The Wednesday night clash between the Atlanta Hawks and Dallas Mavericks didn't just result in a 111-104 comeback victory for Atlanta. It also highlighted the glaring differences between two of the league's more promising backcourt talents as they went head-to-head for the first time in their professional careers—differences that stem not just from their current styles, but also their histories.
Trae Young, who entered Wednesday's contest pacing the Hawks in both scoring and assists, skyrocketed up draft boards after a stellar freshman campaign with the Oklahoma Sooners. Before that, he was a great-but-not-quite-elite high school prospect who ranked 23rd in his class according to both ESPN and 247Sports.com. This sudden ascent, which culminated in him coming off the board at No. 5 overall in the 2018 NBA draft, stands in stark contrast to Luka Doncic's gradual, lengthy rise.
The Slovenian standout, who the Hawks selected at No. 3 before shipping him to the Mavericks for Young and a lightly protected first-rounder, made his professional debut for Real Madrid as a 13-year-old. He made it to the senior team three years later, and then finished off his Euroleague career by becoming the youngest MVP in league history, earning a title for his troops and winning Final Four MVP in the process.
Young and Doncic may have traversed separate paths, but they still converged in the same place on Oct. 24—the newly renamed State Farm Arena, which played host to both lottery point guards as they attempted to keep making positive initial impressions in the Association.
Their final lines aren't all that matters. Not in a game this early in the season. Not for two youngsters who are still getting their feet wet in the NBA. Not when one-contest samples allow for so much volatility.
As such, we're less interested in Doncic's 21 points, nine rebounds, two assists, one steal and one block, which came on 7-of-18 shooting from the field and 2-of-9 from deep. Ditto for Young's 17 points, five assists, four rebounds and a block as he knocked down only three of his 12 field-goal attempts and made one triple.
What concerns us most is the continued discrepancies in the two disparate styles, as early returns have made it abundantly clear we're dealing with a steady, consistent contributor who's already adjusting to the NBA and a boom-or-bust guard capable of exploding like few other first-year players.
The Trae Young Roller Coaster
Despite his shooting struggles in the Hawks' only scheduled appearance on national television—the brickfest was broadcasted to the world on ESPN—Young has already proved he belongs.
His 35-point, 11-rebound eruption against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday showcased the full extent of his skills, which include shots from well outside the three-point arc and precision passing on the move. He demonstrated his ability to create space against tight defense, and he was able to maintain a simultaneous focus on calling his own number and hitting his teammates right between the numbers.
Even though his shots weren't falling Wednesday and the Mavericks bodied him up in the lane on multiple occasions, the latter skill carried over. Young will need to develop a floater to maximize his offensive arsenal and keep defenses honest, but his distributing is so precise that he can still make a positive impact while misfiring.
Young kicked off the night with a drive-and-kick feed to Vince Carter, who was spotting up on the perimeter, and he continued to regularly find open teammates, whether he was looking for them along the arc or navigating tight spaces with his body and the ball. Still, no dime was prettier than the half-court skip that caught Taurean Prince by surprise:
You're never going to forget Young is on the floor when he's registering minutes. He's heavily involved in Atlanta's schemes (particularly in crunch-time situations, where he made a few key shots against the Mavericks), and he looks comfortable operating as the primary—and sometimes sole—playmaker. But as he adjusts to the athletic superiority of the NBA, which often hinders smaller players who struggle to generate airspace, that's both a blessing and a curse.
Plays like this are blessings:
On the flip side, the times he gets swatted in traffic fall into the other category:
The former Sooner has a short memory. He doesn't let one mistake deter him from attempting something risky the next trip down the floor. And while that can lead to explosive outings like his showcase against the Cavaliers, it'll inevitably usher in duds throughout his rookie campaign. He's swinging for the fences with a mentality the Hawks are already trying to dial back:
This message should sink in over the course of the season, but that mental shift is difficult for a young point guard coming off a collegiate campaign in which he meant everything to his school. If Young wasn't creating buckets for himself and others, Oklahoma wasn't going to be competitive.
The NBA is a different beast.
Maybe the forcing-the-issue process will work, with the good showings outweighing the poor performances while Young tracks toward an All-Rookie nod at the end of 2018-19. Maybe he'll endure more struggles and enter 2019-20 still looking to prove himself, albeit in a different manner. Either way, he's sure to make the ride both fun and often unforgettable.
Luka Doncic's 'Feel for the Game'
That's a phrase you're going to hear frequently in discussions centered around Doncic, and it's a credit to his style. He carries himself like a player who understands his talents and limitations. If Young is looking to knock the ball out of the park when granted opportunities, the Mavericks floor general is seeking to reach first base by any manner necessary.
Sometimes, he'll show off his passing vision, complete with fakes and changes of pace that open up larger windows and easier opportunities for his compatriots. Other times, he'll take advantage of his wide-ranging scoring tools, which don't include Young's deep three-point range but feature so many other weapons.
Wednesday night fell into the second category, particularly during a 12-point first quarter that gave the initial impression Doncic was the one gearing up for an explosive night.
Take a gander at the step-back triple—a pet move that Doncic may even use too frequently at this early stage of his NBA career:
Now, focus on his ability to create space in herky-jerky fashion and finish plays creatively, as demonstrated on the second and third buckets in the clip below:
Doncic is a unique entity because of his 6'7" frame and well-rounded skill set, but he channels elements of other players. You can see some James Harden in his ability to attack the basket and stop on a dime, evaluating the crowd of bodies around him in a split-second. You can see peak Jeff Teague and Tony Parker in his touch shooting floaters a bit earlier than defenders expect, even if he often uses size rather than speed to get open.
And as SB Nation's Mike Prada detailed, his "last step" gives him a different kind of athleticism that he's already quite comfortable using:
"But the difference between Doncic and other players that do have elite first steps is Doncic actually takes the term literally. Like a boxer that sets up his opponents with jabs before delivering the killer blow, Doncic uses the first step to get himself in position to drop his version of a right hook. Let's call it his last step.
"Doncic's last step packs one hell of a punch."
The 19-year-old is already a seasoned professional, boasting plenty of experience competing against men far longer in the tooth and suiting up in high-stakes games for both Real Madrid and Slovenia. So while he might fade into the background on some possessions in a way you don't see from Young, he's also demonstrating consistent improvement and showing a better understanding of his own skill set during the opening salvo of his NBA career.
Sure, he's going to struggle some nights. He went 5-of-16 from the field in his season opener against the Phoenix Suns and then followed that up with six cough-ups against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Even in the loss to the Hawks, which featured a blown 26-point Mavericks lead, he struggled to make a positive impact for much of the second half.
But all the while, he's adding new wrinkles and becoming more confident in his off-the-bounce skills. Though he might not have as many oh-my-goodness-drop-what-you're-doing-and-turn-on-SportsCenter nights, he's also sure to post fewer outings during which he's a detriment to his running mates.
This was only the first career meeting of the two intriguing guards, and they'll clash again on Dec. 12 in the Lone Star State, hopefully with superior shooting lines that give better indications of their true talent levels. By the end of the season, either could be the front-runner for Rookie of the Year. They might both be in the thick of the award race.
Getting there, however, will take the two down different paths. That's no surprise for a pair of point guards who arrived at this first clash with remarkably divergent backstories.
Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.