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Luka, Trae and the Perfect Trade

Luka Doncic and Trae Young will be forever linked. The two young superstars meet again Wednesday night in Atlanta. Chad Smith looks back on the draft-night trade, and how their vastly different playing styles ultimately produce the same results.

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Typically, it is the two guys at the top of the draft that are forever linked. Zion Williamson and Ja Morant. Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Greg Oden and Kevin Durant. Even the near misses like LeBron James and Darko Miličić or Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. The careers of these top two selections will always be compared to one another.

But the 2018 NBA Draft was different. This class was oozing with talent ready to blossom. The top five picks from this draft made the All-Rookie First Team. That was the first time this had happened since 1984; about 15 years before any of these players were even born.

With apologies to Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Michael Porter Jr. and many others, the two best players in this draft have been Luka Dončić and Trae Young. It is even crazier when you remember that they were actually traded for each other.

Out of the 60 players drafted in 2018, Dončić and Young are the only two that have made an All-Star appearance. Dončić won Rookie of the Year and has the most win shares (16.0) of any player in the class. Young is third (11.6) and, last season, became just the fifth player to average 29 points and 9 assists in a season, joining Oscar Robertson, Tiny Archibald, Russell Westbrook and James Harden.

The Hawks and Mavericks made the deal on draft night, with Atlanta also receiving a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, which they used to draft Cam Reddish 10th overall. Obviously, Atlanta knew that Dončić was the real deal, but the extra pick is what Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk said made the deal worth it. “I’ve always taken the strategy with the draft, to use a baseball strategy: The more swings you get, the more chances you have to get a hit,” Schlenk said on The Woj Pod. “To be able to take one lottery pick and essentially turn it into two, that made sense to us.”

Dončić’s fit in Dallas made perfect sense, joining fellow international legend Dirk Nowitzki as the team was ready to turn the corner sooner rather than later. He was ready to play major minutes right away, having just won the Euroleague MVP. The transition of the face of the franchise was well in place, with Nowitzki in the twilight of his NBA career. The worry most scouts had with Dončić was that he had reached his ceiling, or something close to it, during his international career, while others were unsure as to whether he would make the commitment to get his body in NBA shape.

It was different for Young. While some questioned his shot at the NBA level, many scouts pointed out that his size would render him, at best, ineffective on the defensive end.

Looking at the two point guards, each has their own strengths and weaknesses. Dončić is much bigger and can use his size to his advantage. While smaller, Young is able to use his quickness and agility to create space and is able to lean more on his athleticism. While neither are known for their defensive prowess, both are phenomenal offensive players. They are elite on that end of the floor, but the way they operate is not all that different.

Needless to say, both of these guys have limitless range. They have displayed the ability to knock down shots that are well beyond the 23-foot, 9-inch arc. They can also both finish at the rim, though they do so in different ways. The end result for Dončić is either a tricky euro step layup or a kick-out to an open shooter. Young gets to the basket quickly, but usually lobs it up to John Collins, Clint Capela, or one of Atlanta’s other athletic wings.

Whether a lob at the rim or a pass to an open shooter, the assist numbers for these two have been off the charts. Young has a higher career assist average (8.6 to 7.5), but the success rate of a dunk is much higher than a three-point shot. Dončić has the heavy advantage in rebounding, which is to be expected given their size difference. Interestingly enough, their steals (1.0 to 0.9) and blocks (0.3 to 0.2) averages are very close, with Dončić leading in both categories. The numbers are even closer when looking at per-36 minutes and per-100 possessions.

Dončić has collected more individual accolades and seen greater team success, but Young may be turning the corner on both categories this season. One place where Dončić has been that Young hasn’t yet visited is the postseason. Expectations were high for both teams entering this season, with Atlanta winning the offseason with all of their moves and Dallas ready to build on their playoff run last year.

In his first career playoff series last year, Dončić averaged 31.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, 8.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 50 percent from the field. He scored 42 points in Game 1 in the Mavericks’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers, the most in NBA history by a player in his playoff debut. After Game 2 he scored the most points (70) in his first two games of anyone since the NBA/ABA merger.

Dončić recorded a triple-double in Game 3 and followed that with a monster Game 4 performance where he recorded 43 points, 17 rebounds and 13 assists. That was capped with his 28-foot buzzer-beater to win the game. Not bad when you consider he did all of that on an injured ankle and without Kristaps Porziņģis.

The 2020-21 season is now past the quarter mark and both players have already gone through a slump. Young went through a rough patch a couple of weeks ago and now Dončić, as the Mavericks have lost six games in a row, is shooting a career-low from beyond the arc. In fact, only Kelly Oubre has a worse three-point percentage. The Hawks have a much more talented roster this year, though many of their new pieces have yet to hit the floor together.

Like most teams this season, the Hawks and Mavericks are struggling to have their full rosters available for most of these games. Dallas finally had their full complement of players last night in their game against the Phoenix Suns. Both of these young stars must find a way to keep shouldering the offensive load but also find ways to improve individually on defense. Their postseason fate will depend on it.

As badly as some people want to compare Dončić to LeBron James and Young to Stephen Curry, these two have their own legacies to fulfill. Those legacies are often defined by playoff success. Records and statistics mean nothing without the hardware.

We’ll have to wait a while to see who will ultimately end up with the most championship rings. The Basketball Gods might even bless us with an opportunity to one day see these two meet in the Finals.

For some reason, there always has to be a clear-cut and obvious “winner” in every trade. While it’s way too early to put a final grade on this one, it’s fair to say that both teams have already won.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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