At 22-44, the Atlanta Hawks aren’t in playoff contention this season but, when it comes to the future, there is plenty to be excited about with the franchise. In addition to a war chest of draft assets that includes two projected top-10 picks in the 2019 NBA Draft, the Hawks boast an exciting (and youthful) three-man nucleus of Trae Young, John Collins and Kevin Huerter.
In recent days, Young has grabbed headlines for his explosive performance — particularly in a 49-point eruption against the Bulls — while Collins has produced at a high level from wire to wire and Huerter has flashed the potential as a dynamic floor-spacer and potential two-way player. With that as the backdrop, Kevin Pelton and Mike Schmitz of ESPN ($) set out to evaluate the 2018 draft class in a future-facing way this week, seeking to answer the question of “Who are the best long-term prospects from this rookie class?” after more than 60 games of action.
In the end, it was no surprise to see Young featured prominently, with the No. 5 overall pick ranking in the top ten for both Pelton and Schmitz. In fact, Pelton went as far as to place Young at No. 3 overall on this theoretical big board while writing the following:
I think it’s a mistake to look at Young’s performance over the past five weeks (30 percent usage, .608 true shooting, 9.8 assists per 36 minutes since Jan. 26) as an indication of the starting point in his development. The first three months, when Young struggled to score efficiently, are also predictive of his future. Additionally, Young continues to be ineffective at the defensive end of the court, where his minus-4.7 defensive rating in ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) is worst in the NBA.
Those defensive limitations explain why I still have Young behind Jackson, who can become a more complete player. But given the relative replaceability of point guards and centers, I think Young’s offensive skills project as more valuable than Ayton’s at this point. After all, as I explored before the draft, point guards tend to develop later in their careers than other players. That makes what Young has done as a rookie all the more impressive.
Schmitz wasn’t quite as overflowing in praise and, while he did indicate that Young “has already well-surpassed my pre-draft expectations,” the NBA Draft analyst actually placed Young at No. 6 overall on his list and behind another point guard in Clippers rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
I’ve long been a supporter of Gilgeous-Alexander as the best long-term point guard prospect in the 2018 draft, and I’ll remain on that island for the time being. While not clearly as dynamic as Young, I love the fact that Gilgeous-Alexander should be able to defend up to three positions in time while making every pick-and-roll read, striding it out into finesse finishes and keeping defenses honest from 3-point range. He lacks a degree of confidence and aggression offensively -- and he clearly hit a wall during the middle of the season -- but Gilgeous-Alexander’s winning impact shouldn’t be understated on what looks like a Clippers playoff team. Gilgeous-Alexander has the approach to the game -- along with the physical upside -- that could make him one of the league’s best two-way point guards down the line. He needs to continue shooting it better from 3 and rely less on inside-the-arc jumpers, but I’m keeping my stock in Gilgeous-Alexander for the moment.
Though they occupy the same position on the floor (at least in terms of primary deployment), Young and Gilgeous-Alexander are very different prospects. Young has the second-highest usage rate of any first-year player (trailing only Luka Doncic and by only a small margin) and he is the engine of Atlanta’s offense on a nightly basis. As a result, the former Oklahoma standout is averaging a robust 18.3 points and 7.7 assists per game and Young’s efficiency has improved to the tune of a 53.4 percent true shooting at this juncture.
On the flip side, Gilgeous-Alexander is a supporting piece by any description for the Clippers, with only an 18.4 percent usage and relatively modest (10.0 points, 3.0 assists per game) box-score production this season. It would be fair and necessary to point out that Gilgeous-Alexander is a much better defensive prospect than Young and, as noted in a more in-depth way in the full piece above, that is something that is worth monitoring and acknowledging. Still, the offensive dichotomy between the two prospects is jarring at this stage and, simply put, it was a surprise (and one that likely won’t be met with a warm embrace in Atlanta) to see Gilgeous-Alexander higher than Young on a list such as this, even by only one slot by one analyst.
The entire exercise is certainly worth diving into for full context but, later, both Pelton and Schmitz ranked Huerter among their top 10. Given that the former Maryland wing was the No. 19 overall selection in June, that is a substantial and intriguing jump, and Schmitz placed him at No. 10 overall citing the fact that Huerter’s “combination of positional size, shooting and feel at 20 gives him excellent long-term potential on an exciting young Hawks team.”
Unlike Young, Huerter hasn’t been obscenely productive this season, averaging only 9.3 points per game in 27.2 minutes per contest. Still, he is knocking down 38.6 percent of his three-point attempts (on real volume) and Huerter’s potential as a two-player player, albeit in a supporting role, is wildly intriguing through the context of the way the game is played in today’s NBA.
Lists like this are always controversial at some stage and, in this case, the attention will likely be paid to Young’s placement when compared to Gilgeous-Alexander, Jaren Jackson Jr., Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and even Doncic in some circles. More than anything, though, the inclusion of Atlanta’s pair of perimeter-based rookies serves as a point of optimism and encouragement for the future, with more reinforcements on the way in late June.