Much was made of the draft day trade that saw the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks swap Trae Young and Luka Dončić back in June 2018.
The move quickly looked like a steal for Mark Cuban and Co., as Dončić took to the NBA in an instant. He quickly asserted himself as the frontrunner in what appeared to be a one-man “race” for the Rookie of the Year award.
However, things have changed, and they have done so quickly in the closing days of the season.
Dallas was lauded – and Atlanta criticized – for the trade early on, and rightly so. Dončić looked every bit as advertised; he was undeterred by the transition from Europe to the NBA, his game already more polished than some NBA veterans. Young, meanwhile, struggled as he tried to find his way against the tougher and, perhaps more importantly, bigger NBA competition.
But Young has since found his way and has established himself as an elite offensive option at the highest level.
Both Dončić and Young have proven themselves topflight contributors; Dončić has posted 21.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists on 43.4 percent shooting and 34.8 percent from three-point range, while Young has averaged 18.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 7.7 assists on 31.3 percent shooting and 33.2 percent from beyond the arc.
Those are some impressive numbers for any player, let alone two 20-year-old rookies. Young, however, has taken it to another level in the new year.
Young, from February 1 on, has set the NBA on fire behind a three-point barrage. To the tune of 23.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and nine assists on an unreal 41.7 three-point shooting percentage on more than seven attempts per game, Young has firmly entrenched himself in the conversation for Rookie of the Year and, some would argue, has begun to overshadow some of Dončić early season exploits.
Young has taken some massive steps as a player overall, but the biggest improvement has come via his shooting. A prolific three-point threat at Oklahoma a year ago, Young struggled early on to get his shots up and over the outstretched arms of bigger defenders at the NBA level. However, the six-foot-two shooter has since turned a corner in that regard, as his percentage from deep has continued to climb while his range has continued to expand into Stephen Curry territory as the season has progressed.
Rather than jacking up shots with reckless abandon, Young has refined his shot selection as well, further improving on his percentage.
His range may be the most entertaining part of his game, but Young has shown an elite vision as a passer and an advanced feel for timing on passes, knowing the exact right moment when to let the ball fly as well. His craftiness as both a passer and shot creator (not only for himself, but for his teammates as well) has also been put on full display, and that duality in his game should keep defenses off balance when squaring off against Young for the foreseeable future.
Dončić has proven no slouch either — 23.1 points, 8.4 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game in 2019 — but he has yet to make a leap like the one Young is in the midst of. That isn’t to say Dončić necessarily has to, as the Slovenian wunderkind came into the NBA with an already supremely refined game, but the transformation Young has undergone will certainly have him on the forefront in the minds of voters.
Dončić has more than earned the right to be considered the heavy favorite from here on out. However, with what Young has shown, this is no longer a one-man “race.” Come voting season, the Dončić-Young race for the Rookie of the Year award may be one of the most contested and debated in recent memory.
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