Deandre Ayton and Trae Young will always be linked with Luka Doncic. But in these playoffs, they’ve stepped out of his shadow and laid their own paths.
When fans and analysts look back on a team’s draft, their evaluation is often colored by what could have been, talking as much about who the team passed on as who they actually selected. It’s this consideration that makes Sam Bowie and Darko Milicic infamous instead of just disappointing. For the first three years of their career, Deandre Ayton and Trae Young have been good players, but the fact that their teams chose them instead of Luka Doncic has hung over them. Yet while Doncic and the Mavericks were eliminated in the first round, Ayton and Young are still standing in the second round. In the process, they are proving themselves as valuable and promising players while also getting out of Doncic’s shadow.
When Deandre Ayton was selected first overall in the 2018 NBA Draft, it felt like a bit of a throwback selection. Ayton was a big man who was more reminiscent of the stars from past eras than the multidimensional bigs of today. It seemed to many that Phoenix was drafting based on received wisdom from decades ago, when teams always took the big man and were wary of European imports. While it would not be fair to say that he struggled in his first two seasons, he did not often look like the franchise-changing star teams hope to get when they have the number one pick.
Deandre Ayton is doing more by doing less
This season, Ayton has not become a new player, but he has become a much better one. The arrival of Chris Paul along with the emergence of Devin Booker as an All-Star and Mikal Bridges as a tremendous do everything wing has freed Ayton up. Now, in a more limited role, with clearly defined expectations, he is vastly exceeding them. Even as his touches and scoring decreased this season, he became a more important and impactful part of the Suns than ever. He scored more efficiently this season, making over 62 percent of his field-goal attempts while also improving on the defensive end as well. As a role player, he looks like a star.
In the postseason so far Ayton has been even better, making more than three-quarters of his shots while frustrating everyone he guards. His solid picks have also helped free the team’s perimeter creators while opening up the offense. On other possessions, he has excelled as a rim-runner, converting on a number of lobs from Chris Paul as he and the veteran point guard put defenders in a no-win situation. He has been given a specific set of duties and is carrying them out close to perfect. Ayton has been a huge part of the Phoenix Suns‘ playoff success and if he can continue playing like this, the Suns may very well be representing the Western Conference in the Finals in a few weeks.
Trae Young is embracing big shots and on-court villainy
In the Eastern Conference, Trae Young and the Hawks find themselves in the second round after winning their first series since 2016. After a tremendous sophomore season that found him selected as an All-Star starter, his third campaign was not as well received. Despite posting very similar numbers, he found himself snubbed from the All-Star team altogether and his penchant for hunting fouls drew the ire of many fans. The honeymoon period was over.
In the first round of the playoffs though, Trae won over pretty much everyone apart from Knicks fans. He consistently outplayed the entire Knicks roster while scoring at least 30 points in all three games at Madison Square Garden and at least 20 points and 7 assists in every game of the series. As the series wrapped up, he created an immediately iconic moment by taking a bow to note the show’s, or series’, end. It may not quite be Reggie Miller holding his hands to his throat, but for those who crave theatrics with their basketball, it will have to do. The Atlanta Hawks are unlikely to make it past the Sixers in the Conference Semifinals, but simply making it out of the first round is a great achievement for a franchise that has struggled to forge an identity over the last several years. It’s something that can be built upon moving forward; they now know who and where they are.
There are still areas where Young needs to improve before he can be counted among the league’s true superstars. One would like to see him make a slightly higher percentage of his 3’s and shots at the rim while also becoming at least mediocre on the defensive end. At only 22, Young is sure to make strides in his game but already he has shown himself to be a player who you can build a good team around. As he fills out his game and the Hawks other young pieces grow alongside him, the Hawks could be a tough out for a very long time. Even if they never take a huge leap, the presence of Young alone ensures that they will at the least be both fun and competitive.
Ayton and Young will always be linked with Doncic: Ayton as the man picked before him and Young as the player the Mavericks traded for him. But the greater success they achieve — in this postseason and beyond — the less that association will matter. While neither player projects to be quite as good as Luka, they have found themselves in situations where that may not matter. Both the Suns and the Hawks have worked to create an environment where Ayton and Young’s strengths are accentuated and their weaknesses hidden. In light of where these teams find themselves today, it’s difficult to imagine either team having buyer’s remorse. As Ayton and Young progress, they will continue to write their own narratives, being judged on who they are instead of who they are not.