Ahead of the 2018 draft, Trae Young had plenty of detractors. Questions about his size, his ability to hang with NBA-level defenses, or whether he would make his teammates better were abundant. To some, his 3-point shooting and slight fame felt like little more than tantalizing selling points that hid the facets of his game that weren’t ready for the NBA.
“I know a lot of NBA scouts hated Trae,” one scout with an Eastern Conference team said. “They just thought, ‘I wouldn’t want to coach that fucking guy.’”
Through the first half of his rookie season, those doubts about his game seemed to be accurate. Young struggled shooting the ball, and as his dad Rayford told me back in 2019, it didn’t help that everything he was doing or failing to do was viewed through what Luka Doncic—the player he had essentially been traded for—was doing. It affected Young.
It wasn’t just Young. The shadow of Doncic immediately loomed large over the rest of the 2018 draft, especially no. 2 pick Marvin Bagley III and no. 1 pick Deandre Ayton. One Western Conference executive remembers the night of the draft as one of dread. Their team didn’t have a lottery pick, but they were paying extra close attention. They didn’t want a competitive team in the conference to vault their way up for Doncic. Watching the Mavericks do so was a worst-case scenario.
“By no means did we think Luka was gonna be this good, but we thought he was very good,” the executive said. “We were like, the last thing we need is another high-level player in the West.”
As Doncic quickly surpassed expectations and turned into one of the league’s elite playmakers, his success seemed to indict any franchise who passed or didn’t trade up to get him in the process. While Young and the Hawks got the brunt of it, Ayton also faced faster and harsher expectations. In his first season, he struggled to play defense and find his role: He was still trying to play as if he was the no. 1 option like he was at Arizona. His second season began with a 25-game drug suspension and he ended up playing only 38 games.
In a bit of a narrative twist, though, what the past two seasons have shown is that even if Doncic may always be the headliner of the class, Young and Ayton aren’t far behind and have turned this postseason into their stage. What’s more, their respective teams are still alive in the postseason—Phoenix is in the conference finals and Atlanta is one game away from upsetting the Sixers and making it there too—and that’s due in large part to Young and in not-so-small part to Ayton.
“I don’t know if Atlanta can say they wish they had Luka,” the league scout said. “I mean, Trae went further in the playoffs than Luka,” they added, tongue in cheek.
Comparing Doncic’s rookie year to theirs was clouded by a small sample size and affected by other factors, and comparing their playoff success this season to Doncic’s, who exited in the first round for the second season in a row, is similarly fraught. But there’s no denying that both Ayton and Young have taken 100-yard strides since their rookie season. Their improvement has been a product of both nature and nurture, a lesson in patience and in how important an environment is to a player fulfilling his ultimate potential.
The NBA lottery is most often viewed from the team perspective. Which team gets lucky and which team doesn’t is often the primary takeaway from that night. But players also get lucky—or unlucky—and that night is just as important for them, if not more so. If NBA history has shown us anything, it’s that situations often make superstars as much as raw talent does.
“I’m always a big believer that you need three or four years to grade the value of a draft,” one Western Conference general manager said. “And [Young and Ayton] went into situations where organizations really needed them. They invested in them, and they allowed them to mature in the right way.”
Young has taken these playoffs by storm, shredding the Knicks at Madison Square Garden and leaning into the villain role as if he had a caped spandex suit tailored for him. He hasn’t stopped in the second round, posting two games of 35 points or more and three games of 10 assists or more. In his first postseason, he’s averaging nearly 30 points per game and more than 10 assists per game.
“He’s a monster. This dude is a monster,” Lou Williams said after Young scored 39 points in the Game 5 win against the Sixers Wednesday. “It’ll be one of those things where I look back when he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s an established superstar in this league, and I can say I was part of that process and I worked with this gentleman.”
The same could be said of Ayton, who shot 79.6 percent from the field in his first playoff series against the Lakers, and then more than held his ground against the MVP, Nikola Jokic, in the second round.
Ayton and Young have rapidly turned around the narratives that have followed them since their rookie seasons. But it hasn’t come easy. Both teams had to fire a coach in the process while also going through chemistry issues and star displeasure. Those are common problems in today’s NBA, especially with young stars, but as both Atlanta and Phoenix have shown, winning fixes all.
So even though Doncic and a player like Zion Williamson are considered to be the next superstars in the league, the current reality presents a fascinating dichotomy between those two and Ayton and Young. The Mavericks just fired their general manager Donnie Nelson (whom Doncic was reportedly close with) after a power struggle in the front office leaked to the media. Their head coach, Rick Carlisle, followed that up by informing the team he won’t return next season. The Pelicans, meanwhile, just fired Stan Van Gundy after one season as a head coach, and there are reports that some of Williamson’s family members want him out of New Orleans.
Young and Ayton, on the other hand, look to be on teams well-built for the future. Atlanta has constructed an ideal roster around Young, partnering him with shooting wings and a handful of rim-running bigs. Ayton has benefited from Chris Paul’s arrival and Devin Booker’s leap, two developments that have allowed (and forced) him to thrive in his role as a finisher and defensive anchor. Their individual ceilings may not be as high as those of Doncic and Williamson, but their situations underline how important team building is to a player turning their talent into playoff runs.
“I don’t want to discredit Ayton,” the scout said. “But if he was in Sacramento, he would not be like this.”
Ayton’s leap has been a team effort. Ayton not only has one good coach in Monty Williams, but a second coach on the court in Paul. It’s the ideal scenario for a young big man and he has taken full advantage of it. He has clearly bought into what the Suns are building, even if it means playing the third, sometimes fourth fiddle to Paul, Booker, and Mikal Bridges—also a member of that 2018 draft class.
With Young, as it is with most young players, patience has been the prevailing theme. Atlanta has allowed Young to make mistakes and grow. He’s improved this year in subtle but crucial ways, even though he missed out on All-Star honors this year after being selected last season due to his raw stats. He’s not only the best player on the team, but it’s easy to see that he’s evolved into the team’s motor and leader off the floor, too.
It isn’t just Ayton and Young who are already making a difference during these playoffs. The Suns compounded their Ayton pick by trading for Bridges, who already looks like one of the league’s best 3-and-D wings and has been stellar on both ends through two series. Bridges also has a background in big games during his time at Villanova, which has made him fit right into the postseason stakes.
“I’ve been in a lot of tough situations and the biggest games in college,” Bridges said. “I love it, I always wanted to play in the playoffs.”
Make your way down the draft board and you’ll keep seeing names of players who have stood out: Despite an injury, Michael Porter Jr. continued to show why a number of front offices had him as the best talent in the draft. Kevin Huerter has quickly become another one of Atlanta’s sharpshooting wings. Landry Shamet has been on three teams in three seasons but he’s found a role cashing in key 3s for the Nets this season. There are even a few second-rounders who have already carved out roles on their teams—Shake Milton saved a game for the Sixers during these playoffs while Brooklyn wisely uses former second-rounder Bruce Brown as a small-ball 5 at times.
“He’s just got that fearless mentality and it’s great because he really takes advantage of defenses not giving him enough credit,” Blake Griffin said of Brown. “Time and time again, he got in and finished down low and then on the defensive end, he does a great job. He’s a utility guy who has basically played every position for us.”
As one league executive pointed out, the fact that most of the players at the top of the 2018 draft haven’t been traded (and those who have, like the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, have thrived at both stops) suggests these players have been given the time to develop and grow, and now teams are reaping the rewards.
“It takes time to mature and develop and figure out what’s there,” the executive said. “And I think we’re reaching that stage with this class.”
Ayton himself, who is not exactly known for subtlety on and off the court, made a sweeping declaration recently that, though premature, was not out of the realm of possibility in future years.
“I think it’s the best class in NBA history,” Ayton said. “It’s a new generation in the league.”