In late February 2019, Trae Young was already rounding into form, overcoming a rough patch in his rookie season on the way to a tremendous overall campaign. With that in mind, it was controversial when an ESPN panel of experts omitted Young from the network’s annual ranking of the best 25 players under the age of 25, which endeavors to rank players “based on future potential.”
Even if Young did make the list for two of the panelists, he fell short on the overall compilation and, in retrospect, it is amusing to see the star point guard slotted behind players like Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Caris LeVert and Jamal Murray. In fast-forwarding to 2020, there was zero doubt that Young would make the cut this time and, on Wednesday morning, ESPN’s 2020 list emerged with Young ranking at No. 8 overall.
Kevin Pelton wrote the following as the snippet for Young:
At age 21, Young was voted a starter for his All-Star debut behind dominant offensive performance. He could join Oscar Robertson, Russell Westbrook and Tiny Archibald as the only players to average at least 30 points and 9 assists per game.
Young’s potential remains one of the most polarizing topics in NBA circles because his defense has been nearly as ineffective as his offense has been great. ESPN’s real plus-minus (RPM) ranks Young’s defense 493rd among 495 rated players this season. That we’re debating just how great Young can be is progress — he didn’t rank in our top 25 last year before a late-season surge.
Though it is undoubtedly accurate to describe Young as “polarizing” in some NBA circles, it will also be controversial to see him ranked behind fellow point guard Ja Morant (and another guard in Donovan Mitchell) on this particular list. That head-to-head battle will be litigated for years but, at the moment, Young is the (much) better offensive player, averaging 29.6 points (with 59.6% TS) and 9.3 assists per game in buoying Atlanta’s offense.
Alas, Young made a sizable leap in the national consciousness and, if he continues to perform at this level, it seems safe to project a further turning of the tide in the future.
Elsewhere, John Collins made the cut for the second straight season, though he actually dropped from No. 19 in 2019 to No. 24 this time around.
Bobby Marks wrote the following about Collins’ candidacy:
If the list were based solely on the month of February, Collins would be higher than No. 24. In 13 games last month (Atlanta was 6-7), Collins put together his most efficient stretch, averaging 25.6 points and 10.4 rebounds with 63.6% shooting from the field and 53.5% on 3-pointers.
The big question for the future is how Collins will fit next to center Clint Capela, who has remained out because of an injury since being acquired from Houston at the trade deadline. In the past three games with Collins starting at center in replace of Dewayne Dedmon, Atlanta has averaged 130 points. Collins is eligible for a rookie extension this summer.
As Marks notes, February was the best month of Collins’ career and, while we can’t assume that his off-the-charts numbers in that month are a new baseline, there is plenty of evidence that Collins is a different player than he was in his first two seasons. Many of those strides come on the defensive end and, while there have never been huge questions about his offense, the development of a reliable three-point shot is (and will be) huge for both Collins and the Hawks as they continue to build.
In the end, there are easy nits to pick with the list, from Young ranking behind Morant to Collins falling behind players like Michael Porter Jr., Deandre Ayton and Jamal Murray. In a more positive takeaway, the Hawks are evaluated to have two of the best under-25 players in the NBA and, with growth in the future, players like Cam Reddish and/or De’Andre Hunter could join the party in 2021 and beyond.
Oh, and don’t forget that the Hawks have a 2020 lottery pick on the way.