There were many memorable moments from the 2018-2019 NBA regular season. From legendary careers coming to a close to new teams emerging as title contenders, most franchises had multiple story-lines to follow.
One of the most intriguing was the development of several rookies from the 2018 Draft Class. Whether it be the race for Rookie of the Year between Trae Young and Luka Doncic, or the surprise arrivals of Mitchell Robinson and Landry Shamet, many franchises across the NBA saw a glimpse of their future this year.
The Memphis Grizzlies were one such team due to the successful rookie campaign of Jaren Jackson Jr. Drafted 4th in the 2018 draft, Jackson Jr. proved why he could be a franchise cornerstone for the Grizzlies. Overall, the development of the first five picks from last year’s draft has been a joy to watch for fans across the league.
As a result, I wanted to reach out to SB Nation writers from the other organizations that landed a top 5 pick in the 2018 draft. The first opportunity comes with Brad Rowland, site manager of Peachtree Hoops, the SB Nation site for the Atlanta Hawks. I had the chance to work with Brad earlier this year on a piece about the Hawks, and once again he delivered great insight and perspective about Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and this rookie class as a whole.
It what areas did Trae Young’s overall game surprise you? What is the part of his game where he has improved the most?
I think his polish was probably the most surprising thing. If you watched Young at the college level, it was clear that he was going to be an awesome passer and, given what he did at Oklahoma, his shooting range was impressive. The thing you didn’t necessarily see, due to various factors, is that he is already an elite pick-and-roll operator. He knows what to do in almost every situation and, even beyond that, he’s already advanced at drawing fouls. I think he picked up a lot of little tricks during his first season and there is more to unlock with how to improve his overall efficiency.
After one full season, looking back on the Luka Doncic and Trae Young trade, what are your thoughts on the deal now?
On draft night, I wasn’t a fan of the move, largely because I had Doncic at No. 1 overall (a projection that looks pretty good right now) and having that player fall into Atlanta’s lap at No. 3 felt like a miracle in the moment. Even then, though, I didn’t necessarily kill the Hawks for making the move, largely because it wasn’t a one-for-one swap, and the Dallas pick projected to be in the 2019 lottery. Fast-forward to now and that has obviously happened. Young has also been better than I expected, to be sure, and the combination of his performance and the pick level things out considerably. I don’t think you can “grade” a deal like this for a few years but I can tell you the Hawks are happy with their side.
When looking at young players, how would you compare John Collins and Jaren Jackson Jr.? Are there similarities, and is there one talent you would clearly choose above the other?
Despite playing similar positions, they are VERY different players. Collins made a big jump in year two, virtually averaging 20 and 10, and he’s an offense-first player that is a hyper-athlete and finisher around the rim. Jackson is definitely a defense-first (and defense-second) prospect, with great length but relatively average athleticism. I tend to value defense more than most people do, particularly with big men, so Jackson is alluring because of his combination of high-end tools on that end with floor-spacing on the other. Collins is a better player right now and is safer overall as a result but, in terms of ceiling, Jackson’s is probably higher when it comes to playoff basketball. It’s a fascinating debate, honestly.
What is the one area of Trae Young’s game that could be improved to allow him to take the next step toward being a superstar?
The real answer is defense but, because of the position and his offensive talent, a lot of people won’t ever care that he can’t guard anyone. If we remove that (very) obvious answer, I’ll go with overall shooting efficiency. Young is always going to have aggressive shot selection and he was pretty efficient after the weirdness in November and December. That’s probably the area for improvement offensively, though, because his pass and awareness are already fantastic.
With the successes of Young and Kevin Huerter for the Hawks, do you feel this has been one of the more talented NBA rookie classes in recent memory?
It’s a really good group. I think 2018 will look even better when people realize how weak 2019 is overall (Zion excluded) and a lot of these guys were even better than advertised in year one. The top guys are impressive but, further down, Huerter, Landry Shamet, Mikal Bridges, Mitchell Robinson and others made big-time impacts. This kind of thing always needs a few years to manifest but it’s hard to argue with the early returns.
Considering the Top 5 Picks in the 2018 class a year later, how would you rank them, 1 through 5, in terms of a talent to build a team around moving forward?
I’ll go with Doncic, Young, Jackson, Ayton and Bagley, in that order. Doncic is still No. 1 pretty comfortably for me and that was probably the easiest decision. Young and Jackson Jr. is a fascinating battle for No. 2 because they are so incredibly different. Young’s offensive ceiling is off the charts. The same could be said for Jackson on the other end, but he hasn’t quite proven it on the level that Young just did over the full season so that’s my tiebreaker.
Ayton and Bagley is interesting, too. Ayton is definitely a pure center, whereas Bagley has some more all-court feel. I tend to lean on safety with these things and Ayton was better for longer during their rookie seasons. In the end, it probably comes down to who you trust more to stabilize defensively.
I want to thank Brad Rowland for taking the time to answer these questions and give some wonderful outside perspective. You can follow Brad on Twitter @BTRowland, and the Hawks SB Nation site Peachtree Hoops @PeachtreeHoops. They do great work covering one of the most talented young teams in the NBA.
Without a doubt, both Young and Jackson Jr. are very highly thought of among their fan bases. However, it seems both are highly thought of around the league. As a result, both the Grizzlies and Hawks are lucky to each as the cornerstones for the future of their franchises.