Luka Doncic: A Rookie Year in Context

The hype around Luka Doncic has outpaced his own legacy. Just how good was his rookie season? How strong is his case for Rookie of the Year?

Luka Doncic has blessed the Dallas Mavericks with the most dominant rookie seasons in recent memory. Considered by many to be the top prospect in 2018, he fell past the top two draft picks, DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley, for seemingly little other reason than that he played his "college" days in Spain instead of in the NCAA. While Atlanta's Trae Young emerges as a challenger to the Rookie of the Year award, Luka's season has come under more scrutiny as his stats level out and Young's three-point percentage continues to swell. Should we reconsider the idea of Luka winning by a landslide? Or is it too little too late from Young?

The big picture

Everybody evaluates regular season awards differently. The value of wins, stats, and intangibles is all in the eye of the beholder. As high draft picks often land on bad teams, I don't put as much value on wins for rookies. While better teams rest players and gear up for the playoffs, we often see Spring-time surges from the players and teams who haven't been as visible throughout the season. This year's greatest late-season bloomer is Trae Young, with honorable mentions to Elfrid Payton's yearly personal March Madness (five consecutive triple doubles, y'all) and the Los Angles Clippers. With that being said, I put more stock on statistics for the Rookie of the Year award than I normally would when otherwise evaluating players. Part of what separates Luka from the pack is that his rookie season is historically excellent as a complete body of work, where one portion of the season doesn't need to be isolated from the others to make him look good.

Past winners in comparison

Since the year 2000, only three other rookie of the year winners have averaged 20 or more points per game: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Blake Griffin. Doncic is currently averaging 21. Only two players in that time frame averaged at least six assists and six rebounds: Ben Simmons and - wait for it - Michael Carter-Williams. Luka's 5.8 assists are outmatched by Young's 7.9, and his 7.6 rebounds are dwarfed by DeAndre Ayton's 10.2, but neither of those two come close to keeping pace in the other categories. Young's 2.9 rebounds per game and Ayton's 1.8 assists don't even leave a scratch on Luka's trophy case. And by the way, Luka still ranks second among all rookies in rebounding and assists. He's also fourth in steals, where Ayton and Young are absent from the top five.

Keep in mind that using past winners as a scope is pretty narrow. Carmelo Anthony scored 21 per game in his rookie campaign when he lost the award to LeBron. Regardless, Doncic has ascended to the highest echelon of rookies. Here is the complete list of players to average 20 points, five rebounds, and five assists for their rookie years: Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Tyreke Evans, LeBron James, and Luka Doncic.

Another quick note. Jordan and Robertson averaged 28 and 30 points apiece, while James, Evans, and Doncic all averaged 20 or 21 respectively. The former two played in vastly different eras than the latter three, which makes comparisons futile, but it's still a testament to how hard it is to put up such well-rounded stats as a rookie no matter the circumstances.

Does Trae Young have a case?

Seeing Luka's season in greater context makes it hard for me to entertain the idea that Young's late surge is enough to usurp Doncic as this year's best rookie. It's only fair, though, that we examine Young's numbers in historical context as well, which helps his case more than it hurts it. Only Oscar Robertson and Damon Stoudamire have averaged at least 19 points, eight assists, and three rebounds per game as a rookie. If Trae can boost his assist average in the last couple weeks of the season by just 0.1, he would be the third. This is where using stats to draw conclusions gets tricky. If we're declaring that Trae Young falls somewhere in between Damon Stoudamire and Oscar Robertson on the greatness scale, then I'm not sure we have learned anything substantial. Also, if we're looking at a 0.1 discrepancy in assists average as a relevant figure, then we're probably ignoring the more important details.

I've reached one conclusion I can feel absolutely confident about after my research: Oscar Robertson's 30 point, 10 rebound, almost 10 assist rookie year is untouchable. Other than that, both Doncic and Young have had uniquely great rookie seasons. So how do we pick one over the other?

I think a relevant part of the debate that is often left out is that the Mavericks traded some players that played off Luka pretty well mid-season while Trae had the same guys to work with in the latter half of the season. These factors clearly affected their respective team results. Wesley Matthews, DeAndre Jordan, and Harrison Barnes were all solid pieces that could fill the gaps of a Luka-centric offense. Meanwhile in Atlanta, Young has had all season to develop synergy with a slew of young teammates, especially the much-improved John Collins. This isn't to discredit Young for having better teammates. Rather, it is to remind you that Doncic's trajectory was altered when his most productive teammates were traded, not to mention JJ Barea's season-ending injury.

Luka's advantage

Here's the other tiebreaker: I still like Doncic's offensive game more, even with Young's expanded three-point range and precise passing.

Doncic is flashy and creative, which can distract from the more relevant details: he's got the coordination of a guard and the body of a forward. He's clearly not as quick as most guards, but he knows how to leverage his strength against other players to create space to make a shot. The league is loaded with muscle and length these days, but none of it matters without the skill set to utilize it. That's what makes him a superior offensive player.

I found it odd that Cauley-Stein took his eyes off Doncic for a second in the clip with nobody cutting down the middle for Dallas, but I was still impressed that Doncic was alert enough to put the shot up as soon as he did.

Am I going too far if I call the step-back three the modern day hook shot? It's not new, but James Harden has made it commonplace almost by himself, using it as a foundation to enter the running for a second MVP award. With Doncic following suit, I'd expect more players to pick it up in the coming years.

As someone who questioned Trae Young's potential as a viable NBA player as early as summer league, I've come around to realize he'll fit in just fine and will only do better as the players around him improve. But as I look through Doncic's accomplishments as he plugs along with an overhauled roster, I think it's clear that he's been this year's best rookie and that he'll win the award by a landslide.

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