Trae Young and Luka Doncic will forever be linked to each other thanks to a draft night trade in which Atlanta selected Doncic and swapped him for Young and a protected future first shortly after. So, we might as well compare them, right?
The two rookie phenoms have taken the league by storm this season. Doncic, the 20-year-old former EuroLeague MVP, came into the league looking like a seasoned vet. In only his second game, he had already dropped 26 points and six boards against the Timberwolves, and it only took until game seven for everyone to stop and think that we’ve got something special here. Luka put up 31 points, six boards, and four assists on 11/18 shooting, 4/6 from deep against the Spurs.
Trae started off fairly hot, putting up 35 points and 11 dimes on efficient shooting in a blowout victory against the Cavs in just his second game, but hit a wall in mid-November where single-digit scoring nights were becoming a trend. In a six-game span from November 13 to November 23, Young shot 1/25 from three. Yikes.
That Trae Young is long gone. Since the All-Star break, he’s averaging 25.8 points, nine assists, and five boards on 45/39/87 shooting. Superstar numbers.
But can you believe that Doncic, who was putting up 20.7 points, 5.6 assists, and 7.2 rebounds at the break also improved? The story-lines have followed Trae Young’s drastic improvement, putting Doncic’s LeBron-esque numbers on the back burner – 22.5 points, 7 assists, 9.3 rebounds in 15 games since the break.
Both of these kids, and I mean kids, are going to be trouble for a long, long time.
So where do they project to be in three years? Will one be much better and give the trade a clear winner? Or will the two be side-by-side throughout the duration of their careers?
Let’s make some predictions, shall we.
Shooting: Trae Young
Both of these players are far from their shooting peak, but just due to the nature of their play styles, the advantage has to go to Trae. In the beginning of the year, we wondered if the Curry-style green light that made Young a household name in college would end up being his downfall. In November, Young made 18/86 3-point attempts, good for an unbelievable 19% from deep. Ignoring that month, Trae is shooting 36% from deep, which still isn’t great but his improvement as the year has gone on bodes well for his future.
In a slightly more concerning pattern, Luka Doncic has gotten worse from the perimeter as the season has gone on. Outside of an eight-game month in February shortened by the All-Star break and two games out of the lineup, his 3P% has dropped consistently. Doncic finished March shooting just 22.5% from beyond the arc.
This isn’t a new pattern, however. His three-point shooting also got worse each year in Europe, shooting 40% on low volume in 2015-16 to 31% on 5 attempts in his MVP 2017-18 season. While Luka will continue to be a dominant player, it’s tough to say whether or not the three-pointer ever becomes a major part of his arsenal.
Trae Young looks to be trending up while Luka is trending down, making it a safe assumption that Trae will have the advantage here in three years.
Scoring: Luka Doncic
Shooting isn’t the only way to score in the NBA and despite Trae’s better deep ball, Luka will prove to be a much more efficient scorer from all areas than his rival as the years go on.
The biggest advantage Luka will have throughout their careers will be scoring within 10 feet. At the rim, Luka has converted 63.6% of his field goal attempts despite not being a true lob threat down low. On the flip side, Trae has made 55.3% of his buckets at the rim. That 12% differential is nothing to scoff at.
From 3-10 feet, Luka is also shooting a better percentage on higher volume – 44.5% on 245 attempts versus Trae’s 42% on 171 attempts.
Obviously there’s a pretty simple explanation for this shooting difference, taller forwards just have an easier time scoring near the rim than short point guards because that’s how life is. As we get further away from the basket, the two are a little closer and Trae takes the advantage from deep, but it’s not nearly as big of a difference.
So, while Trae projects to be a better long-distance shooter, Luka’s efficiency in the paint is what really sets the two apart in scoring. I have a hard time believing either player is near their scoring ceiling at such young ages, but Luka especially could grow into one of the most dynamic scorers in the league by the time he reaches his prime.
Passing: Trae Young
This one’s not really close.
Doncic is by no means a slouch when it comes to dishing the rock, but Trae Young is just on another level, and by another level, I mean arguably top five in the league as a rookie. He did THIS in his fourth NBA game ever:
And he’s averaging 10 assists per game on the 2018-19 Hawks? Imagine his assist numbers with real NBA talent surrounding him.
Sorry Luka, but players don’t often get worse at passing as they enter their prime. In three years we’ll be comparing Trae’s passing to Magic Johnson, not Luka Doncic.
Rebounding: Luka Doncic
Not much to discuss here. 6’7 vs. 6’2 … I think we know who will always have the advantage here. Unless Trae Young hits a growth spurt, this one is all yours, Luka.
Defense: Luka Doncic… I guess?
