Three months ago, the NBA world was ready to crown Luka Doncic Rookie of the Year. It’s more than understandable; Doncic entered the league a polished pro at the tender age of 19 and quickly showed that beneath the harmless look of a Fortnight playing young boy is an assassin on the basketball court.
By December, Doncic was not only the best all-around rookie player, but he was also in the conversation with the best all-around players in the league, and his numbers look even better since then. In February, Doncic is averaging 24.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 7.4 assists. Those are far better than the numbers Lebron James was putting up as a rookie, yet – and rightfully so – it feels as if the Rookie of the Year race continues to get tighter.
That is because the emergence of Trae Young, who has established himself as the second-best rookie from his draft class. Multiple times Young has been asked about the infamous trade involving him and Doncic; never once has he hesitated to say he will be the better player when all things are said and done.
In late January, when asked on ESPN’s ‘The Jump’ who would be better five to ten years down the road, Young responded, “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.”
Like most players who are 6’1”, weighing under 200 pounds, Young has been doubted at every stage of his basketball career. In his own words, he describes himself as “a player who was on no draft boards coming out of college, laughed at for choosing to stay home for school instead of going to the Blue Bloods, someone who needed to prove a point in college that he could play in the league…”
And the doubts didn’t stop there.
The critiques continued coming into the draft. He’s too small to play defense and finish around the rim. There’s only one Steph Curry, and there isn’t going to be another one. He turns the ball over too much. He’s too erratic to succeed. Take your pick; NBA executives and analysts alike were attempting to find any reason for why the freshman from Oklahoma – who led the NCAA in both scoring and assists – would not be able to succeed at the next level.
One man saw right through that: Hawks’ General Manager, Travis Schlenk. Schlenk did the unthinkable to many by trading a proven commodity – Luka Doncic – for a prospect surrounded by questions (Trae Young) and a protected first round pick. The two players had not even played an NBA game yet, and the Hawks were already the laughing stock of Twittersphere.
Unsurprisingly, it took Young a couple of months to get his feet wet. He had an egregious November that saw him shoot 35.5% from the field, 19.8% from three and was far too turnover prone. But what immediately caught the eyes of those who watched him was his elite passing skills.
Young is the best passer the Hawks have had in quite a while and is already among the best in the NBA. He’s currently fourth in the league in total assists and ninth in assists per game at 7.7, which is even more impressive when considering Young is only playing a hair over 30 minutes a night, while most of the players in front of him are all averaging closer to 36.
Per 36 minutes, Young is averaging 9.1 assists per contest – a true point guard that always has his eyes up looking for teammates. There isn’t a pass or a dribble he cannot make, and this deke of the entire Detroit Pistons team from last Friday night shows a glimpse of what he is capable of.
Trae Young dribbles through his legs to fake out 2 defenders and delivers a bounce pass to a Dewayne Dedmon dunk pic.twitter.com/7anC4MmhAa
— The Render (@TheRenderNBA) February 23, 2019
Young is exceptional with the ball in his hands, and every Hawks player is aware of it. That’s why when he was going through his initial growing pains, the team wanted him to focus on what he does best – pass.
So for a while, the halfcourt heaves from the logo were not featured as much. He only averaged 3.8 threes in December, well below his season average of 5.7. But by doing that, Young found his confidence again, and most importantly, the Hawks started winning.
This month, Young is putting on an offensive clinic as both a scorer and a passer. He’s averaging 22.2 points and 9.2 assists a night while shooting nearly 44% from the three-point line. He’s also turning the ball over at a much lesser rate.
Like Doncic, those numbers aren’t really comparable to any rookie point guard. Over the entire season, he’s averaging more points than Chris Paul and Steph Curry did and more assists than Magic Johnson, and Young’s playing in six fewer minutes per game than they did. That’s not to say that he’s better than those players or going to be better than them, but there’s no arguing that Young is putting up one of the best rookie point guard seasons in NBA history, and he’s doing it after a single year in college.
Luka Doncic – assuming there is no injury involved – will deservingly take home the Rookie of the Year award. He’s been the more polished product on the floor the entire season. But if you’re still doubting Trae Young, you’re only adding fuel to his fire.
His resiliency and confidence over this entire process have been as impressive as his game on the floor, and unlike Doncic, he’s just getting started as a professional. The Trae Young era has officially begun in Atlanta.