Michael Cunningham: ESPN poll confirms Trae Young’s superstar potential and one big weakness

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It’s a great sign for the Hawks that Trae Young is even included in ESPN’s poll on which young player that NBA decision-makers would most like as a foundational piece. After only two seasons in the NBA, Young already ranks among its best players.

But the 20 coaches, scouts and executives polled by ESPN’s Tim Bontemps consider Young, 21, a notch below the three other young stars included in the poll. Young finished fourth behind Mavericks wing Luka Doncic, Pelicans big man Zion Williamson and Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant. Young didn’t get a first- or second-place vote from any of the talent evaluators, and 16 of them placed him fourth.

The assessments of Young, offered anonymously, are what you expect. He’s a fantastic offensive player whose deficiencies at the other end are holding him back from being even better. That puts a hard ceiling on Young’s potential, if you believe his defense won’t ever improve. I’m not there yet.

The distance between Young and Doncic in the poll is revealing. Doncic received 17 first-place votes and three for second. If Doncic really is the best young player by a wide margin, it means the Hawks made the wrong choice during the 2018 draft.

The Hawks selected Doncic No. 3 overall and traded him to the Mavericks for Young, who was picked fifth. The Hawks also received a first-round pick, which they used to select Cam Reddish No. 10 overall in the 2019 draft. Ultimately, a fair assessment of that trade will include Reddish and Young vs. Doncic. That’s still pending.

But Doncic is better than Young now. Young is a great offensive player. Doncic is a great offensive player and a stronger rebounder and defender than Young, even if only because of his much bigger build. That size difference was the main risk in Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk’s decision to take Young over Doncic.

Schlenk said he wanted a playmaker in that draft. Doncic and Young were the best available. Schlenk picked the playmaker who’s about six inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter.

Doncic has been a great playmaker in the NBA like he was in the EuroLeague. His size (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) allows him to see over defenders and whip passes to all areas of the court. Young is a magician with the ball, too, but his size (6-1, 180) is a limiting factor with defense and rebounding.

I’m not knocking Young. I was sold on him after I went to Oklahoma to watch him play. His long-range shooting generated headlines, but his court vision and passing skills already were NBA-level. It was obvious to me that he’d be a good NBA player soon after he started.

It’s just as apparent that Doncic, 21, is a notch above Young. Doncic was voted rookie of the year over Young by a landslide. Young improved in 2019-20 as he became a much more efficient scorer. He was voted as a starter for the All-Star game in February. Doncic also improved his scoring efficiency and was named an All-Star starter.

Doncic ranked fourth in ESPN’s media poll for MVP before this season was suspended because of COVID-19. Young didn’t receive a vote. After two seasons, Doncic is closer to All-NBA level than Young. Nearly every NBA champion has had at least one first- or second-team All-NBA player on the roster.

That’s why it makes sense that Doncic was first in the ESPN poll regarding young players. It’s also no mystery why Williamson and Morant received votes for first and second. They went Nos. 1 and 2 in last year’s draft and showed their high ceilings as NBA rookies.

Team success is a factor driving the perception that Young lags the the other three young NBA stars. When the league suspended play, the Hawks had the fourth-worst record in the NBA (20-47). They improved for a stretch with better health and a reinforced roster, but lost six of their final nine games.

The Mavericks and Grizzlies were in position for playoff berths in the Western Conference. The Pelicans were 10-9 in games that Williamson played. His minutes were limited in his return from a knee injury, but Williamson had a huge impact: The Pels outscored opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions with Williamson on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass (garbage time excluded).

Young has had a similar impact for the Hawks this season. They outscored opponents by 8.4 points per 100 possession with him on the floor. But the emphasis is on outscoring. Young’s offensive impact has been blunted by his poor defense.

Young has said he’s tired of the inevitable comparisons with Doncic. Young clearly is bothered by the notion that Doncic has a bigger impact on winning. Young has pointed out that Doncic joined a team built to win now, while he is part of a rebuild with the Hawks.

He has a point. It can be difficult to compare players in different team contexts. Still, Young’s defense clearly must improve for him to become a star on a good team. Doncic’s defense is just OK, but that’s enough to give him a significant edge over Young.

The Hawks believe Young can be an adequate team defender if surrounded by stronger defenders. That was part of their motivation for drafting wings Reddish and De’Andre Hunter last year and trading for centers Dewayne Dedmon and Clint Capela in February.

All those players are under contract for next season. The Hawks are projected to have more salary-cap space than any other team going into next season so Schlenk can add some good, free-agent veterans. I’m eager to see what Young can do as the lead player for a team with more talent and experience.

Young has made his ultimate goal clear. During a recent broadcast of the “The Last Dance” documentary about NBA legend Michael Jordan, Young tweeted: “I WANNA WIN A CHAMPIONSHIP.” The emphasis was his.

The ESPN poll confirmed that Young has the talent to be a franchise player. I believe he has the right disposition. The only limit seems to be how good he can be on defense.


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