Tensions rise between Hawks star Trae Young and coach Nate McMillan in Atlanta: Sources

A 13-10 start to the Atlanta Hawks’ season has not come without drama, as league sources say the team is managing simmering issues between its head coach and star player. Those issues culminated in a telltale moment inside the Hawks’ practice facility on Friday.

Hawks All-NBA guard Trae Young and coach Nate McMillan had an exchange at Friday’s shootaround that led to Young choosing not to attend the team’s home win over Denver at State Farm Arena, sources with knowledge of the situation tell The Athletic.

While Young was receiving treatment on his right shoulder, sources say McMillan asked him whether he would participate in shoot-around, receive treatment during walk-through and play in the game against the Nuggets. But Young made it clear that he wanted to focus solely on his treatment while missing shootaround and decide later in the day whether he would play.

That approach, however, was not McMillan approved. Since the face of the Hawks’ franchise was deciding not to take part in shootaround, McMillan ultimately presented him with two options for that night’s game, sources said: Play off the bench — or don’t show up to the arena. Young responded by saying he would not be playing against the Nuggets, and the team ruled him out while citing right shoulder soreness.

McMillan told reporters on Sunday that Young did not play on Friday night due to a “miscommunication.” Young practiced fully on Sunday and will return on Monday against Oklahoma City.

For the Hawks, this issue is a microcosm of tension that exists among Young, McMillan and the locker room. The Hawks have held multiple team meetings early this season to resolve various conflicts, sources with knowledge of the situation said.

For Young, whose strained relationship with former Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce played a large role in his firing in March 2021, it’s the latest sensitive situation that has caused many people within the Hawks to question Young’s leadership approach.

Ever since the Hawks took Young fifth overall out of Oklahoma in the 2018 draft, their program has been built with the hopes of maximizing his unique and dynamic talent. Atlanta looked primed to become a perennial Eastern Conference contender in the 2020-21 season, when it had a winning record for the first time in Young’s career (41-31) and fell to Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals. In the summer that followed, Young signed a five-year, $207 million extension, which began this season.

But the Hawks’ first-round bow-out to Miami last season revealed the need to upgrade the roster and, ultimately, led to the Dejounte Murray trade with San Antonio in the summer. There could be another significant move to come, as the Hawks have been in active trade discussions involving forward John Collins, who is currently sidelined due to a left ankle sprain.

Executives across the league who have heard about the Hawks’ behind-the-scenes issues wonder what this means for the future of McMillan. After leading the Hawks to the Eastern Conference finals appearance as interim head coach in 2021, McMillan signed a four-year contract to become the franchise’s full-time head coach.

With the team currently in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, sources with knowledge of the situation said McMillan’s job is safe. As all involved are well aware, Young and McMillan will need to reinvigorate their relationship moving forward if the Hawks are going to become a true contender again. And key personnel around the team believe that Young simply must find a way to become a more productive and positive face of the franchise.

(Photo: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)

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