With Labor Day behind us and summer all but gone, it is officially “Top 100 season” in the NBA and the first major installment came to light on Monday from Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated. For those unfamiliar, several outlets endeavor to rank the top 100 players in the NBA before each season and, on this particular list, two members of the Atlanta Hawks made the cut.
Second-year point guard Trae Young landed at No. 62 overall.
Tempting as it is to move Trae Young up this list, let’s start with a frank accounting of exactly what we saw from the rookie guard last season. Young was the lead playmaker for the 23rd-ranked offense; while running that offense, Young committed more turnovers per minute than every player in the league save for James Harden and Russell Westbrook; despite his acclaim as a shooter, Young took so many difficult threes that he shot a Mudiayan 32.4% from beyond the arc; and, in a display of lousy defense by any measure, managed to register as the worst defender in the league by defensive real plus-minus. None of this means that Young isn’t a brilliant passer or a star in the making. Rather, it’s a reminder that our collective response to high-achieving rookies—in all their thrilling novelty—can sometimes gloss over the practical realities of the sport.
It will certainly surprise some to see Young this low after his explosion in the second half of his rookie campaign but, as Mahoney notes, there is some hedging here. Young’s season-long performance as a rookie did have some hiccups and, defensively, there is a long way to go.
Still, Mahoney makes sure to note that there is growth on the way and Young’s upside — which he flashed in a big way down the stretch of the 2018-19 season — is wildly intriguing.
Part of what makes Young so interesting as a prospect is that his game is still so far from complete. He’s learning what it means to run an offense at a professional level beyond hitting tough shots and making impressive passes. There is a subtlety to the job that can only be learned through working it—the kind that was even discernible in Young’s performance as he moved from month to month during his rookie season. Give it time. The version of Young we’ll see in action in the coming season will probably play a smarter, more polished brand of basketball by some incremental measure. He’ll also still be fun and flawed, without the clarity that comes through postseason scrutiny. Let’s not rush to make Young more than he is: a 21-year-old who sees the game through a lens of incredible ambition, with the talent to someday (or sometimes) fulfill it.
In the end, Young is probably ranked too conservatively here, particularly when considering who comes in ahead of him. For example, it would be pretty stunning if Young didn’t return more value than a player like Clint Capela this season, though the difference in position and role make this kind of exercise (very) difficult overall.
Earlier in the off-season, the Peachtree Hoops staff weighed in with their choices on who will be the best player for the Hawks during the upcoming campaign. If Mahoney has a vote, he’s going with John Collins, who barely missed the cut of the top 50, coming in at No. 51 overall.
This feels like the year that John Collins enters the public consciousness. There’s something in his game for everybody. Collins’ high-flying dunks give him some sugar-coated pop appeal; a blooming off-the-dribble game makes him a fascinating experiment for the die-hard crowd; and the Hawks’ upward momentum (along with Collins’ own Giannis-lite aspirations) make for some great narrative fodder. The main reason that the world should take notice is that Collins (who came within a rounding error of averaging 20 and 10) is a really good basketball player coming into his own. The reason they likely will is that he’s fun as hell to watch. If there’s any real sticking point, it’s the depth of what we can’t yet know. Evaluating any young player is difficult until we’ve seen them in a postseason setting, where the cost of every limitation is made real. It’s not yet clear what Collins’ best position might be, or what role he could play in a high-level defense. These aren’t demerits so much as caveats. Give Collins credit for thriving in the role he’s had. There’s just a different burden of proof where stardom is concerned, and that’s the category where he’ll soon find himself.
Collins “entering the public consciousness” would be long overdue, as he posted a season with averages nearing 20 points and 10 rebounds last season. It is fair to say, though, that he is an underappreciated player from a national perspective and that point is driven home here.
Like Young, Collins isn’t without blemish at this point, with Mahoney pointing out his question marks on the defensive end. With that said, he is already a tremendous force and the Hawks are in a favorable position with him as a central piece of the puzzle.
Some NBA teams (hello, Charlotte) won’t have even one player on some top-100 lists and, in looking ahead, the expectation will be that the Hawks will place both Young and Collins on... all of them. There is some intrigue as to where the budding stars will be in the pecking order, though, and the first foray has Collins slightly ahead of Young as the duo aims for All-Star caliber breakouts.