Atlanta Hawks rookie point guard Trae Young struggled to adjust to the pace of the NBA prior to the NBA All-Star Game. Despite being touted as an elite three-point shooter entering the NBA, the guard averaged only 14.0 points, 8.1 assists and 3.1 rebounds while shooting a horrendous 35.5 field goal percentage and a dismal 19.8 percent from the three-point line. Although Young’s poor shooting and atrocious defense severely hindered his chances to contend for Rookie of the Year at the beginning of the season, he’s since taken the league by storm.
Following the All-Star Game on Feb. 17, Young is averaging 25.8 points, 9.0 assists and 4.4 rebounds on 45.4 percent shooting from the field and 40.5 percent shooting beyond the arc. Young’s dominant play has also translated into more wins for the Hawks. Since Young’s emergence, Atlanta holds an 8-9 record, a tremendous turnaround considering their pre-All-Star break 19-40 record. These milestones have garnered interest and support from NBA stars such as Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma and Blake Griffin. With Young’s popularity soaring throughout the past few weeks, is it possible that he could steal the Rookie of the Year award from Dallas Mavericks prodigy Luka Dončić?
First-year Hawks Head Coach Lloyd Pierce certainly believes so.
“I want him to walk out of here with the Rookie of the Year award because that just shows that he got better from start to finish,” Pierce said.
At the beginning of the season, many analysts believed that Dončić had already solidified his position as Rookie of the Year. Prior to the All-Star break, Dončić shot 43 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from the three-point line while averaging an impressive 20.7 points, 5.6 assists and 7.2 rebounds per game. The European star seemed to have the award locked down.
However, a couple weeks before the All-Star break, Dallas traded four of their starters to the New York Knicks for Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway Jr. and an injured Kristaps Porziņģis. The move made Dončić the sole focus in the Mavericks’ offense, and, accordingly, improved his statistical averages to 22.5 points, seven assists and 9.3 rebounds per game since the All-Star break. However, Dončić’s shooting percentages have dipped drastically since then. He is shooting only 40.9 percent from the field and 25.9 percent from beyond the arc since the All-Star break. Furthermore, the Mavericks have gone an abysmal 3-14 since then, dropping their record from 26-31 to 29-45. The forward’s shaky play, Dallas’ plummeting record, Young’s impressive turnaround and the Hawks’ tremendous improvement have culminated in a much closer race for Rookie of the Year than previously expected.
Atlanta Hawks General Manager Travis Schlenk noted this trend when considering the race for the Rookie of the Year award.
“What we’ve seen each month is Trae get a little better, and Luka got off to a great start and his numbers have gone down from the efficiency standpoint between now and then,” Schlenk said. “To discount one guy’s numbers going down, to discredit another guy who had one bad month at the beginning seems kinda crazy.”
Schlenk’s argument raises a valid point: Young’s early struggles should not overshadow his historic rookie season. So far, Young has recorded six games with at least 30 points and 10 assists, the second-most games among rookies in NBA history and on March 1 became the first rookie to record at least 45 points and 15 assists in a game against the Chicago Bulls. These accomplishments are impressive, especially for a small rookie point guard.
“We rely on him a lot, and he delivers a lot,” Pierce said. “I don’t know if anyone has played better basketball in their rookie season than he is [playing], or anybody else over the last couple of years. The stuff he is doing — facilitating, he has played in every single game and he has performed. He has been our go-to guy down the stretch.”
With only five games remaining in the season, Young has limited time to continue building his case; however, with Young’s superb play as of late, the Hawks’ improved team performance, Dončić’s shooting slump and the Mavericks’ declining record, there is growing belief among both players and fans that the Atlanta point guard could surpass Dončić and win the NBA Rookie of the Year award.