Extra Pass: Young, Doncic face off as Hawks visit Mavs

Published February 6, 2022, 5:00 PMMiguel Flores

Two of the brightest young stars in Trae Young and Luka Doncic are set to take center stage in the Mavericks-Hawks showdown tomorrow.

Forever linked

There are a few trades that will be as iconic and league-altering as the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks’ 2018 Draft night trade.

Dallas somehow convinced the Hawks to trade the third overall pick for the fifth pick and an additional future first rounder. The Mavs drafted Luka Doncic with the third pick. Atlanta got Trae Young, who they had targeted all along.

At first, it seemed the Mavs fleeced the Hawks in the deal as Doncic developed into an All-Star and MVP candidate in his sophomore season, leading the Mavs to the playoffs. The Hawks had floundered, until Young led their turnaround last season from the bottom of the standings to the Eastern Conference Finals.

No matter what you think of either player, both will be compared ad nauseum due to that trade. We probably won’t find out who won the exchange until both retire, which is a long time from now. For tomorrow, they meet to make a Monday morning more bearable.

Iced Trae

The Hawks seem to need strife in order to find themselves. Last season, it took a coaching change right around the All-Star break to get them into the playoffs. This season, a riff in the locker room was resolved when they traded Cam Reddish.

From 13th in the East, the Hawks have been rising. They’ve won eight of their last 10 games and have a 25-27 record, sitting at 10th place.

Aside from the trade, the Hawks seemed to find their stride as Trae Young found his. Young was putting up mixed numbers to start the season – he’d have 20-10 double-doubles while shooting just around 40 percent from the field. Young started shooting better around December and took off last month, right around the time the Hawks started to figure things out. Since January, Young has shot 46.1 percent from the field and 39.1 percent from deep while averaging 28.2 points and 9.0 assists per game.

The defensive problems are still there, but Young has operated more smoothly lately as the rest of the Hawks got better on that end for him. Atlanta’s modus has been to hand the keys over to Trae on offense – letting him pick-and-roll-and-launch from wherever he wants. This approach has vaulted them to second in offensive rating. Their defensive rating has gone from 30th to 27th, which is also an improvement.

There’s something still dynamic in watching the Hawks repeatedly run everything through their All-Star point guard. Young loves to shoot deep 3s, pass fancily, and run up the court as quick as possible. In other words, Young loves to do everything that makes basketball fun these days.

The Wonder Boy

There was something unsettling about basketball pundits turning into weight watchers when talking about Luka Doncic early this season. Did Luka start the year looking a little pudgy? Sure. There’s a pandemic, no one should be judged for struggling to keep weight off.

It turns out, the rules are a bit looser for basketball players paid to get fit. Luka wasn’t moving right, though he was still putting up the numbers. It all came to a head when Doncic suffered consecutive injuries in November and December. Doncic and the Mavs have since publicly agreed to have more communication when it came to Doncic’s offseason regimen.

Now with a fit Doncic and a relatively healthy roster, the Mavericks have been brilliant, gathering a 30-23 record for fifth in the West. There's plenty of credit to go around, from Jason Kidd’s coaching adjustments to the emergence of Jalen Brunson. But the Mavericks are a playoff team and fringe title contender solely because of Luka.

There’s an ease to how Doncic gets his near triple-doubles every game with around 30 points to boot. In some games, Doncic slowly creeps on you, until you realize he’s pretty much carried Dallas’ box score. In other games, Doncic takes over massive stretches that bury their opponents.

On saner ballots where he’s listed as both guard and forward, Doncic would have made the All-Star team as a starter easily. There isn’t anything in the NBA quite like Luka Magic.

Watch the game

You can catch Doncic and Young face off live at 7:00 AM tomorrow on NBA League Pass. This should be an up-and-down affair with how great the Hawks have imposed their pace lately.

For the true early birds/night shift work-from-home force, the 4:30 AM clash between the Brooklyn Nets and Denver Nuggets on One Sports should be a treat. Who knows what’s going on with the Nets these days. They might just get trampled by Nikola Jokic dropping a 50-point trip-dub on them.