Luka Doncic has spent the entire 2018-19 season leading the NBA's Rookie of the Year race by a hilarious margin. Even now, as he trudges through more down-to-earth performances amid the Dallas Mavericks' not-involuntary tank, his case has long since muted those from his first-year peers.
Trae Young, though, refuses to bow out quietly.
This idea that he warrants a top-two share of the best-rookie debate is still difficult to grasp. Young opened the season with disastrous shooting splits, while Doncic began his career on relative fire. When they were mentioned in the same breath, it was not as a point of genuine comparison, but to litigate the draft-day trade in which they were swapped for one another.
And even that quickly grew old.
Verdicts were drawn swiftly and unequivocally. It soon started making little sense to rehash the deal. The Atlanta Hawks lost. Dallas must still convey a first-rounder to complete the return (top-five protection this year), but the Hawks lost. Said pick will never begin to bridge the cosmic void separating Doncic from Young.
That line of thinking is gradually starting to crack. Young is playing well enough to overhaul the discussion—for the trade to be more complicated than the initial reactions, and for the Rookie of the Year winner to be something less than an unreachable formality.
Emboldened by a post-All-Star surge, Young's claim to a newbie's highest honor is gaining traction. Donovan Mitchell, last season's Rookie of the Year runner-up, declared him the victor after he dropped 32 points, 11 assists and a game-winner on the Philadelphia 76ers:
Kyle Kuzma, a member of the 2018 All-Rookie First Team, supported Mitchell supporting Young:
And Blake Griffin, the 2011 Rookie of the Year, supported Kuzma supporting Mitchell supporting Young:
Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce is right there with them. As he told reporters, per Hawks.com's Kevin Chouinard:
"He is the Rookie of the Year. ... We rely on him a lot and he delivers a lot. I don't know if anyone has played better basketball in their rookie season than he is, or anybody else over the last couple of years. The stuff he is doing: facilitating, he has played in every single game, and he has performed. He has been our go-to guy down the stretch. I just think there is a lot to be said about our growth as a team and how we've progressed and teams we've beat and how we've played as the season has gone on, and how he has been a major part of that."
Hyperbolic or not, the glad-handing is well-deserved. Young is averaging 25.3 points and 8.8 assists with a true shooting percentage of almost 60 since the All-Star break, over which time the Hawks sport a top-eight offense and nearly dead-even net rating.
Quarter(ish)-season stretches are not supposed to win year-end awards, but they're enough to tilt conversations. James Harden fattened up his MVP candidacy during Chris Paul's 17-game absence with a hamstring injury. He has fortified his credentials 50 times over since, but that weeks-long span served to officially crown him Giannis Antetokounmpo's foremost rival.
Anyway, Young's case is not solely rooted in his most recent tear. He escaped his rut months ago. His rookie year includes plenty of peaks and valleys, but he's averaging 20.3 points and 8.2 assists with a true shooting percentage of 57.0 since Atlanta's Dec. 8 win over the Denver Nuggets, a stretch covering almost 50 games.
Young is putting down under 34 percent of his threes for the season, but he's at 37.2 percent on 5.9 attempts over his last 55 games. His finishing around the rim has cooled, but he's quashed any concerns over how he'd fare in the lane against NBA size. He's posting a top-15 free-throw-attempt rate among all guards, shooting 49.9 percent on drives and draining 47.7 percent of his floaters:
Young's defense is as expected: really bad. Though he doesn't vanish into screens as often, his size remains a problem when guarding pick-and-rolls, and he doesn't make up for a lack of length with good off-ball awareness:
Better instincts will come in time, and Atlanta has cobbled together some half-decent defensive lineups when both Kent Bazemore and Dewayne Dedmon are playing with Young. But he isn't getting any taller or longer. Defensive metrics are probably never going to love him or even sort of like him. He places third-to-last in NBA Math's defensive points saved and dead last in ESPN's defensive real-plus minus.
Still, Young is already so valuable on offense it might not matter. His efficiency is enviable when weighed against the degree of difficulty on his shots. He is ninth in pull-up three-point attempts per game and averaging almost as many contested two-pointers (5.4) as Kemba Walker (5.7).