Giving Luka the advantage doesn’t really mean much as both of these players are far from having a positive impact on defense. Luka takes the W on this one simply for being born with better size, but even that can be a disadvantage because he’s too big and lacks the lateral quickness to defend guards but also too small to defend bigs.
Trae is simply just too small and unless he puts on weight (which might effect his offensive game), NBA players will have no problem bullying him for the foreseeable future. His best hope at becoming a decent defender will just be improving his basketball IQ on that end of the floor, which absolutely should happen seeing how smart he is on the offensive side of the ball.
I’ll give it to Luka but neither are making an All-Defense team anytime soon.
Both of these guys are shockingly clutch for their age and I think as time goes on, both of them will continue to be clutch in wildly different ways.
With Trae, we’ll see lots of blow-bys because of his size and explosiveness and ability to take on anyone in that department, mismatch or not. But more importantly, we’ll be seeing f*** you threes akin to Steph Curry and LeBron James, like this one from the logo against the Spurs:
Or we’ll see both in the same game, like his performance against the Sixers this season where he hits a deep go-ahead three with 1:17 left and then sinks a floater on Jimmy Butler with 0.1 on the clock to give the Hawks the win (0:40).
With Luka, I think you’ll be more likely to see him making heavily contested, borderline impossible shots to tie or go ahead rather than making an amazing play to create an easy bucket. Like this one for example:
The compilation below shows off what I mean. Hardly any of these clips are the products of Luka blowing past his defender or breaking his ankles or finding himself open at the right time. Instead, it’s just Luka getting buckets. Deep contested threes, getting bodied at the basket and finding a way to bury it anyway, and that glorious, glorious step-back that isn’t creating tons of room but doing just enough to give him a chance.
Both of these players have ice in their veins as rookies and will be among the league’s most clutch in a few years, but because they’re clutch in such different ways, I’d have a hard time saying either one will have a clear advantage.
Just know they’re both ballers when the pressure is on.
Basketball IQ: Trae Young
This was my by far the most difficult category to come to a conclusion on. I think both of these players are already brilliant as rookies and you could tell me either one has a better basketball IQ than the other and I wouldn’t even try arguing it.
Doncic has the ability to do whatever he wants on the floor despite a distinct lack of athleticism, while Trae can will the ball into a teammate’s hands no matter how difficult the pass may be. No wrong answers.
Here’s why I lean Trae, though. Take a look through both of those clutch compilations above. Can you spot the difference? Luka’s clutch shots are insane. Not in a, “wow, what an intelligent play” way, but more of a “how the hell did he make that work?!” way.
When you watch Trae, however, he’s always putting himself in ideal situations.
Just take a look at this play:
He attempts to set a screen down low to get a mismatch for John Collins on the inbound. When the screen doesn’t work, Trae finds himself open with both defenders focused on Collins. He recognizes the opening and heads back into the paint where he has plenty of open space if the lob to Collins breaks down. He positions himself perfectly and Brook Lopez’s swat falls right into his arms for the put-back bucket and the win.
Trae Young will never out-muscle a defender or have a size advantage, so being able to put himself in ideal spots where he’s filling gaps and seeing a play breakdown before it even takes place is what makes him one of the league’s smartest players.
The comparisons may start to get old but they’re certainly not being compared for no reason. Both of these players have shown flashes of brilliance, but they’ve also shown flashes of youth. 2022 is a long time from now in basketball years and making judgments based off rookie seasons on mediocre-to-bad teams doesn’t always project easily, but both of these guys have shown enough to have people expecting greatness.
Luka is easily the safer option long-term. His game isn’t reliant on one skill set and his dominance in the Euroleague as a teenager and an All-Star caliber rookie season bodes well for the future. Despite his lack of speed and explosiveness, he can score from everywhere, grab boards, quarterback in transition, and make the right play when it’s needed most.
Trae is a little more of a boom-or-bust prospect. He already has elite court vision and passing ability that will both only get better as he grows older, so we don’t have to worry about that. If we see improvement in his three-ball, we might be looking at the next Steph Curry. Not necessarily in terms of sheer success, but their styles are so similar and their confidence to pull-up from the parking lot creates some unbelievable moments.
On the other hand, Trae could easily fall behind. With his size, he will almost always be taken advantage of on defense, meaning his offense will likely make or break him. If we see his three-pointer plateau for the next few years, there’s cause for concern about how effective an inefficient, genius pass-first point guard would perform in a league that’s constantly leaning towards shooters.
The great thing about basketball is that we don’t always have to pick one. They’re both incredible talents that perform different tasks on the basketball court that aren’t always comparable. Let’s just appreciate that we get to watch both of these guys take the league by storm for the next ten years.