There are two baseball caps — one bearing the logo of the Atlanta Hawks, the other of the Dallas Mavericks — that are valuable yet unaccounted for today. They were last seen at the 2018 NBA Draft on the heads of Luka Doncic and Trae Young, where they stayed just long enough to collect sweaty DNA.
In a sense, they just didn’t fit. Moments before NBA commissioner Adam Silver issued those obligatory caps to the freshly drafted players onstage, the Hawks and Mavericks agreed to a stunning swap, Doncic for Young. It was a jolt not only for the teams involved but the players themselves, and in the haze that followed, those keepsakes vanished.
Young isn’t sure if he still has the Mavericks cap. Doncic shrugs when asked; maybe his Hawks cap is in Dallas or perhaps stashed back in his homeland of Slovenia. This much they do know: Doncic and Young didn’t exchange them backstage; only pleasantries.
“Good luck,” Young told Doncic.
“See you soon,” Doncic told Young.
Two years later, Doncic and Young are still linked, and based on the circumstances and results so far, they’ll probably be twin basketball brothers from other mothers until their careers are done. That’s because long after the second-guessing over the Draft-night trade began to die down, Doncic and Young are leaving marks like few second-year players have in league history.
As for Luka: He came to the States a bit starstruck at age 19 and famously begged for the jersey of LeBron James the first time they met on the court. And then, seeing Doncic stockpile historic triple-doubles and become a global box office sensation, LeBron became a big fan and wanted his jersey.
As for Trae: The Hawks aren’t ready to put a statue of Young next to the one honoring Dominique Wilkins outside State Farm Arena just yet. But if he keeps dropping 40 points and fooling defenders with nutmeg dribbles, Atlanta might do him one better and rename one of its main avenues Peachtrae Street.
Both average 29 points and nine assists and rank in the top five in those categories while playing at an efficient level especially given their ball dominance. Doncic also averages nine rebounds. They’re the youngest All-Star starters in 15 years.
“It’s a unique situation, me and him,” Young said. “He’s been playing at a crazy level. I think I’ve been playing pretty well. At the same time we’re both running on different paths and roads. We hoop and compete and battle every night. We both want to end up being great.”
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Everywhere he goes, he’s a head-turning sensation, stealing the applause from bigger NBA stars, even the ones he YouTubed as a boy not long ago. The rise of Doncic in NBA fandom has been swift and somewhat surprising if only because, right up until the Draft, he was a ghost to most.
Such is the case with European-born players. They can be sensational in Spain, France and Greece. Doncic dominated when he won back-to-back Rising Star awards, the season MVP and Final Four MVP in the EuroLeague as a teenager. The problem: Those players didn’t play at Kentucky, or beat Duke, or get dubbed a five-star recruit, or destroy anyone’s bracket in the NCAA tournament.
Luka is street smart. Luka has been through it.”
Mavs owner Mark Cuban, on Luka Doncic
But now? Doncic trailed only LeBron in the fan voting for the West All-Star team. Kids everywhere can spell Slovenia and find it on a map. Opposing players are raving about him and seeking him after games to give props.
“That young man,” said Clippers defensive ace Pat Beverley, “is a major problem.”
Doncic is laying the groundwork for legendary status with almost every game and week. He doesn’t turn 21 until Feb. 28, and after just 16 months in the league he has a slew of youngest-ever triple-double accomplishments, all while being the face of a franchise and maybe someday, the face of the league. He’s the rare talent who pleases the purists and connects with the current generation. He may not be a one-in-a-million talent but those are the odds of finding someone who isn’t a Doncic fan.
He’s comfortable anywhere on the floor, making him more dangerous, flexible and effective. His jumper, in terms of stroke and splash, is already mature in its purity. He has mastered the Harden-esque step-back move to instantly reposition himself from a long 2-pointer to a 3-pointer and create daylight between the man guarding him. He can dribble in traffic between his legs and around his back, with the left or right hand, and brings a gentle ambidextrous touch at the rim. And he’s always moving toward making a play; there’s very little wasted motion.
He is 20 going on 30 in basketball wisdom and that’s why Warriors coach Steve Kerr was moved to compare him to Larry Bird and add: “He’s a step ahead in a chess match. He’s different. He’s got this incredible knack for seeing the floor and knowing what’s coming next. He plays with a smile on his face and is obviously having fun. Gonna be a cornerstone in this league for a long time.”
The nuances of the game don’t befuddle him. He’s a quick study in terms of flow, figuring out defenses and angles, understanding whom to pass to and when, and how to use his 6-foot-8 height for mismatches.
“Getting in the paint is one of my keys,” Doncic has said. “Every time I get in the paint a lot we score a lot. We work on it. I’ve got so many ways to improve. Got to work harder.”
Obviously, Doncic had a head start as a professional, becoming seasoned by playing with Real Madrid starting at 16. He won Kia Rookie of the Year but it was an unfair contest, really, over Young and everyone else, given his European experience.
