Both Trae Young and Luka Doncic are setting a new standard for second-year players, stockpiling gaudy numbers and milestones from week to week.
A fateful draft-night trade will forever link these two stellar sophomores, but we’re still no closer to seeing who won in that exchange. Luka Doncic and Trae Young set a new bar for NBA novitiates as they walked through the bowels of arenas night after night and secured their seat at the proverbial table amongst the league’s elite - all while not even being able to gain access into the most popular night club in the same cities where their likenesses grace billboards, building wraps and banners. It seems like every other night Young or Doncic deliver a virtuoso game, swinging the narrative in their favor. Since day one the pair have traded monster performances like boxers standing toe-to-toe and exchanging blows.
The 2018 draft-night transaction sent the Atlanta Hawks’ first-round pick, Doncic, to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for their first-round pick, Young, and an additional first-round selection the following year. Since that moment the debate for Trae over Luka or Luka over Trae has raged on. Even the most passive sports fans have heard dissertations for one or the other. During the first half of the 2018 season, if you asked many basketball avid, the rookie of the year debate seemed an obvious choice. Luka Doncic raced out to a sizable lead over Trae Young, gobbling up all the headlines and fanfare. Yet in the season’s latter half, Young stepped up and surpassed Doncic in the eyes of many spectators and analysts. This tug-of-war for control will likely define their careers.
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The two have already amassed a litany of milestones between them. In the 76 year history of the NBA, only 16 players who began their rookie season under the age of 20 have managed to average more than 10 points in a season. Luka Doncic mangled that mark by posting a ridiculous 21 points per game his first year. The Dallas Maverick star also became the youngest player to start an All-Star game in 15 years. He was the 9th youngest to ever play in the game and the 6th youngest to start. Young recently became the second player in NBA history with 10 or more 40 point games in one season at 21 years old or younger, joining LeBron James in a class of two. In only his second-year, Young is averaging 30 points and 9 assists per game. He now joins all-time great Oscar Robertson as the only players to average those marks in their second season.
The situations couldn’t be more different for the rivals. Luka was drafted by one of the most well-run and well-coached organizations in the league. Since his first season, that organization has surrounded him with other all-star caliber players in Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and Kristaps Porzingis and owner Mark Cuban has worked tirelessly to field a competitive team as he always does. The Mavericks have seldom missed the postseason in the last 12 years. Meanwhile, Young was taken by the Hawks - a franchise wading in mediocrity with a string of nonsensical trades and head-scratching draft picks in recent memory. The two franchises are light-years apart.
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Aside from being in two dissimilar situations, they are two totally different players with styles of their own. Young is 6-foot-1 at 180lbs and relies on his long-range shooting to space the floor. Once the defense is pulled farther away from the basket to contest his long jumpers, Young can then dash by defenders with a lightning-quick first step. With the defense compromised, Young can then use his incredible court vision and passing ability to find teammates. If there is a path, Young isn’t afraid to venture into the paint and finish among the trees. Luka Doncic stands 6-foot-7 at 230lbs - a slightly more physical player-- and he is able to more considerably impact the game on the glass. The Slovenian totals 9.3 rebounds per game. Like Young, he’s a master at the pick-and-roll and has equally dazzling court vision. Neither are particularly great defenders but give effort on that end.
Most would point to wins and losses as the biggest difference between the two. Yet, that picture is still blurring due to Young’s lack of help (although the Hawks seem to be mounting a stand with the acquisition of Clint Capela). Prior to the Coronavirus-related postponement, Dallas was currently sitting at the 7 seed in the West, good enough for a playoff slot - while Atlanta is near the bottom and looks to be en route to another lottery pick. But the Mavericks have been in win-now mode since Cuban took over a majority stake in 2000. Since that year, the Hawks have only won six playoff series while the Mavericks have reached multiple NBA finals and even captured a title back in 2011, led by future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki.
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Overall there looks to be a shift in the league with more and more young players getting an opportunity to compete early in their career. Three teams have a combined 13 rookies on their roster in Miami, Charlotte, and New York. Compare this to 2000-01 when all three clubs had a combined 5 rookies. The Hawks alone have played their rookies over 7,000 minutes this season. Additionally, for the first season in NBA history, four 21-year-olds (or younger) are on pace to average 21+ points per game: Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, and Jayson Tatum.
As we begin to see the twilight of his career inch closer - arguably the game’s best player, LeBron James, told ESPN the league was in good hands moving forward. The 3-time NBA champion cited players like Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Jason Tatum, and others. Few can understand the pressure and gravity of success as a youngster like James. He graced the cover of Sports Illustrated as a senior in high school and scored his first career points at the age of 18 against the Sacramento Kings in one of the most highly anticipated debuts in all of sports.
Young believes time will yield him as the better of the two players a decade down the line, telling Bleacher Report"In my eyes, it's not a question—it's going to be me. But that's just the competitive nature in my blood, and I think that's the no-brainer with me."
Just like in their rookie campaign Young is getting better as the season goes on. The point guard is averaging 31 points per game since January 1st to Doncic’s 28 points per contest. Trae has also surged up to second on the league’s list of assist leaders, dishing 9.3 per game to Doncic’s 8.8. It looks like Trae has the edge for the moment but Luka is an inevitable tidal wave, coming at any moment to recapture the narrative. Regardless of who you think is better, the two are both arguably Top 10 players in year two which is pretty spectacular and we should just sit back and enjoy this battle for seasons to come.