce said. “They were McDonald’s All-Americans. They were the top player in their high school. So they expect to be in that position. So for me, I was like, ‘Shoot, I’m going to get there eventually.’”
Bridges, the Nets guard, stepped into the spotlight after Phoenix traded him to the Nets in February as part of a deal for Kevin Durant. He was a reliable starter in Phoenix, but in Brooklyn, the fifth-year guard was thrust into the role of No. 1 option. He averaged a career-best 26.1 points per game in 27 games with the Nets while remaining one of the best defensive guards in the league.
But the Nets quickly fell into a 2-0 series hole in their first-round playoff matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers. In an interview before Game 3, Bridges said he couldn’t worry about outsiders’ opinions. “You can’t control what they feel and think about you all,” Bridges said. “All you control is how hard you work and what you do, and personally, I know I work hard.”
Bridges played well during the series, but the Nets as a whole struggled to generate offense, and defenders keyed in on Bridges. The Sixers swept the Nets, the last victory coming in Brooklyn. Afterward, Bridges told reporters that he needed to get better and promised his team that he would. “I love my guys to death, and I told them that’s just on me,” he said. “I told them I’m sorry I couldn’t come through.”
For Brown, the Celtics star, the disappointment came last year, when his team lost to Golden State in the N.B.A. finals. This season, his career highs in points and rebounds have made him a strong contender to make his first All-N.B.A. team. He has always been viewed as a dynamic wing, and the Celtics have never missed the playoffs during his seven-year career. Now the Celtics are the odds-on favorite to make the N.B.A. finals from the East — especially with Milwaukee’s having lost in the first round — and Brown has, at times, been their best player.
“When I was younger in my career, I was the guy looking to make a name in the playoffs, looking to gain some notoriety,” Brown said.
He has done that. But that means it’s no longer enough for him to be simply dynamic. He has to carry the franchise, alongside the four-time All-Star guard Jayson Tatum.
“Part of his ascension is he’s really talented,” the Celtics’ president, Brad Stevens, said. “Part of it is he has got a great hunger. And part of it is he works regardless of if he had success or hit a rough spot.” He continued: “Then I think part of it is he’s been on good teams all the way through. And so, then you have a responsibility of, like, doing all that.”
Players often say they don’t feel external pressure to meet outsiders’ expectations. But then there’s the pressure from their co-workers.
“All of us want to be the best N.B.A. player ever,” said Darius Miles, a former N.B.A. forward. “All of us want to be Hall of Famers. All of us want to be All-Stars. And once you get in the league, you want all the accolades. So that’s enough pressure alone on yourself that you have.”
The Clippers drafted Miles No. 3 overall in 2000; 15 picks later, they also took Quentin Richardson. Together, they made the previously adrift franchise exciting and culturally relevant. But injuries derailed Miles’s career. Decades later, the two close friends, like Arenas and Pierce, are Narrative Setters themselves as co-hosts of a podcast.
“I think going to the Clippers, being the worst team in the N.B.A., we wanted to be accepted by the rest of the N.B.A.,” said Miles, who hosts a Players’ Tribune podcast with Richardson. “We wanted to be accepted by our peers. We want to be accepted by the other players, to show that we were good enough players to play on that level.”
Pierce said social media had added a different dimension to how stars are perceived.
“I really feel like social media turned N.B.A. stardom and took a lot of competitive drive out of the game,” Pierce said. “Because people are more worried about how they look and their image and their brand and their business now. Before it was just about competing. It was about wanting to win a championship. Now everybody’s a business.”
But social media can also provide a much-needed and visible boost to young stars in their best moments. In Game 5 against the Celtics, Young went off for 38 points and 13 assists, stretching the series for one more game. Sixers center Joel Embiid tweeted, “This is some good hoops!!!” and added the hashtag for Young’s nickname: #IceTrae. It was a glimpse of the kind of play that has made Young so popular: His jersey is a top seller, and he was invited to make a guest appearance at a W.W.E. event in 2021.
Rising stars, Van Gundy said, are always going to have ups and downs as they develop.
“If your expectations are never a dip in either individual or team success, yes, that’s a standard that is ripe to always be negative,” he said. But, he added, “if your expectations are that guys play when they’re healthy, they do it with a gratefulness, a genuine joy and a team-first attitude — no, I don’t think that’s too much to expect.”