Luka Doncic and Trae Young are going to be compared to each other for the rest of their careers. Nothing anyone says or writes is going to change that.
Doncic and Young were famously traded for each other on the night of the 2018 NBA Draft. The Dallas Mavericks traded up from No. 5 to No. 3 to select Doncic, swapping picks with the Atlanta Hawks and throwing in a top-five protected pick the next season that ultimately turned into Cam Reddish. The Hawks drafted Young to be the centerpiece of their rebuild by new GM Travis Schlenk.
It was always shocking that any team passed on Doncic, let alone three of them. Doncic was one of the most decorated young players to ever enter the league, winning Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP as he led Real Madrid to a championship in the second best league in the world at 18 years old. Skeptics foolishly questioned Doncic’s athleticism and discounted his level of competition while overlooking all of the qualities that make him great. We had Luka as our No. 1 player in the class from the day after the 2017 draft and never changed our opinion despite terrific college seasons from Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Young.
Young wasn’t supposed to be a top-five pick entering his freshman year at Oklahoma as the No. 20 overall player in his recruiting class, ranked directly behind Nick Richards, Billy Preston, and Kris Wilkes. While Young was still a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school, he was overshadowed by his AAU teammate Michael Porter Jr., who was unanimously viewed as the superior prospect. From the moment Young put on a Sooners uniform, though, it was clear he was special.
Young was small and physically weak and looked like he’d always be a horrible defender. It’s a testament to his enormous talent that he was able to become a superstar anyway. Young turned into a phenom at Oklahoma, showcasing incredibly shifty ball handling ability, his tremendous passing vision, and his deep shooting range. He feels like a huge steal at No. 5 overall right now.
Doncic and Young were great from the moment they entered the league, finishing 1-2 in Rookie of the Year voting with Luka taking home the hardware. Now three years into their NBA careers, both players look like ascendant stars who could one day become the faces of the league in a post-LeBron world.
The Mavericks were eliminated in seven games in the first round of the 2021 playoffs against the favored Los Angeles Clippers despite a monster series from Doncic, who averaged 35.7 points, 10.3 assists, and eight rebounds per game on 48 percent shooting from the floor and 38.5 percent shooting from three (on 11 attempts per game). Doncic got little help from his teammates after two unsustainably hot shooting nights helped Dallas take a 2-0 lead to start the series.
Young has been nearly as electric. He powered the Hawks to a five-game series win over the New York Knicks in a matchup most analysts expected to go New York’s way. Young absolutely sliced up the Knicks all series, averaging nearly 30 points and 10 assists per game while powering Atlanta’s whirling offensive attack. Then Young led the Hawks to an upset win in Game 1 of the second round series against the top-seeded Philadelphia 76ers by putting up 35 points and 10 assists in the victory.
As the Mavs were eliminated and the Hawks advanced, the comparisons between Young and Doncic became a talking point again. It’s the lowest hanging fruit in the NBA discourse today.
┳┻|— StatMuse (@statmuse) June 6, 2021
┻┳| •.•) Trae is in the 2nd round
┳┻|⊂ﾉ Luka isn’t
Narratives can swing fast in the NBA. There’s a temptation to relitigate every signing, every draft pick, and every trade after a playoff series. While both stars put the full breadth of their talent on display on the league’s biggest stage, there remain fundamental truths about the 2018 draft that haven’t changed.
Luka Doncic should have been the first pick in the 2018 NBA Draft
The NBA really should not have needed the benefit of hindsight to realize Doncic was the most talented player in the 2018 draft. It was obvious at the time. While Young has turned into a flat-out star and Deandre Ayton has had a terrific playoff run for the Phoenix Suns, every team that passed on Doncic made a mistake.
Still only 22 years old, Doncic is already one of the 10 best players in the world — and he might be top-five. Along with Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Doncic is poised to compete for the mythical title of ‘best player in the world’ for the next decade. He isn’t far off right now, and he can still get so much better in terms of his conditioning, his shooting, and his defense.
The Hawks still lost the Luka Doncic-Trae Young swap
Young is amazing and looks like he should spend the next decade as an All-NBA caliber player, but he still doesn’t stack up to Doncic. Doncic is simply bigger and stronger and a little bit better despite all of Young’s brilliance.
If you swapped Doncic for Young on the Hawks right now, it sure feels like Atlanta would be a legit title contender that could go toe-to-toe with the Brooklyn Nets. Unfortunately for Luka, his supporting cast in Dallas isn’t as good as the one Young currently has with the Hawks.
Trae Young’s stock is still rising
One of the big questions about Young entering the 2018 draft is how his game would fare in the playoffs. Skeptics thought he’d get picked on defensively because of his size, and were worried his offense could be neutralized as opposing teams put their full focus into stopping him.
Young’s first run through the playoffs is already a remarkable success regardless of what happens from here. He’s proven he’s a big-time playoff performer who has already torched two of the league’s top-four defenses. Young’s size remains a very real limitation, and he isn’t yet the historic three-point shooter some thought he would coming out of college, but there’s no doubt he’s one of the brightest young stars in the league.
We can enjoy Luka Doncic and Trae Young without constantly re-grading the trade
Both Young and Doncic are incredible players who are going to dominate the NBA for a long, long time. The Hawks’ turnaround is a great story, and Young is the engine that makes them go. Doncic is a generational talent who is still learning how to win at a high level in the NBA, and he needs a better supporting cast to do it.
NBA fans are lucky they get to watch Doncic and Young lead their own teams with distinctive styles of play. The comparisons between the two stars will never stop, but they really aren’t necessary.