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The 2018 NBA Draft will go down in history as one of the most talent-laden classes of all time. Hoop experts will always point to the fact that Luka Dončić and Trae Young were picked after Deandre Ayton (1st) and Marvin Bagley III (2nd), but this will be one of those drafts that’s part of league folklore, like the 1984 event, when a young Michael Jordan was picked 3rd, behind a guy named Sam Bowie. (For the record, Portland was building their team off Clyde Drexler at the time. So MJ wasn’t a viable option being that their games were similar in style.) But that draft also featured three other Hall of Famers: #1 pick Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, and John Stockton, all of whom became incredible NBA legends.
Since then, however, very few players from the same draft have turned the fate of their teams around as quickly as those players. (Save the LeBron/Carmelo/Bosh/Wade 2003 Draft, where Darko Miličić was the “Sam Bowie” of a whole new generation.)
But now, here comes “The Don” and “Ice Trae…”
The New Wave of NBA Superstars
Luka Dončić and Trae Young were arguably the most exciting players to watch in the first round of the NBA Playoffs this past week. Both guys are electric and scoring over 30 points a game, carving up defenses and dishing dimes all over the court. Teams have no answer for their playmaking. And suddenly, serviceable talents like Julius Randle looked out of touch and slow compared to the cleverness of Trae Young.
Luka’s Dominant Performance
In Luka’s case, he owned the Clippers nearly every game until Kawhi Leonard woke up and reminded the world that he is one of the best five players in the league during games 6 and 7.
When Luka Dončić began nearly every game of the first round with 85% shooting from the floor, he looked like the generational player that he is. Mark Jackson called him “a cross between Magic and Bird,” which made everybody cringe at first, but when you look at his numbers, NOBODY has done what he is doing at age 22… NOBODY. As much as I wanted Kawhi and Paul George to redeem themselves, I also wanted Luka Dončić to win that Game 7 on Sunday just to secure his legacy going forward.
Trae Quieted the Garden
Trae Young secured his legacy in Atlanta after shutting down Madison Square Garden and making it to the second round where he was drilling logo threes in Game 1 against Philly and looking very much like the superstar we all have expected to see.
Booker Sent LeBron to Cancún
The other youngster, from a different draft class, who is currently blowing people’s minds is Devin Booker, who was so exceptional against the Lakers in the first round that LeBron was left chasing the young superstar around like he was a Jenner sister. (I forget which one he dates.) LeBron even gave Book his jersey after they famously “Sent the Lakers to Cancún” – meaning the off-season – and knocked them off in Round One.
Nikola Jokić, Game-Changer
This is a guy who somehow plays the game at like 60 percent speed and makes athletic specimens look out of place and unable to stop him at all times. The Joker can read defenses two seconds before anybody else. He can look over defenders, find no-look passes, AND step out and bury threes. His game is so ugly that you sometimes can’t believe what you are watching. A Trae Young three from the logo is a beautiful thing, especially in an opposing team’s stadium. But a Jokić three is unattractive, weird and most of the time, a SWISH.
The youth movement is officially here. The game-changers of the past five decades – Jordan, Iverson, Nowitzki, and Steph – altered our perception of how basketball should be played at each position. Luka Dončić, Trae Young, and Nikola Jokić are all doing that this year.
Revisiting the 2018 Draft
While Jokić was drafted in 2014 and has had years to mature into the talent he is today, many of today’s up and coming stars are just on the cusp of greatness. Let’s go back to that 2018 Draft, which was loaded with talent.
#1 Pick Deandre Ayton
For the past 3 years, a lot of negativity has been surrounding Phoenix’s choice to pick Deandre Ayton at number 1, but he’s finally getting some respect in the playoffs. The Suns’ big man will always be looked at as a “mistake,” especially with Luka and Trae being passed over, but he is in NO WAY a BUST. Deandre Ayton was a walking double-double this season in Phoenix and was breaking team records as a center in Round One. Ayton will end up having a long career. And if he can add a three-ball or step-back jumper to his résumé, look out.
Meanwhile, outside of Ayton, Trae, and Luka, the other two players in the top five were Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr., who have sputtered out of the gate in their NBA careers thus far.
Outside of Bagley and Jackson, there have been more success stories than busts. Of course, Trae, Luka, and Ayton have shined, but plenty of other young stars in the making who were selected include Collin Sexton, Michael Porter Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Donte DiVincenzo, and the guy currently frustrating the 76ers, Kevin Huerter of the Hawks.
The Game Has Changed
Every aging superstar will eventually crumble to the ravages of time. LeBron James has been so good for so long that we never expected him to become Wizards-era Michael Jordan… Los Angeles fans expect him to always be 26-year-old ‘Bron. And even though he may have the same build, his game isn’t at the energy level of the youngsters. Look, it happened to MJ, it happened to Kobe, and it’s happening to LeBron. Sometimes, you have to step aside and let the young players through.
The three most unguardable basketball plays used to be the three-pointer, the crossover dribble, and the mid-range jump shot. Nowadays, if those are your offensive weapons of choice, there’s a strong chance you are not playing in the Association anymore. It’s a different game. If you don’t have a step-back three-pointer, a Euro step, a “hesitation” dribble, or a logo three, people are not going to look at you as an “elite” player. It’s why Julius Randle and RJ Barrett came up short against Atlanta. It’s why Philadelphia may end up doing that too.
So maybe LeBron will try to develop a new hesi move in the off-season. Joel Embiid will take 500 logo three-pointers a day, and Ben Simmons will… Well, he just has to learn how to shoot. And we’ll see how their games improve to compete with the guys who have all of these moves down. Guys like Luka, Trae, and D-Book.
Which brings up one last point about the NBA’s future… WHERE IS ZION in these playoffs?
Yes, I famously got a lot of shit for arguing that Zion Williamson is NOT a superstar earlier this year. This just proves my point. A superstar would have found a way to get his team into the playoffs. It’s as simple as that. And don’t tell me it was because he was hurt. He had New Orleans finishing 11th in the West. 11th! While Luka Dončić and Trae Young are embracing their new roles as the future of the NBA, Zion is hopefully somewhere trying to develop a step-back three.
If he doesn’t, he may be “Sent to Cancún” by an opposing team every year until he figures one out…