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Luka Doncic and Trae Young Are Changing the Top-Prospect Archetype

The two hottest names on NBA draft boards don’t look like no. 1 picks of years past. They aren’t freakish athletes or physically imposing Goliaths. But they play the game the way the future mandates, and set the 2018 draft’s most pressing question: Would you rather have the next Steph Curry or the next unicorn?

A photo illustration featuring Luka Doncic and Trae Young Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

If the NBA selected players on stats alone, Luka Doncic and Trae Young would be the top two picks in this year’s draft. The two teenagers are doing things no player their age has ever done before. Doncic is dominating the EuroLeague, while Young is rewriting the NCAA record books. Even more unusual than what they are doing is how they are doing it.

Doncic and Young aren’t typical phenoms dominating their competition by being bigger and faster than their peers. They are average athletes who have made themselves indefensible by taking 3s at rates that would have been unheard of even a few years ago. They are part of the first generation of players to grow up watching Steph Curry, and they are taking the blueprint he provided in different directions. What the teams at the top of the draft have to figure out is whether Curry and his influence are turning points in draft evaluation, or whether Curry himself is closer to the exception that proves the rule.

Doncic has been debated in NBA front offices for years. He has been in the rotation for Real Madrid, one of the best teams in Europe, since he was 16. In the three years since, Doncic has matured into one of the best players on the continent, regardless of age. At 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, he’s a teenager with the body of a grown man. No European prospect has ever had a résumé like his. He teamed up with Goran Dragic to lead Slovenia to a EuroBasket championship this summer, and he’s all over the EuroLeague leaderboard this season. Doncic is second in total points, eighth in assists, and 11th in rebounds.

Young, on the other hand, has become a household name in the span of a few months. He was a McDonald’s All American, but he wasn’t considered one of the top recruits in his high school class. At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Young has only average size and speed for an NBA point guard, and he was overshadowed by elite athletes at the position like Collin Sexton and Trevon Duval. That changed as soon as he stepped on the court at Oklahoma, where he is leading the country in scoring (29.4 points per game on 46.2 percent shooting) and assists (10.2). Not many college players have ever had Young’s combination of usage and efficiency before, much less as freshmen.

Doncic and Young are aggressive players who are always looking to attack, and they aren’t afraid to rise up from way behind the 3-point line. Doncic isn’t as accurate as Young, but that doesn’t stop him from shooting. The threat of the shot is as important as making it because it completely distorts the defense. The two players shoot so many 3s off the dribble that defenders can’t afford to give them any breathing room, which makes it easy for them to generate contact and get to the free throw line. Both Doncic and Young knock down free throws at an incredibly high rate, a good indicator of their underlying shooting abilities:

Per-40 Minute Numbers

Player 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
Player 3PA 3P% FTA FT%
Young 12.1 38.80% 12 85.40%
Doncic 9 34.70% 9.2 85.60%

Of course, unlimited shooting range is no guarantee of NBA stardom. Just ask Jimmer Fredette, Doug McDermott, and Buddy Hield. None of those guys have been able to hold down starting jobs in the NBA, much less play like Curry. What separates Young and Doncic from those players is how well-rounded they are offensively. They can put the ball on the floor and finish in the lane, and they can find the open man when the defense collapses on them. Selling out to stop them from shooting plays right into their hands. The best NBA defenders can contain one-dimensional players, no matter how skilled they are at that one dimension. The trick is using that skill to set up everything else.

Three-point shooting is the key that opens up the rest of their game. The more space the defense has to guard, the more room the offensive player has to maneuver. Doncic and Young are faster with the ball than they are without it because defenders have to honor their ability to shoot. An average athlete can appear twice as fast when the defender is playing on his heels. Young will often launch a 30- or 35-footer early in the game to remind the other team that he can do it. The defense is in an almost impossible position: They can’t leave him open, but they can’t stay in front of him that far from the basket either.

Young and Doncic are so dynamic with the ball that their coaches have given them complete control of their offenses. There’s no need to complicate things: Give an elite shooter and passer a ball screen at the top of the key and good things will happen. Both players demand defensive attention when they come off a screen, and they know how to pick it apart when it comes. Their offensive numbers in the pick-and-roll this season (via Synergy Sports) are incredible:

Player Efficiency As a Ball-handler in the Pick-and-Roll

Player Possessions Points Per Possession Percentile
Player Possessions Points Per Possession Percentile
Doncic 299 1.258 97th
Young 280 1.084 84th

Includes points generated from assists

A player with their skill sets doesn’t have to dominate the ball, either. Doncic thrived next to Dragic at EuroBasket. He could run off screens and occupy defensive attention when he was off the ball, and Slovenia ran multiple pick-and-rolls over the course of the possession until it found a crack in the defense. Slovenia didn’t have the size of teams like France and Spain, who had NBA players in almost every spot in their rotation, but its offense was so efficient that it didn’t matter.

