One day, the basketball world will look at an old picture of Luka Doncic wearing an Atlanta Hawks’ hat from the night of the 2018 NBA draft and think one of two things: 1) “Dumbest trade Travis Schlenk ever made”; or 2) “That man was a visionary.”
Welcome to the night of second-guessing. It took only until Schlenk’s second draft. Pretty sure that’s not a franchise record.
The Hawks drafted Doncic, the Slovenian who won the MVP of the EuroLeague at the age of 19, Thursday night with the third overall pick. It was the logical pick -- a player who many considered the premier talent in the draft. Doncic walked across a stage in Brooklyn and then put on a Hawks’ hat.
But that picture was as close as Doncic made it to Atlanta. Even before the pick was announced, it was leaked that Schlenk had a contingency trade in place to deal Doncic to Dallas for Oklahoma guard Trae Young (who was taken fifth overall) and the Mavericks’ first-round pick next year (top-five protected).
There wasn’t a mock draft that had Young going ahead of Doncic. Granted, mock-drafters are mere fantasy team builders, but it says something about perception, especially when people like analyst Jay Bilas are lauding Doncic as possibly the best player in the draft.
But the Hawks didn’t hold that view. Either that, or Schlenk was so tantalized by the Mavericks throwing in an extra first-round pick that he didn’t mind taking the lesser player.
“To us, they were the best two playmakers in the draft, being able to make other people better with their passing ability and what they can do in pick-and-rolls,” Schlenk said. “They were both extremely intriguing. In all our honesty, our group was really split between the two. It certainly wasn’t clear cut.”
Schlenk is out on a limb. If greatness can only be achieved with great risk … well, the Hawks’ general manager has now filled the first qualification.
He did what he said he was going to do: acquired skilled players. The Hawks’ first three picks -- Young, Maryland’s Kevin Huerter and Villanova’s Omari Spellman -- are all about offense (and pray for defense). Before the night was over, the Hawks acquired an extra first-round pick (giving them three next year: their own, Dallas’ and Cleveland’s) two future second-rounders from Charlotte (for Devonte Graham, who was taken 34th).
But the success or failure of this draft may ultimately may be determined by who turns out to be the better player: Doncic or Young.
It wasn’t a secret that Schlenk admired Young’s game. The point guard was a tremendous shooter and an offensive force at Oklahoma, where he averaged 27.4 points and 8.7 assists. His quickness compensates for his lack of size (6-foot-1).
There have been immediate comparisons to Steph Curry, which is incredibly unfair to Young. But Schlenk was at Golden State when Curry was drafted and developed and has sought to a build a team that can pass and shoot like the Warriors. If it was up to him, he would have a court full of athletic 6-6 to 6-9 players who can pass, shoot and defense.
Couldn’t Doncic fit into that plan?
“We would’ve been extremely happy with Luka. We’re extremely happy with Trae,” Schlenk said.
It’s dangerous to pre-judge coaches or trades or draft picks. But Doncic seems far closer to a sure thing than Young. What he lacked in quickness and shooting ability, the 6-8 guard/small forward made up for in passing, playmaking ability, court vision and his moves and instincts in the low post. He has played professionally since the age of 15. This year he became the youngest MVP and “Final Four” MVP in EuroLeague history, when he led Real Madrid to the championship.
Maybe this works out. Maybe Young turns out to be the star Schlenk envisions and Doncic is average. But over these next few years, media and fans are bound to continuously compare the accomplishments of the two players.
Here’s another comparison: After the trade, veteran Pau Gasol Tweeted, “Luka Doncic #3, picked by Atlanta. Mmmhh, sounds familiar.”
The Hawks drafted Gasol in 2001 but dealt him to Memphis for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Oops.
An educated guess: That’s not happening. The Hawks likely don’t want Schroder anywhere near Young.
This team is a long way from contending, even if Young said, “It feels a lot like going to Oklahoma, a team that was looking to rebuild. They were talented but one or two pieces away from being special. Hopefully, I’m that one player.”
A nice sentiment Schlenk hopes is true.
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