By Conrad Hoyt
Published: April 10th, 2019
On NBA draft night 2018, the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks engaged in a trade; the Mavericks sent their fifth pick and a 2019 first-round top 5 protected pick to the Hawks in exchange for the number three overall pick. In essence, the Mavericks were trading up to select Luka Dončić, the Slovenian wonder boy who had been on the draft radar for a while due to his emergence for Real Madrid in Spain. The Hawks seemed content to wait for the number five pick, where Trae Young was waiting, and it didn’t hurt that they were compensated with another first-round pick.
At the beginning of the year, this seemed like a foolish trade for the Atlanta Hawks. They seemed like a team without a direction, and amidst Dončić’s emergence, Young struggled. Many experts before the draft believed Dončić would go number one overall, and it would only be due to the ineptitude of the first two franchises (Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings) that he would not be chosen first.
After all, the year before, Dončić won the EuroLeague Championship and MVP for his team Real Madrid before declaring for the NBA draft. His playmaking ability, shot making, size and intangibles had executives foaming at the mouth at the chance to rebuild their franchise around him. It was clear that when the Mavericks saw him slide to the third slot, they were willing to send an extra draft pick to the Hawks to get him. No one would believe they have second thoughts now. Dončić firmly planted himself as number one in the Rookie of the Year race, leading an otherwise futile Mavericks team to a record around .500 in the early stages of the season. From day one he was the best player on the court for the Mavericks, and the entire organization seemed elated to have him. Dončić, in an interview with EuroHoops.net, went so far as to say that it is easier to score in the NBA, “Here [in the NBA] it’s easier to score compared to Europe, of course. In Europe, the court is smaller and here there is the three seconds rule. I think it’s easier to score here.”
On the contrary, Trae Young was a player whose stock had fallen a bit before the draft. Even after leading the NCAA Division One in points and assists for Oklahoma, executives questioned if he possessed the size for his positive attributes to translate to the NBA. Common comparisons people made were that to Stephen Curry, a superstar in the NBA, but no one can be the next Stephen Curry, right?
Well, turns out he’s pretty darn close. Of course, both Curry and Young are their own players and want to be treated as such, and Young has not proven he can be a great player on a winning team, but over the last two months, he has been nothing short of spectacular. With several game-winners already under his belt, Young has shown the flashes of what made him so special at Oklahoma.
He is a great distributor, especially at his size, finishes surprisingly well at the rim, and can shoot from practically anywhere on the court. His play with other young talents such as John Collins has been a bright spot for the Hawks this year, and the fact that they have been winning games lately when other teams are clearly tanking means the team is setting up a winning culture. After a brief rebuild, the Hawks now have pieces to build around, cap space, and a head coach in Lloyd Pierce that seems to have his whole team bought in.
Now let’s look at how the two rookies’ brief resumes stack up. Dončić is currently averaging 21.2 points, 7.7 rebounds and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from three. In contrast, Young is averaging 19.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, and eight assists, while shooting 41.9 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from three. The Mavericks are 31-48 and the Hawks are 29-51.
Rookies often struggle with being the most efficient, so those low shooting percentages are not so worrisome. Both players have picked up on the speed and physicality of the NBA quickly, and both have shown a knack for playing big in the clutch.
It seems foolish now to believe Dončić was not going to be a superstar in this league and to believe that the IQ and shooting Young possessed in college would not translate over to the NBA.
Kristaps Porzingis is on the Mavericks now and it will be extremely interesting to see how him and Dončić coexist next year in Dallas. Atlanta has another lottery pick this year, and whoever is chosen could wind up being a big part of the Hawks moving forward (possible a big three with Young and Collins).
No matter who you believe is Rookie of the Year, both of these franchises are headed for greener pastures, and it is in no small part due to the emergence of Dončić and Young.