We have just begun the most fun time of the year for hoopheads: early April.
The final four is set for the NCAA and the NBA playoffs are right around the corner. This week we focus on a Rookie of the Year debate that’s heating up in the NBA: Luka Doncic vs. Trae Young. For the second straight year, this should be a close race right down to the wire (pending a strong push from the man looking to become the first ever back to back ROTY, Ben Simmons). These two fantastic rookies have dazzled all season and have been the two clear frontrunners for the prestigious rookie award. The most interesting aspect? These two were actually traded for each other on draft night! Only time will tell who has the bigger impact on their organization. For now, we can debate what has been a fascinating rookie campaign for both.
The Case for Trae
I will admit I was front and center among the Trae Young doubters last spring as he prepared for the NBA draft out of Oklahoma. He was such a unique player at Oklahoma, but I did not see his play style being successful in the NBA, especially as a rookie. He had the ultimate green light in college. In his second month playing for the Sooners, he posted 43 points in a win, and less than a month later he tied the NCAA single game assists record with 22. Although he turned heads with incredible statistics, his effectiveness and efficiency declined as his freshman year in college went on. Oklahoma eventually lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Young’s NBA rookie year has taken the opposite trajectory. He struggled mightily his first few months, with low shooting percentages and way too many turnovers as his Atlanta Hawks started 5-20. Things turned around for Young in late January and he has been on a tear ever since. In a year where neither the Hawks nor the Mavericks are going to sniff the playoffs, a big factor in this race is “signature moments”. Young has had plenty of them recently. On March 23rd, Young lit up the State Farm arena with a game winning floater over Butler and Embiid to sink the Sixers. A week later, he downed the Bucks with one of the most impressive game winners we’ve seen this season.
What has been impressive about Young is how his playmaking has translated to the next level. He is leading all rookies in assists, averaging 8.0 per game; Doncic is a distant second with 5.9 per game. Young’s playmaking and distributing has been key in the development of John Collins, a leading candidate for most improved player this year. While Doncic is the favorite for ROTY, Young’s incredible last few months, along with Luka’s decline in overall play and injuries, have allowed Young to make a strong push to get back into the race. The Hawks may not be playoff contenders this year, but Young has given Atlanta a fair share of exciting moments and hope for the future.
The Case for Luka
Another player who I admittedly doubted coming into this season, Luka Doncic has been absolutely remarkable. Luka and fellow European ballers Giannis, Jokic and future Maverick teammate Porzingis, are helping break the “soft” and “bust” European stereotypes. Simply put, Doncic has been the best rookie we’ve seen in many years. He has done it all and is putting up incredible statistics. Most importantly, he has done it since day one for the Mavericks. He has been consistent all year and looked like a calm and collected veteran since game one. He never had the stereotypical “deer in the headlights” look at any point in his rookie campaign. There was a lot of all-star buzz surrounding Doncic this year, and while he ultimately did not make the team, you could certainly make the case that he deserved to be on the floor in Charlotte. No rookie has made the all-star game since Blake Griffin in 2011 and Luka was THAT close.
The most impressive aspect of Luka is his all-around game. He is impressively averaging over 21 points per game, but what might be more amazing is that he is also averaging 7.6 rebounds and 5.9 assists. With his versatility, he has notched seven triple-doubles this year. Many people, including myself, wrote off his Euroleague experience, where he won an MVP for Real Madrid last season at just 19 years old. That experience has undoubtedly translated to the NBA, where he has been consistently toasting defenders with dizzying dribbling moves and step back shots. Luka’s rookie highlight reel already resembles an all-star veteran, not a 19-year-old rookie. Rookies typically do not show this type of poise and refined skills, but Luka has broken through and should impress the league for years to come.
Both of these rookies have impressed me mightily the last seven months. I certainly would not have had them as my Rookie of the Year favorites last June after the draft. My pick for Rookie of the Year would be Doncic due to his consistency and poise. I can’t remember another rookie who has consistently impressed in all aspects of the game like Doncic has. With the seasons these two young players have had, their draft day swap last spring will have people debating for years as to who won that trade. One thing we can all agree on: we, as fans, are the real winners for being able to watch these two light up the league for years to come.
What do YOU think? Which of these two should take home the Rookie of the Year award in June? Or is there someone else who is being overlooked? (Ben Simmons perhaps?!?!?!?!)
NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax