In college, Trae Young was an absolute superstar. In his one and only season at the University of Oklahoma, Young led the NCAA in assists per game (8.7) and points per game (27.4), breaking Kevin Durant’s record for most points in a season by a Big 12 freshman. After being named a consensus first team All-American, Young decided to forgo the rest of his college career to enter the NBA draft.
While fans were enthralled by the point guard’s flashiness on the court, NBA executives were divided on his potential at the NBA level. Some saw flashes of Steph Curry in the native Oklahoman: an undersized point guard who could still become an NBA superstar in today’s game due to his deep range, electrifying movement, and impressive handles.
Others saw shades of Jimmer Fredette in the 6’2” guard: an impressive college scorer who would struggle against the world-class athleticism of NBA defenders. Furthermore, Young’s scrawny stature would make him a complete liability on the defensive end of the floor and leave him prone to injuries during the grueling 82 game slate.
After his stellar freshman campaign, Young was eventually selected by the Dallas Mavericks with the 5th overall pick. Promptly, he was traded to the Atlanta Hawks in exchange for the 3rd pick, Luka Doncic, and a future protected first round pick. From the moment they were traded, the careers of Doncic and Young became intertwined forever. Whether fair or not, the two point guards selected in the top five of the same draft who were traded for each other will always be compared.
Coming into the draft though, there was no comparison to be made between the two. On one hand, Young didn’t play basketball for his high school during his freshman year. When he did come out for the team during his sophomore year, he played well, but didn’t have a major breakthrough until he was an upperclassman. Even though he had a late surge in recruiting rankings, Young decided to stay in his hometown of Norman, moving only down the street to play for the hometown Sooners.
On the other hand, Doncic, at 6’7”, literally and figuratively towers over the diminutive Young. While Young didn’t blossom until late in his teens, Doncic moved away from his family in his native Slovenia as a tween to join the youth academy of Real Madrid, one of the best basketball clubs in Europe. By 16, Doncic had become the youngest player to play for the organization’s senior team in club history.
While Young’s Sooners bombed out of the first round of the NCAA tournament, Doncic was leading Madrid to their first EuroLeague title since 2015, collecting the league’s regular season MVP award and the league’s final four MVP award along the way.
Going into summer league, the Mavericks decided to rest Doncic after his long European season, so Young had an opportunity to shine with the spotlight squarely on him. To say Young struggled would be an understatement.
In his first summer league game, Young would air ball both of his first two three point attempts. He would go on to miss his first 10 shots from the field, eventually finishing his debut with a horrid shooting stat line of 1-11 from behind the arc and 4-20 from the field. Throughout the next few games, Young showed minimal improvement, shooting just 23% from the field over his first three games.
While Doncic had yet to put on an NBA jersey, fans were already proclaiming Young as a historic bust, and as the regular season began, the voices of Young’s critics only grew louder. While Doncic was consistently putting up 20 point performances, Young couldn’t seem to find his groove. In the first full month of the season, Young was a dreadful 17-86 (19.8%) from 3-point range, coughed up over four turnovers per game, and was always one step behind his assignment on the defensive end of the floor.
However, as the season progressed, Young began to improve. Throughout the first half of the season, Young sported an overall plus-minus of -276, one of the worst in the league, but by February he began to hit his stride. In that month, Young improved to 38-87 (43.7%) from deep, while averaging over 23 points and 9 assists per game.
Young continued to gain momentum after the All-Star break, improving his accuracy and ball handling skills in the later stages over the season. Throughout February, March, and April, Young had an effective field goal percentage of over 50%, a drastic improvement from his November EFG% of 39.2.
By the end of the season, Young was second in the entire league with 653 assists, an average of over eight dimes per game. In addition, his assist percentage of 40.5 ranked third in the league, a true measure that he was helping the teammates around him. At one point in late March, Young had eight consecutive 20 point games, and he earned his first Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors after his string of impressive performances.
As the season wrapped up, the young Hawks were out of playoff contention, but Young had effectively proved his doubters wrong. After adjusting to the fast-paced nature of the NBA, Young proved he is one of the best young players in the league. In Rookie of the Year voting, Young finished a clear second to Doncic, but Young was able to earn a few first place votes, even after his struggles to start the year.
After seeing Young’s rapid improvement in just one season in the league, I expect Young to continue his exponential growth in the upcoming years. He’s proven to have extreme amounts of resilience and determination, constantly wanting to prove his doubters wrong. While he may not be there yet, let’s not forget that Trae Young was, and could soon return to being, an absolute superstar.