Why you should care

Are you still a “rookie” after 174 professional starts?

On the court, Luka Doncic is a baby-faced assassin from Slovenia, armed with a lethal step-back jumper that has helped him average 21.2 points and a LeBron-like 7.8 rebounds and 6 assists per game. That’s impressive for any player, but it is especially so for someone new to NBA courts — which is why many pundits have the 20-year-old as the favorite to win the league’s Rookie of the Year (ROTY) award, to be announced June 24. 

The stats are certainly worthy. One problem, though: The narrative is wrong. Because this “rookie” had 174 professional league starts before ever stepping foot on an NBA court.

Before Doncic joined the Dallas Mavericks last summer, he played three full seasons for Real Madrid. He won the EuroLeague title and MVP just over a year ago! Which is why it hardly makes sense that NBA writers are rushing to hand him an award predicated on a newcomer’s ability to master the professional game, particularly when there is another worthy heir nipping at his heels: Hawks point guard Trae Young, who averaged 19.1 points and 8.1 assists, fourth best in the league, and is actually a new professional.

What adds spice to this beef is that the Hawks essentially traded Doncic for Young last summer.

So here is our suggestion. If a player has played more than 82 professional league games — the length of an NBA season — then they should not be considered a rookie for ROTY purposes.

This may seem, to the NBA uninitiated, an inane debate over a meaningless award. But that is to downplay the level to which pettiness rules the association. The Celtic formerly known as “The Truth,” Paul Pierce, ate shit for weeks after insisting in April that he had a better career than sure-fire Hall of Famer Dwyane Wade. With new feuds between all-stars like Joel Embiid and Russell Westbrook to famous old ones like that of Michael Jordan and Isaiah Thomas, the NBA may as well stand for the National Beef Association.

 

ROTY, like all awards, is crucial to the constant battle over legacy and chest-thumpability. And in case you think the Doncic-Young debate is temporary, remember that just last year we were arguing over the definition of “rookie” when 76ers guard Ben Simmons — who had actually been a part of the Philadelphia organization for two years but sat out 2016 due to injury — won the award over Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell, who championed his cause in true NBA fashion.

Doncic has had a fine season, but it was mostly built on a hot start, and he regressed toward season’s end. Meanwhile, Young had a horrific November. Since then, the curly haired 6-foot-2 guard built a masterpiece of a season, hallmarked by a 49-point, 16-assist performance that made him just the third rookie with a 40-10 game in the past four decades. The other two? LeBron James and Jordan.

As USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt broke it down in April, Young had nearly twice as many assists and scored more points at a more efficient clip in his late-season 39-game stretch than Doncic did in his hot start to the season. Only Oscar Robertson and Damon Stoudamire have had as many points and assists in their rookie seasons. 

Sure, Doncic is actually five months younger than Young. And nobody is claiming that the EuroLeague is the same level as the NBA: “He’s coming into a totally different organization and a totally different country, which is hard for anyone, let alone a professional basketball player,” argues Nate Wolf, who writes for the basketball data and analysis site NBA Math.

However, having played against adults at the second-highest level of competition has to confer some advantages, replies Amico Hoops writer Ben Stinar, who compares Young to being a high school freshman. “It’s my first time taking that class, and I struggle in that way, but I consistently improve,” Stinar says. Doncic is the kid who took AP classes in 8th grade and “comes out firing” because he already took the class. “Is he still a rookie? Not really.”

What adds spice to this beef is that the Hawks essentially traded Doncic for Young (and a future Mavericks pick) last summer. Both have bright futures, but it’s Young who deserves to be Rookie of the Year.

Read more: The NBA’s future — big-market superteams vs. rising stars.

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