Why Hawks GM Schlenk made bold move to take Trae Young over Luka Doncic

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The Hawks acquired Oklahoma's Trae Young in a trade during the NBA Draft. Here's photos of Young.

Soon after the Hawks acquired Trae Young in the draft, general manager Travis Schlenk said the team was most drawn to Young’s ability to make teammates better through his passing and court vision. Later, addressing Young’s small size by NBA standards, Schlenk joked that “it would be great if Trae grew six inches by the time he gets here Monday.”

Hanging over his words was the reality that Schlenk had just traded Luka Doncic, a bigger playmaker, to the Mavericks for Young and a future pick.

Doncic also has excellent court vision and passing ability. At 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, Doncic is more than six inches taller than Young and about 50 pounds heavier than Young. Furthermore, Doncic had unprecedented success for his age while playing two full seasons in the world’s second-best professional league, while Young starred for one year at Oklahoma in NCAA Division I.

It was a close call between the two players, Schlenk said. The Hawks were focused on getting a playmaker, and they rated Young and Doncic as the two best such players in the draft, with the order varying among the team’s scouts and basketball executives.

“They were both extremely intriguing,” Schlenk said. “In all honesty our group was really, really split between the two. It certainly wasn’t clear-cut.”

The GM made the final call. Schlenk decided that the first-round pick the Hawks got from the Mavericks for swapping Doncic and Young had greater value than whatever edge Doncic has over Young as a prospect.

The Hawks will receive the pick from Dallas if it’s not in the top five of the 2019 or 2020 drafts. The pick is top-three protected for the 2021 and 2022 drafts, then unprotected in 2023. The Mavericks are rebuilding, so there’s a good chance the pick will convey next year within the top 10.

Schlenk has consistently said that he wants to add as many draft picks as possible to give him more chances to hit on big talent in the draft. His hope is that he got a two-for-one Thursday: a future All-Star in Young, and the chance to find another one with the extra pick.

The Hawks also own a top-10 protected pick from Cleveland for 2019 or 2020. The Hawks are likely to finish in the draft lottery again next season. That means there’s a chance they could have three picks near the top of the 2019 draft, which is expected to feature several guards and small forwards, positions that Schlenk favors.

“Two of our goals in the next few years is to accumulate as much assets as we can and to get as much talent as we can,” Schlenk said. “Luka is a heck of a player; we were happy with him. Trae is a heck of a player; we are excited to have him. When the opportunity came to pick up a first-round pick from the Mavericks, it just kind of made sense to accomplish both goals with one move.”

The risk for Schlenk is that in doing so, he miscalculated the relative values of Young and Doncic.

Still, in this instant-analysis era of sports Schlenk’s decision drew immediate criticism from some NBA experts and fans. If Schlenk wanted a playmaker, they wondered, why didn’t he just keep Doncic? The future first-round pick is nice but what if Schlenk already had a superstar talent in hand with Doncic?

The Hawks and other NBA teams have more information and insight on prospects than fans and analysts. The Suns and Kings also passed on Doncic, which means at least two teams didn’t consider him to be the best player in the draft.

But Doncic’s pre-draft profile was raised when he led Real Madrid to championships in the EuroLeague and Spanish ACB league. Doncic, 19, is the youngest player to win MVP for the EuroLeague regular season and playoffs. He also helped the Slovenian national team win the 2017 European championship.

Statistical projections also are high on Doncic.

ESPN writer Kevin Pelton's model — a synthesis of statistics and scouting — tabbed Doncic as the best player in the draft with a projected value nearly twice that of Young. Pelton wrote that Doncic's rating is higher than for any of the 800-plus prospects in his database going back to at 2003 (LeBron James not included).

Young fared even worse in another ESPN draft projection. It ranked Young 12th while identifying him as the biggest risk-reward prospect in the draft.

That forecast gives Young a 12 percent chance of becoming an All-Star, same as Ayton, but a 23 percent chance of being a “bust,” highest among the top prospects. It gives Doncic a 14 percent chance to become an All-Star with a 12 percent chance of being a bust.

Public perception also favors Doncic over Young, at least as measured by betting markets.

The day after the draft, online sportsbook Bovada.lv released odds for next season’s rookie of the year. Deandre Ayton, the No. 1 overall pick to the Suns, was favored with 13 to 5 odds, with Doncic just behind him at 3 to 1. Young was fourth in the pecking order with 7 to 1 odds, behind Marvin Bagley, the No. 2 overall pick to the Kings.

It likely will be years before the final verdict is rendered on Doncic vs. Young. There’s a chance that it will be inconclusive in the end.

Both players may turn out to be great, both could end up as disappointments or there could be some shades of gray in between. No prospect is perfect, and Doncic will have to overcome some weaknesses just like Young.

Doncic, like Young, comes with questions about his defensive ability in the NBA because of average athletic ability. Young faded toward the end of Oklahoma’s season, but Doncic appeared to wear down, too (though he played 1,527 minutes to Young’s 1,133).

Doncic has a big size advantage, but Young has been the better 3-point shooter. Young has a great ability to make 3’s off the dribble, a valuable NBA skill.

Doncic played against better competition than Young, but for the most part, he still wasn’t facing NBA-quality players. The Hawks believe outside analysts and fans tended to overestimate the level of play in Europe because of the hype surrounding Doncic.

The Hawks were high on Doncic, too, and figured they would have the chance to draft him once it became clear that the Kings favored Bagley. Schlenk said the Hawks had Doncic and Young rated higher than the big men at the top of the draft, in part because skilled perimeter players have become more valuable in the NBA.

The Hawks listened to multiple offers for the No. 3 pick, but were leery of dropping too far in the draft order and missing out on Young — the Magic owned the sixth pick, and they might have targeted Young. Schlenk said the deal with the Mavericks wasn’t agreed to until about 15 minutes before the start of the draft.

The Hawks would select Doncic, the Mavericks would take Young and then the teams would swap the players and the pick. The only potential snag with the deal was if the Grizzlies, picking fourth, selected Young, in which case the Hawks would keep Doncic.

Schlenk said the Hawks were confident the Grizzlies would select a big man. Memphis took Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr. at No. 4 and the Mavericks selected Young. Minutes later NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced the trade: Doncic to the Hawks for Young plus the draft pick.

It was a big moment for Schlenk and the Hawks franchise. Time will tell if it ends up being good, bad or something in between.

“We would have been extremely happy with Luka,” Schlenk said. “We are obviously extremely excited about Trae.”