Luka Doncic is another one who got away from Hawks in draft

Trae Young was good pick, but Mavericks superstar is better
Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) after their game at State Farm Arena, Jan. 26, 2024, in Atlanta. The Mavericks won 148-143. Doncic scored a franchise-record 73 points. (Jason Getz /

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) talks with Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young (11) after their game at State Farm Arena, Jan. 26, 2024, in Atlanta. The Mavericks won 148-143. Doncic scored a franchise-record 73 points. (Jason Getz /

It wasn’t like drafting Marvin Williams over Chris Paul or trading Pau Gasol for Shareef Abdur-Rahim. Former Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk didn’t end up with a only decent player instead of a generational talent after the 2018 draft. The player he picked has multiple All-Star selections before age 26, so it wasn’t a major blunder like those made by predecessors Billy Knight (2008) and Pete Babcock (2001).

But, six years later, everyone can see that it was a mistake for Schlenk to trade Luka Doncic for Trae Young on draft night. It was true even before Doncic produced the best season of his career. It’s even clearer now that Doncic’s Mavericks are set to play Boston in the NBA Finals, a place the Atlanta-era Hawks still have never been.

It’s pointless to ponder whether Young might have done the same for the Hawks by now if the roster were better. There are too many hypotheticals and variables invovled. For example, it’s true that Mavs guard Kyrie Irving is a better player than any Young has played with. But Dallas was able to acquire Irving only because he’d worn out his welcome in Brooklyn. Also, the Hawks added All-Star Dejounte Murray, so it’s not as if Young’s backcourt partner is marginal.

Anyway, great team success for one star doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better than another star. In this case, though, there is no doubt that Doncic is better than Young. He is, at worst, a top-10 player in the NBA. Young is, at best, top 20. It’s the gap between sometime All-Star selection and annual All-NBA pick.

Doncic has been an All-Star and All-NBA first team in five of his six seasons. The exception was his first season, when Doncic was voted Rookie of the Year over Young. Young has made three All-Star teams (he was as an injury replacement this season) and was voted All-NBA third team once. He’s an excellent player who just isn’t on Doncic’s level.

This season is a breakthrough for Doncic. He was third in league MVP voting after finishing first in scoring (33.9 points per game) and second in assists (9.8). In the postseason Doncic is averaging 28.8 points (sixth-most), 8.8 assists (tied with LeBron James for first) and 9.6 rebounds (better than Heat All-Star big man Bam Adebayo). Doncic is the main reason why the Mavs made it through the West, which had a much stronger field than the East.

The Mavs started their run by eliminating the Clippers, who employ four veterans sure to be in the Hall of Fame someday. The Mavs next vanquished top-seeded Oklahoma City with Doncic averaging 30 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds in two road victories. The Mavs beat Minnesota in the West finals as Doncic dominated early in the Game 5 clincher to dissuade the Timberwolves from believing they could get back in the series.

Young had a similar run for the Hawks during the 2021 playoffs. He was fantastic against the Knicks, 76ers and Bucks. Young’s ankle injury was a “what-if” from the East finals against Milwaukee, but the Hawks won a game without him. The bigger issue was that they couldn’t get enough stops in Games 5 and 6 even with two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo sitting out with an injury.

The Hawks haven’t figured out how to build a roster that covers Young’s defensive weaknesses. Doncic also isn’t a good defender, but he’s got six inches (6-foot-7) and about 50 pounds on Young (more when he’s out of shape, which is the biggest knock against Doncic). It’s hard for opponents to bully Doncic, he can switch on pick-and-rolls without getting caught in mismatches and no point guard comes close to matching him in rebounds.

Doncic’s size also gives him advantages over Young at the other end. He can muscle his way to the rim, where he scores at a much higher rate than Young. That makes him the more efficient scorer despite lesser accuracy on 3-pointers. Both Young and Doncic are fantastic playmakers, but Doncic has an easier time seeing over the defense.

It took the Mavs and Hawks some time to build teams good enough to make playoff runs with their young stars. Both franchises have tried, come up short and then tried again.

The Hawks made it to the 2020-21 East finals with a deep group of quality veterans and lots of shooting around Young, but no other All-Star. After Miami easily beat the Hawks in the first round the next year, the Hawks added Murray with the idea taking some playmaking and shot creation pressure off Young. The duo lost in the first round to Boston last year and to Chicago in the play-in this season.

The Mavs traded for All-Star big man Kristaps Porzingis before the 2019-20 season. That team lost in the first round of the playoffs in two consecutive seasons before making it to the West finals in 2022. The Mavs added Irving at the 2023 trade deadline to juice the offense, but the team struggled on defense before tanking at the end of the season.

Dallas acquired rim protector Dereck Lively II in the draft and further bolstered the defense by signing wing Derrick Jones Jr. before this season. At this year’s trade deadline, the Mavs traded for two more defensive-minded players, Daniel Gafford and P.J. Washington. Now the Mavs have plenty of size, defense and lob threats to supplement Doncic’s superlative abilities.

The Hawks had Doncic in the fold for the few minutes between drafting him No. 3 overall and trading him to the Mavs for Young, the No. 5 pick. The pick swap wouldn’t have happened if the Grizzlies, picking fifth, took Young (they selected Jaren Jackson Jr.). After the draft, Schlenk said the Hawks were drawn to Young’s ability to make teammates better via his passing ability and court vision.

As for Young’s size, Schlenk joked that joked that “it would be great if Trae grew six inches by the time he gets here Monday.” Well, then that would make Young like Doncic, the player Schlenk had just traded for him. The GM decided that Young and the extra draft pick the Hawks got from Dallas were worth more than Doncic (that pick would later be used on draft bust Cam Reddish).

The Hawks were right to be high on Young. He’s among the best scorers/ playmakers in the world. It’s just that Doncic is his equal in those areas and better in many others. And now he’s made it to the NBA finals before Young.