In a different universe, Trae Young would be the toast of the NBA. He would be coming off a well-deserved rookie of the year campaign, following that up with an All-Star-worthy sophomore season. To be sure, Young is pretty awesome in this universe, too. He had the type of rookie season that normally garners top honors, and he has taken a significant leap forward in year two. The 21-year-old Young is averaging nearly 27 points per game for the Atlanta Hawks, and his supreme ball-handling and ability to drain shots from distance invite legitimate comparisons to Steph Curry.
But despite all that, Young may never be good enough to eclipse the stocky, 6ft 7in shadow cast by the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic. In this particular cosmic plane, it is Doncic who is the reigning rookie of the year, and it is Doncic who has grabbed this young season by the scruff of its neck and declared it is his own. Not even 100 games into his NBA career, the 20-year-old Slovenian already looks like one of the best players in the league, racking up historic statistical outputs and playing with an age-defying polish.
Doncic’s dazzling start to the season has catapulted him from longshot MVP candidate to one of the early frontrunners for the award, and his ability to stuff a box score has put him in rarefied air. Earlier this month, Doncic became the first player since the legendary Oscar Robertson to average at least 30 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists through the first 16 games of the season. No other player has more 30-point triple-doubles before the age of 21 in NBA history. According to ESPN’S PER ratings, a figure that assesses players’ overall contribution, he is the the second-best player in the league behind reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“No one, not even the biggest Luka believers, thought he would do this in year two,” says Marc Stein, who lives in Dallas and covers the NBA for the New York Times.
The superlatives and lofty comparisons for Doncic are being doled out in abundance these days. His size and comprehensive offensive game have evoked comparisons to Larry Bird and LeBron James. The hall of fame swingman Tracy McGrady declared Doncic the best point guard in the league. Hoops maven Bill Simmons argued that Doncic is the best 20-year-old in NBA history (other players to play in the league at the same age include Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and James).
“The NBA is almost a quarter of the way through the regular season and he’s been one of the five best players in the league,” Stein says. “Insane.”
Nearly averaging a triple-double, Doncic has burnished his credentials with standout performances this season against the NBA’s uppercrust. In the Mavericks’ overtime loss to the Los Angeles Lakers earlier this month, Doncic went toe-to-toe with James, notching 31 points, 15 assists and 13 rebounds. After the game, cameras caught James offering some profanity-laced praise for Doncic.
A couple weeks later, Doncic dominated one of the league’s preeminent franchises with another outrageous triple-double against the San Antonio Spurs. On Sunday, Doncic out-dueld former MVP and league scoring leader James Harden with 41 points in the Mavericks’ win over the Houston Rockets. The gaudy statistics only tell part of the story, of course. His size, ball-handling and ability to operate as a point-forward make him tailor-made for the NBA’s “pace-and-space” era. Doncic has also established himself as one of the most stylish players in the league, a showman whose no-look passes and smooth step-back jumpers have made him appointment viewing. Stein calls him “one of the best entertainers in any sport.”
“He’s one of those proverbial ‘you would pay to watch him play’ guys,” Stein says. “He plays with a swagger and flair that are just fun.”
Doncic careened back to earth a bit on Tuesday, when he was held to 22 points on 28% shooting against the suffocating defense of the Los Angeles Clippers, but it is telling that even a rough outing against a championship contender has the feel of an aberration. “He plays too well to be whatever age they say he is,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said before the game.
Doncic’s brilliance has brought scrutiny to the teams that passed on him when he came into the league – including the Hawks, who took Doncic with the third pick of last year’s draft before dealing him to the Mavericks for Young and a future first-round selection. Young’s stellar play has given the Hawks some cover for that decision, but the other two teams to miss out have some explaining to do. The Phoenix Suns used the first overall pick on DeAndre Ayton, while the Sacramento Kings took Duke’s Marvin Bagley III with the second selection. Both players showed flashes in their rookie seasons; neither looks like they will ever be within a mile of Doncic. (As fate would have it, both players are also not playing at the moment: Ayton is serving a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s anti-drug policy, while Bagley is recovering from a thumb injury sustained in the team’s opening game of the season.)
In choosing the seven-foot Ayton, the Suns continued the NBA’s decades-long obsession with landing a franchise center, a white whale-like pursuit that also guided the Portland Trail Blazers to draft Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan in 1984, and then Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007. Sacramento’s decision appears to have come down to personnel – and the personal. Kings general manager Vlade Divac indicated last summer that Doncic would have clashed with the team’s incumbent point guard De’Aaron Fox. ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, who covers the Mavericks, suggested this week that it may have also had something to do with Divac’s aversion to Doncic’s father.
It is not as though Doncic came out of nowhere either. He arrived at the 2018 draft as one of the most highly touted European players ever, someone with real pedigree that distinguished him from some of the other raw, largely unproven foreign prospects who came before. At 18, Doncic was one of the best players at EuroBasket 2017, helping guide Slovenia to its first title. For the 2017-18 season, his last with Real Madrid, Doncic was awarded MVP of Spain’s Liga ACB, arguably the second best basketball league in the world.
That track record was not lost on the Mavericks, who may have scored one of the all-time coups by snatching Doncic. Dallas, viewed by most as a longshot for the playoffs before this season, is in the thick of the postseason hunt in the stacked Western Conference. Doncic has also given the Mavericks a new face to supplant the now-retired Dirk Nowitzki, helping the franchise avoid the years in the wilderness that often follow the departure of a legend.
And while Doncic’s meteoric ascent to superstardom has caught many observers off guard, Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle’s preseason pronouncement now looks as prescient as ever. “I wouldn’t trade Doncic for anybody,” Carlisle said in September.