He came to the NBA and the United States better equipped to deal with the geographical change than Dirk Nowitzki, who grappled somewhat with the culture, language and game as a Dallas rookie.
“Dirk wasn’t as mature or worldly as Luka,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “Dirk came over here adapting and trying to live his life. Luka is street smart. Luka has been through it. Sure, it was a change for Luka and he had to adapt as well, but nothing like what Dirk went through.”
Doncic blends in the locker room with players from much meaner streets, already knows the lingo and the American swag. Elsewhere, though, it’s a bit more of a challenge; his English is still in development and he is understandably stoic and careful in interviews, which he prefers to keep to a minimum. He speaks with his head down, rarely making eye contact. This is not being disrespectful. Doncic doesn’t want the attention to overwhelm his teammates. He was sensitive about what his arrival last year did to Dennis Smith Jr., who was initially the young flavor of the moment in Dallas. Smith was traded to the Knicks once it became clear the ball was best in Doncic’s hands.
The Mavericks adding Doncic so soon after Dirk’s retirement seems like Steve Young following Joe Montana with the San Francisco 49ers. The transition is just so convenient and smooth, although the Mavs tend to pump the brakes on perception even while pinching themselves.
“I stay away from the comparison game,” Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said. “I think it’s important that this kid is his own player, and he truly is. Look, each month he continues to develop and learn more and hones certain skills even more. It’s all pretty exciting to watch, so yes, I understand the hype.”
Doncic averaged a triple double for December and went 42-11-12 against the Spurs when Carlisle gushed “he can do anything he wants on the basketball court,” and that stoked conversation about him on the path to being a generational player.
“Crazy, you know?” Doncic said. “I appreciate all the respect from players, all the fans voting for me for All-Star. It’s something when I was young, I never imagined. Being voted like that, hearing from the greats. Really glad, really happy, thanks to all.”
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The 2017-18 season was one for the junkyard for the Hawks and Mavericks who won 24 games apiece and stared at long rehabs. They were used as load management games, mostly ignored by the major networks when filling out the national TV schedule, invisible and off radar.
In those situations, it’s not unusual for focus to shift quickly toward the future. At one point while losing 14 of their final 16 games, Carlisle quizzed Mavericks personnel chief Donnie Nelson about the upcoming Draft:
“Who’s the best player coming out?”
“It’s Luka Doncic and it’s not close.”
Carlisle said recently: “We got into a deeper conversation and Donnie says he’s got the elements of some of the great international players of all time. He said Luka was very much an original.”
Considering that Nowitzki was winding down his career in Dallas and as perhaps the best international player ever, the Mavs were all-in on Doncic.
Problem: They held the fifth pick; Doncic would surely be gone by then.
Solution: They were desperate, which means they would aggressively seek to move up.
In Atlanta, the Hawks were in the hands of Travis Schlenk, starting his second season as the architect after leaving the Warriors. Schlenk saw point-blank how the Warriors used wise drafting (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green) to build a Goliath with staying power and wanted the same model in Atlanta.
The previous year in his first Draft in Atlanta, Schlenk took forward John Collins at 19 with success and was open to adding additional picks. His philosophy: Better to have as many swings at the plate as possible to increase your chances of hitting a homer.
The Hawks had the third pick in 2018 and were high on Doncic and almost equally so on Young. They wanted someone with talent but also the ability to entertain. The Hawks were a soft sell in Atlanta and chairman Tony Ressler wanted fans in the seats at newly renovated State Farm Arena.
Both the Hawks and Mavericks were convinced the Suns, who already had Devin Booker, would go big with the No. 1 pick; Deandre Ayton played down the road at Arizona. The Kings had the second pick and GM Vlade Divac was once an international player himself so there was concern. But guards De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield meshed in their first season together, so the Kings also went big with Marvin Bagley III. Also, the Grizzlies at four were sold on Jaren Jackson Jr.
When Nelson called Schlenk and upped their offer to a top-five protected pick in 2019 just to swap No. 5 for No. 3, it sparked intense conversation within the Hawks.
“The Mavericks made the offer and I took it to the group,” Schlenk said. “We had 16 guys in there and the vote was 8-8. What it came down to is we projected Dallas to finish low the following year and we’d get another lottery pick, and lottery picks were our most valuable assets at the time.”
Cuban said the wait to hear back from the Hawks felt like an eternity in Dallas.
“And then the anxiety increases after you make the trade,” he said. “Trying to get it done is one level of anxiety, but the anxiety after you get the guy? Because look how many picks that don’t pan out, who are not stars. You could see that Luka had something. We knew the kid could be special. But some guys are just rookie hype, too. Until you know, you just don’t know. I just want the guy who takes us to the next level.”
The public reaction was favorable in Dallas, mixed in Atlanta — surprising, considering most fans and media had seen Young but not Doncic. But Young finished the last few weeks poorly in his final season at Oklahoma. And then he looked dreadful in NBA Summer League at Salt Lake City.
