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Luka Dončić vs. Trae Young and the NBA's Frantic Rookie Race

Luka Dončić has held an advantage on Trae Young most of the season, but the Hawks star has been lights out since the break. Who owns the stronger case for Rookie of the Year?

For much of this year’s NBA season, there was no question about it.

The 2019 Rookie of the Year race was just one month in, but Dallas Mavericks forward Luka Dončić had already begun making his case. The 6’7” Slovenian was averaging a team-high 18.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG and 4.3 APG in Dallas’s first 20 games of the season. He had racked up 198 points, 66 rebounds and 44 assists through his first 10 career games, the first teenager in history to do so and the second player since Oscar Robertson to reach those totals.

By December, the outcome was almost certain: Luka Dončić would be hailed as the best player in his rookie class by the season’s end.

And then, Trae Young erupted.

Long believed to have been the losing end of the Mavericks-Hawks draft night trade, Young’s post-All-Star surge has forced many to rethink their verdicts. Young has averaged 25.8 PPG, 9.0 APG and 4.4 RPG since the All-Star break and became only the eighth rookie in league history to log at least 35 points and 11 assists in a game during the Hawks’ 133–111 win over the Cavaliers last week.  The 20-year-old wunderkind’s claim to the rookie class' highest honor has since gained traction, with Donovan Mitchell,Kyle Kuzma and Blake Griffin all declaring Young the victor after he dropped 32 points, 11 assists and a game-winner on the 76ers.

Dončić may still have the edge in this debate, but to say that Young has not significantly closed the gap would be a failure to give the Hawks’ rookie sensation his due.

Here’s a look at each player’s case for this year’s Rookie of the Year award with just two weeks left in the regular season.

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The case for Luka Dončić

To doubt that Luka Dončić got off to a better start would be disputing reality. Unlike Young, Dončić dazzled from the get-go. Before the All-Star break, the former Euroleague MVP was averaging 20.7 PPG on 43% shooting compared to Young’s 16.9 points on 40.6% shooting.

The month of November was especially strong for Dončić—and equally disastrous for Young. The former averaged 17.7 PPG on 43.3% shooting while the latter had an ugly 35.5% field-goal percentage. The numbers from beyond the arc were even more telling. While Dončić impressed with his patented step-back threes and 36.8% shooting from deep, Young was an abysmal 19.8% from downtown. Young also turned the ball over 67 times that month compared to Dončić’s 43.

Outside of just scoring, Dončić impressed early with his craft, from dexterous drives to the rim to his flashy ball-handling. He possessed the feel, timing and body control of a much older player and was ready for the grind and physicality of the league out of the gate.

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The fact that Dončić is far less of a defensive liability also matters. Young’s size remains a problem when guarding pick-and-rolls, and he doesn't make up for a lack of length with good off-ball awareness. Young places third-to-last in NBA Math's defensive points saved (-144.99) and dead last in ESPN's defensive real-plus minus (-4.65).

And if the hot start wasn’t enough to sell voters on his claim, Dončić’s post-All-Star Break performance is also noteworthy. The Mavericks’ young star put up a 28-12-12 stat line against the Kings last Tuesday and became the fourth rookie in NBA history to have at least seven triple-doubles. The others include Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Ben Simmons, who had 12 a year ago. Doncic is now two triple-doubles shy of tying Jason Kidd’s franchise record of nine in 1996.

It’s not difficult to accept. Dončić has unequivocally played at an All-Star level for longer than Young has. But that doesn’t mean that the argument for Young doesn’t have substance. Nor should it go unheard.

The case for Trae Young

Trae Young will finish the 2018-2019 NBA season as one of the most productive offensive rookies ever—mainly thanks to his second half.

In the 18 games since returning from the All-Star break, Young has shot 45% from the floor and 38.8% from behind the arc while shooting at a prolific clip. He has nine of his 24 season double-doubles over that same span, including four straight in late March. Last month, Young joined LeBron James and Michael Jordan as just the third rookie to notch 40-plus points and 10-plus assists (Young had 49–16) in a single game.

Meanwhile, Dončić is starting to show some red lights amid a season that had been nothing but green. His stat line is on par with Young’s after the break—Dončić is averaging 22.8 PPG, 9.4 RPG and 7.0 APG—but his shooting percentage has dropped to 39% in March. He’s also been brutal from three, now connecting on just 22.5% of his attempts from beyond the arc.

Rick Carlisle believes it’s a result of fatigue, and yes, Dallas is relying on Dončić to carry the load down the stretch. But Atlanta has been doing the same with Young over that time span, and the rookie point guard has shown no signs of slowing down.

Young’s claim to the title doesn’t rest solely on his most recent stretch, either. While his rookie year has certainly seen its fair share of highs and lows, Young is averaging 20.3 PPG and 8.2 APG with a 57% true shooting percentage since the Hawks’ Dec. 8 win over the Nuggets.

He’s shooting 50.1% on drives, draining 48.7% of his floaters and has significantly stood out as a passer, his feeds often borderlining absurd. Whether he’s throwing difficult bounce passes around double-teams, showing off his lightning-quick gather off the dribble or maneuvering the court until he can create separation, Young has become a transition defense’s worst nightmare.

A stellar stretch through the season’s final quarter can’t be used to define an entire season’s performance, but it sure is enough to tilt a conversation. Young likely won’t be named Rookie of the Year, and it’s still hard to argue against Dončić winning the crown. But Young has already come this far despite being written off almost the second Dončić took the court. Who’s to say the Hawks’ final five games won’t be enough to sway the vote?

While the outcome is no longer a given, regardless of what happens between now and when voting ends on April 12, one thing is for certain.

This race is due for a fantastic finish.