It’s hard to see either Young or Doncic being a bust at the next level. They are too skilled, and their abilities are too valuable given the way the game is played these days. Shooters who can make plays off the dribble are at a premium in a spread pick-and-roll offense, which almost every team in the league runs. Even if they start their NBA careers in smaller offensive roles than they currently have, they will still be able to threaten defenses without the ball in their hands. If anything, playing with more offensive threats around them should make their lives easier. Neither player gets many open shots in his current role.

The concern for skeptics in NBA front offices is more about their ceilings, especially in comparison to some of the hyper-athletic freaks that will be available at the top of the draft. Deandre Ayton is quicker on his feet and more explosive off the ground than either Doncic or Young, and he’s 7-foot-1 and 250 pounds. Defense is going to be a huge question mark for both players. If they don’t have the physical tools to be anything more than average defenders, there won’t be as many paths toward becoming elite players as there would be for a guy like Ayton. Their offensive dominance has to translate, and there are legitimate questions about how they will fare against elite length and athleticism in the NBA.

Doncic hasn’t been nearly as good when forced to play one-on-one this season. He is only in the 39th percentile as an isolation scorer among international players. NBA teams with the personnel up front to switch every screen may be able to limit him more than European teams with slower big men who can’t defend on the perimeter. Doncic can struggle at times to create separation off the dribble against faster defenders:

Young hasn’t played in college basketball long enough for opponents to become comfortable with his tendencies. Oklahoma just started its conference schedule, and college teams don’t do nearly as much game planning for their nonconference opponents. Young is coming off one of the worst games of his NCAA career, where he was stifled by an aggressive West Virginia defense that pressed him the whole game and was comfortable picking him up full court. He still scored 29 points, but he needed to take 22 shots to get there, and he had eight turnovers and only five assists.

Doncic and Young have reversed the typical developmental process for the best prospects. The past three no. 1 overall picks (Karl-Anthony Towns, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz) all had elite size and speed for their NBA positions, and the assumption was that they would spend their early 20s steadily improving their skills. Doncic and Young may not have as much room to get better because they are already so incredibly skilled. Their careers at the next level could depend on the answers to two interrelated questions. How much more skilled can they become as they get older? And how much more skilled can we expect basketball players to become?

The gold standard for players without elite physical tools is Curry. He doesn’t have exceptional quickness, either, yet longer and more athletic defenders still don’t have a prayer of guarding him. However, there is a long track record of NBA teams trying and failing to find their own versions of historically unique players. For 15 years, every European 7-footer who could shoot 3s was compared to Dirk Nowitzki. None came close. There was such a high degree of difficulty to what Dirk did that attempting to replicate it was doomed from the start.

Just because Curry can make the most impossible shots look easy doesn’t mean anyone else will be able to pull it off. There’s no way to know the limit for how accurately a professional basketball player can shoot a ball, and from how far away. When Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in 1954, a record many observers thought was impossible to break, it opened the floodgates. Sixteen different runners broke the mark in the next three years. Conversely, no one has been able to challenge the record for the long jump that Bob Beamon set in the 1968 Olympics.

Curry has redefined what is possible in the minds of a whole generation of players, and in the imaginations of basketball teams around the world. Curry took 4.7 3s per 36 minutes of playing time as a rookie. He takes 11.1 this season. Doncic already takes nearly as many as an 18-year-old. Young takes more. The number of 3s that NBA teams attempt per game has more than doubled in the past 20 years. Is there an upper bound for how many they should be taking, and are we close to reaching it? Or does the changing nature of players’ abilities push that bound upward every year?

In all likelihood, the players drafted in 2018 will be under contract with the teams who draft them until at least 2027. In 2009, Curry was drafted into a league that looked completely different than it does in 2018. The most difficult part about the draft isn’t projecting how much a player will change over the next decade, but how much the league will. Will the best players in the world eventually be shooting 15 3s a game by that point? If there will be players rewriting the NBA’s record books in 10 to 15 years, the most likely candidates are the guys who are rewriting the record books at lower levels now.