“Trae had nothing to do with the trade,” Schlenk said. “He didn’t ask for it. Because of that there was a ton of pressure on him. People were looking for reasons for why Trae was going to fail.”
The extra No. 1 pick was used in the 2019 Draft on swingman Cam Reddish, who’s having a somewhat rough start in Atlanta. Ultimately his development will weigh in the final verdict.
“People will say what they want but from what I see, both teams made out fine,” Carlisle said.
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He is slightly built but not too fragile to carry a grudge. That’s how Young approached his NBA career, by using 30-foot jumpers and no-look passes to attack anyone who doubted him.
No, the world has nothing against Young; actually, the world has more important issues to deal with. And although his All-Star berth caused a stir because the Hawks aren’t winning, he did win the fan vote which disputed any notion of unpopularity. Still, for an athlete in the social media age, seeing a dozen critical tweets seems like a million. And a fair amount of comments directed toward Young made sure to mention how well Doncic was doing and where the Mavericks stood in the standings.
When Young dropped 42 points with eight 3-pointers in a win over the Nuggets back in November, he went to Twitter and announced in all caps: YOUR APOLOGY NEEDS TO BE AS LOUD AS THE DISRESPECT WAS. It has received more than 150,000 likes, including one from Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson, who could relate.
— Lamar Jackson (@Lj_era8) November 13, 2019
Schlenk said: “It’s just society today. He’s got the toughest skin I’ve been around. But with social media, anyone in the world can say something to you, tell you what they think. Maybe on some level it bothers him but he copes with it unbelievably well. It’s motivation. Look, he wants to be great and he’ll get there because he’s a smart player with a high IQ.”
The offensive numbers being posted by Young are epic; good luck finding a dozen players in history who ranked top five in scoring and assists in a single season. He’s a shot-making and passing wizard. Young’s defense is another issue although most young players struggle at first, and until he gets physically stronger, Young’s size doesn’t help.
Anyway, Young has the support of the one person in Atlanta who carries the most respected voice, someone also depicted as one-dimensional, yet became a Hall of Famer.
“It’s wonderful for us to have a guy like him,” Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins said. “He’s got a lot of heart and that’s putting it lightly. We knew his ability and his talent. Once I saw him play in a couple of games, I said he’s got the ‘it-factor.’ Players know players. He wasn’t hard to figure out. You knew what he would become.”
And there’s a familiar voice outside of Atlanta who brings the same clout.
“He deserves being the All-Star starter in the Eastern Conference,” Doncic said. “He’s playing like a beast this year.”
Young and Doncic are in different situations. The Mavericks are built to win 45-50 games and compete for the playoffs. The Hawks are under construction and loaded with pups. Plus, Collins missed 25 games for a violation of the NBA’s Anti-Drug Program. Therefore, it’s not totally fair to conclude that Young isn’t a winner. He’s sensitive to that perception, worried it could swell into a reputation.
He deserves being the All-Star starter in the Eastern Conference.”
Luka Doncic, on Trae Young
“Even when I led the country in points and assists at Oklahoma I’d get frustrated when we’d lose,” Young said. “I had 49 once and couldn’t enjoy it because we lost. Those loses stick with me. You can’t enjoy it when you’re a competitor like me.”
Young’s skills are refined and surprisingly disciplined for someone who makes high-risk choices. His shooting range is deep; those 30-footers began in middle school when everyone began to grow except Young and it was the only way he could launch without being blocked. He challenges bigger players at the rim. He can shoot the mid-range, rare nowadays for players with an appetite for 3-pointers. But it’s his court vision and passing that also separate him from other big scorers.
“I said at the time we drafted him, that’s what stood out,” Schlenk said. “He got all the hype for shooting threes. And he’s got that skill set. But his ability to make passes, with his right and left hand, off the dribble and off the pick and roll, is what makes him unique.”
That along with his crafty dribble, which he’ll often use for his signature move, the nutmeg — a pass or dribble between the defender’s legs. When that happens there’s only one thing to say to the victim: “You got Trae’d.”
“I don’t have to be entertaining but I choose to,” Young said. “Since I was a kid I’ve always played with a lot of swag, a lot of flair. That’s something that’s always been in my game. I’d practice those things as a kid. I’d go into the gym with my dad and we didn’t even shoot the whole day. We’d practice behind-the-back passes, left hand, right hand, stand across the court from each other, I’d work on one-dribble bounce passes and lobs.
“I’ve had a couple of players this year come over and tell me, `Man, you a bad MF.’ It’s respect. It’s pretty cool that guys will say that to me during or after the game.”
There’s a good chance before or after Saturday’s game in Dallas that Young will be approached by a fellow All-Star starter if only because they seem magnetized to each other.
“Me and Luka are cool and we talk now and then,” Young said. “We’re going to be compared until the end of our careers. It’s not going anywhere.”
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