The 2018-19 NBA MVP race is down to three legitimate candidates, though it’s looking more and more like a two-man race between Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and reigning MVP James Harden. Can the same be said for Rookie of the Year with Trae Young and Luka Doncic?
Young’s recent play has sparked conversations about the gap between him and Doncic, who has been the Rookie of the Year favorite throughout the season. The Hawks point guard went off in February, averaging 23.3 points and 9.3 assists per game while shooting 43.7 percent from beyond the arc. That stretch turned the heat back up on a budding rivalry, one that started with a draft-day trade back in June.
MORE: Breaking down NBA’s tight MVP race
“I know it’s a part of my life now,” Young told Marc Stein of The New York Times when asked about comparisons to Doncic. “I tell everybody that hopefully we’re both 15-plus years down the line and we’re still playing and it’s a competition that’s been going since draft night. I think it’s going to go on forever, so might as well just accept it and take it on as a challenge.”
Front office executives for the Hawks and Mavericks will be paying attention to each other’s rising stars for the rest of their careers, but when it comes to their first years in the league, the entire body of work should win out here. Even when factoring in Young’s late surge, he is still well behind Doncic in just about every category. Just look at the numbers across the board…
Luka Doncic, Mavericks
Stats: 20.9 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals, 43.0 percent shooting, 34.3 3-point shooting
Advanced: 19.2 PER, 55.0 true shooting, 29.8 usage, 4.3 win shares, 3.6 box plus-minus, 1.45 real plus-minus, 2.9 value over replacement player
Trae Young, Hawks
Stats: 18.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 0.8 steals, 41.1 percent shooting, 33.3 3-point shooting
Advanced: 16.0 PER, 53.4 true shooting, 27.9 usage, 2.2 win shares, -2.0 box plus-minus, -2.93 real plus-minus, 0.0 value over replacement player
Doncic holds an advantage in points, rebounds, steals, shooting, 3-point shooting and every major advanced stat. Young is a significantly bigger target as a defender with the worst mark among all point guards in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus (minus-4.67). While not great on the defensive end, Doncic is much closer to passable (minus-1.10).
The Mavericks aren’t a juggernaut with Doncic on the floor, but he is better than Young in terms of those splits as well. Dallas (27-40) currently has a superior record to Atlanta (24-45) in a deeper conference.
Both rookies have logged a similar amount of games (63 for Doncic, 69 for Young) and total minutes (2,031 for Doncic, 2,117 for Young), so Young can’t gain an edge there unless Doncic’s lingering knee injury keeps him on the bench with less than a month to go in the regular season. (For what it’s worth, Doncic has said he wants to “play every game.”)
And let’s not pretend Doncic hasn’t been putting up some impressive stat lines of his own lately. The Slovenian sensation is averaging 22.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists in his last 15 games. He didn’t go off for 36, 36 and 49 in three straight games like Young, but he hasn’t fallen off a cliff either.
Keep in mind Doncic also lost all of his fellow starters at the trade deadline — Dennis Smith Jr., Wesley Matthews and DeAndre Jordan to the Knicks, and Harrison Barnes to the Kings. That’s a huge burden for any No. 1 option, let alone a guy who just turned 20 years old.
Recency bias can grab all of us. Young got ripped early because he was struggling while Doncic thrived, and now the narrative has flipped with Young stringing together signature performances and Doncic sliding. The Hawks and Mavericks could have made a rare win-win trade at the 2018 NBA Draft, but we won’t know for sure until years down the road, regardless of how many hot takes fly off the shelves.
However, putting their Rookie of the Year cases side by side should provide a clear answer to the initial question. Save your energy for the MVP debate.
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