Trae Young and Jaylen Brown Feel the Heat of NBA Stardom

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.”

“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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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