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  • A physical freak late to the game and a skilled wunderkind who turned pro at 13. Opening night showed Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic, despite vast differences, harbor similarly promising futures.
By Jeremy Woo
October 18, 2018

When considering the very first game of a player’s career, basically anything can be treated as an overreaction. We’re going to try and not do that, but the intersection of Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic, the No. 1 and No. 3 picks in the draft and the two most-hyped rookies in this class stood as one of the more noteworthy moments when the NBA schedule unfolded in full on Wednesday night—Ayton’s Suns led comfortably for the majority of a 121-100 win, closed out by a red-hot Devin Booker, who finished with 35 points. The game itself was at times forgettable, but the rookies were not. Safe to say, they’ll be entrenched in the leaguewide conversation all season and beyond.

Ayton came out with the stronger stat line Wednesday and turned in his initial test against another DeAndre (Jordan) with flying colors: 18 points, 10 rebounds and a particularly promising six assists came rather easily to him. He brushed off smaller defenders, popped midrange jumpers and looked comfortable. Doncic battled early foul trouble but delivered several eye-popping dimes and finishes, and the Mavericks more often than not ran more smoothly with him on the floor. He scored 10 points on just 5–16 from the floor and 0–5 from three to go with eight rebounds and four assists, but he was the best player in Europe at age 18. Better days are ahead.

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Even going into the 2018 draft, directly comparing the worth of an impossibly talented but still-raw teenage big versus that of the most decorated international prospect wasn’t the simplest task for anyone. NBA teams always lean toward upside, and Ayton’s otherworldly athletic gifts often championed the debate (on this site, we rated Ayton first and Doncic second among the available prospects). Somewhere along the way, the Ayton-or-Doncic argument developed into an erroneous proxy for old school versus new school ways of thinking about basketball, and the worth of a center versus that of a lead playmaker. The truth is that everyone might come out looking smart, and crucially, that both landed in strong situations.

It doesn’t take an educated eye to realize that Ayton has always been far too athletic and skilled to be pigeonholed as a mere back-to-the-basket big, or a vestige of a bygone style of play. The majority of vitriol from critics harped on his average-to-poor college defense. Those problems were smoothed over by context: Ayton spent the entire season playing out of position as a power forward, he had never received serious coaching when it came to his role in defensive schemes before arriving at Arizona, and, perhaps above all, he was an 18-year-old college center just scratching the surface of his development. Consider that Doncic began his pro career at 13, at which point Ayton had just recently picked up a basketball growing up in the Bahamas. All prospects come with pros and cons, but with Ayton a lot of the discourse felt like nitpicking. There was not as much internal debate around the league as there was taking place on the internet. He was always a logical cornerstone for Phoenix, who needed a big and could not afford to miss with the first pick.

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Though he was clearly the most polished player in the draft class, Doncic’s candidacy for the top selection was slightly tarnished by questions about his athleticism, foot speed and defensive acumen. NBA teams ultimately draft based on projection, and Ayton’s perceived long-term potential and inimitable physical capabilities as a 7-footer held more sway, whether warranted or not. There were never any secrets about Doncic’s extraordinary basketball instincts or offensive skill set. In the end, he will absolutely benefit from landing in Dallas, where there’s impetus to win, a natural succession pattern as Dirk Nowitzki makes his exit, and a stable situation with Rick Carlisle, who’s consistently found ways to play to his personnel over the years. The Mavericks are essentially using Doncic as a point forward for large chunks of time, allowing him to handle and pace the game out while also defending players closer to his size. Dallas gave up an extra first-rounder to acquire him, and their faith should be rewarded.

At any rate, it’s unlikely either Phoenix or Dallas is bound for the playoffs. There are going to be moments where the rookies look like rookies, and games where they look like All-Stars (more than most of the NBA’s newcomers can say). Ayton and Doncic will undoubtedly be connected for a long time, but drawing a direct comparison or to retrofit either team’s draft right now is to miss the point. After one game, we can posit that both players are tracking ahead of the curve. Watch closely.

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