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Why the Luka Doncic-Trae Young Dynamic Is the Future of the NBA

One is the clear ROY, but the other is as good as advertised

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Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

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March 12, 2019

Back in October, we discussed the sure-to-be permanent connection between Luka and Trae, which has only become stronger after six months of regular season action. Immediately, Luka vaulted the otherwise bland Dallas Mavericks to the top of the NBA League Pass ranking, averaging 19PPG, 6.5RPG, 4.2APG while shooting 40 percent from three. He was good for at least one clip on House of Highlights per night. Luka’s consistent individual performances and visible impact on the Mavericks’ improvement shifted the Rookie of the Year conversation to who would win second place, with DeAndre Ayton slipping from his original place as the favorite and Jaren Jackson and Trae Young showing flashes. Luka, it seemed, had locked up the ROY campaign by December.

 

However, Trae reopened the case after a historic February, shooting 43.5 percent from three on 7.5 attempts per game. Over 20 games he averaged 22PPG, 8.5APG and, most impressively, led the Hawks, who once owned the worst record in the league, to an 8-12 record. Had those numbers been consistent for an entire season, Trae would be the 2019 Rookie of the Year, but unfortunately for him, he’s still averaging fewer points per game on less efficient shooting numbers on a worse team. Ultimately, what Luka has proven as a decision-maker and crunch-time scorer—two areas where rookies need to develop most—trumps Trae’s red-hot shooting and playmaking.

Thus, I've arrived at the unfortunately sensible take: Even though Luka edges Trae in the ROY race, both of them are really, really good. But seriously, really really good, and really really important to the future of the league. A week ago, Trae compared the rivalry between him and Luka to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird who were also drafted in the same class (and won six MVPs and eight rings between the two of them). Coming from someone who impulsively buries any self-proclaimed comparison or prediction from NBA players—like DeAndre Ayton saying he could see him and Devin Booker being Shaq & Kobe 2.0—I actually think Trae’s claim is within the ballpark. Not saying Luka and Trae will be top 10 players all-time, but they could certainly be the two best players in the NBA for three to five years.

 

Initially, Trae’s claim was dragged on Twitter, which is why it’s important. And I think part of the reason is, well, how they look. Luka is #thiccc and Trae is 180lbs (according to the internet) but that’s part of the reason why they’re actually poised to pull the rug out from under the league.

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via Jacob Forchheimer

Typically, the rookies who make the most impact are the explosive ones with NBA-ready bodies that might overshadow what they lack from a skill or shooting standpoint, but whether or not they develop those skills determines their future. Former ROY winners Ben Simmons (‘18), Andrew Wiggins (‘15) and Blake Griffin (‘11), even Michael Carter-Williams (‘14) fit this description to a tee, but so does a player like Dennis Smith Jr. who made a splash predraft and in his first few months in Dallas was traded to the Knicks after not evolving in the direction the Mavs wanted to steer their roster.

 

And that’s why Luka and Trae are poised to do so much damage. The league is as three-point-happy as ever, and they both play for teams that are entirely bought in. While elements of their style differ radically, both players' games include the building blocks of hyper-successful NBA careers in the modern game. Both Dallas and Atlanta are building their rosters to groom Luka and Trae, already in third and fourth respectively in the NBA in three-point attempts. Surrounding shooters with shooters has proven to be a lethal combination (see: Golden State, Houston, Denver), and Luka and Trae’s shooting and ability to make plays will outduel any team still building their roster on athleticism, effectively putting the league in the palm of Luka and Trae’s hands.

 

Unlike Bird and Magic, who were the top two picks, Luka and Trae were the third and fifth pick which goes to show that they are still slightly ahead of where teams are scouting. If Luka and Trae do have challengers at the top, it won’t be from anybody in the league right now.

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