Somewhat fittingly, Atlanta's crunch-time reliance on Young is Kemba-esque, albeit not nearly as egregious (or alarming). He has taken more than three times as many shots as anyone else on the team (78), and his usage rate (36.9) ranks 10th among 174 players with 20 or more clutch appearances this season. (Doncic is 11th, and the two have near-identical true shooting percentages.)
Young is prone to genius with the basketball in his hands. His vision and passing astound, and he has a flair for the absurd. He will throw trickily angled bounce feeds around double-teams and into the lane, and his combination of bravado and control is a transition defense's worst nightmare:
Size can be crucial to getting off pull-up jumpers. Young doesn't need it. He's shot 38.3 percent on stop-and-pop treys for roughly two-thirds of the season.
Defenders sag off him to account for his downhill attacks. His lightning-quick gather off the dribble and release take care of the rest:
The patience Young shows in traffic is unreal. He doesn't pick up his dribble or settle. He pokes and prods and maneuvers until opportunities develop or he creates enough separation:
With risk comes error, and Young's playmaking portfolio is littered with mistakes. He has a bottom-10 turnover rate for the year, and James Harden and Russell Westbrook are the only players coughing up more bad passes, per NBA Miner.
Whatever. Mistakes are part of the rookie experience, and Young's daring is not out of hand. Anyone who can do this must be afforded unencumbered creative license:
Unless Young's numbers suffer a stark decline over Atlanta's closing kick, he will finish 2018-19 as one of the most productive offensive rookies ever. No other player has averaged at least 20 points and nine assists per 36 minutes in his first season. Only seven other rookies have attempted at least 250 threes and 250 free throws while matching Young's true shooting percentage: Doncic, Eric Gordon, Nikola Mirotic, Damian Lillard, Steve Francis, Donovan Mitchell and O.J. Mayo.
For the "volume guarantees numbers" crowd: Touches do not assure impact. Among the 60 players who owned a usage rate of 25 or higher in their first year, Young is one of 24 with an offensive box plus-minus better than 1.0. He is not benefiting from his influence over Atlanta's possessions alone. His performance has meant something.
Of course, entering the Rookie of the Year conversation and actually beating out Doncic are two different things. That's where Young's rise begins to fall apart.
Doncic's wire-to-wire display has rendered him untouchable. The bonkers step-back threes aren't falling quite as frequently, but he put enough distance between himself and the field to withstand an extended burst from someone just like Young.
And yet, when pitted against one another, they're closer than Doncic's runaway status suggests:
|Luka Doncic vs. Trae Young|
|PTS/G (rookie rank)||AST/G||REB/G||eFG%||TS%||USG%||VORP|
|Trae Young||18.7 (2)||7.9 (1)||3.6 (10)||48.1 (16)||53.9 (13)||28.2 (2)||0.2 (10)|
|Luka Doncic||21.0 (1)||5.8 (2)||7.6 (2)||49.8 (13)||54.4 (10)||30.3 (1)||3.2 (1)|
|Stats via Basketball-Reference.|
Catch-all metrics don't paint this race in the same neck-and-neck terms, as Bleacher Report's Andy Bailey pointed out:
This push to measure Young's debut season against Doncic's is unavoidable. Their careers are forever linked after being traded for one another, and NBA Twitter exists to react. There must be a winner and loser. Patience is a cop-out.
Gray areas are a no-fly zone.
This has intensified Young's Rookie of the Year candidacy more than anything. His climb into the runner-up discussion is not a flashy enough storyline or accomplishment. He cannot be a legitimately good player on track to becoming a genuinely transcendent one and have that be enough.
It has to be all or nothing, with no in-between.
That's a damn shame, because when the Rookie of the Year votes get tallied, Young is not going to win. Nor should he. Doncic has played close to an All-Star level for longer. That he's far less of a defensive liability matters. He hasn't needed one stretch, however ridiculously long, to define his season.
That should not diminish what Young is doing. He has come a long way from his opening slog, forcing not only a re-litigation of The Trade, but this very discussion at a time when Doncic isn't supposed to have an equal.
Remember that when someone argues Young is riding the coattails of a closing-season uptick. His credentials have amplified over the past few weeks, right along with the Hawks' profile. But his Rookie of the Year case is built upon his entire body of work.
What's happened since the All-Star break has gained Young attention, not superficial claim. Because he is a legitimately good player on track to becoming a genuinely transcendent one, and that's enough.
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