This article is a facsimile of an earlier publication on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
For better or for worse, Trae Young and Luka Doncic are eternally bound.
During the 2018 NBA Draft, the Dallas Mavericks and Atlanta Hawks made a pick swap that essentially sent Doncic to the Mavs and Trae to the Hawks. Both are playing like All-Stars and vaulting their offenses to high-caliber levels.
We're not getting into the "which is better" argument or seeking to anoint one franchise as the trade winner. Instead, let's appreciate their greatness, the value they bring to their teams and the unorthodox nature both utilize in order to dominate.
Among the many things making these guys so special is their mastering of footwork—minutia in the big picture but a legitimate base for all skill. Great players are built from the ground up, with a keen ability to make complex maneuvers look easy while staying on balance and in attack mode.
Young and Doncic are different players, so they utilize different moves and packs of footwork to blow past their adversaries.
We can appreciate both, particularly from a fundamental standpoint. As a coach, I've used the footwork of both players as examples when teaching our players how to pay attention to their feet and what angles to take. The exemplary work is of guys their own age.
Trae Young: Where Quickness meets Craftiness
Believe it or not, Young is a career 56.4 percent scorer at the rim—a high rate for a guard of his stature. He isn't getting lost or drowned within the trees despite a general lack of vertical athleticism.
Trae is a grounded finisher. He doesn't dunk or elevate over defenders, and rarely does he look to engage a weak-side helper with physicality. To call him contact-averse would be a disservice to how well he does before the gather, staying on course despite a bump. Or how he takes angles to cut off his man.
Young is super quick in ways the ordinary fan cannot fully fathom: He's blowing past guys that are elite athletes and can cover more ground than most.
The best move in his arsenal is a devastating crossover, which uses an incredible change of speed to get where he wants. Before you watch the clips on his cross, watch for the angle he takes once he gains a half-step on his man.
It's almost as if Young takes his next step in front of his defender's recovery path, ensuring he doesn't have to deal with a better athlete getting back in front:
Trae's got a tight handle and can keep the ball on a string to get back in front, but his first step after his explosive move reorients his drive directly at the hoop. Every defender in the clips above either is completely cut off, fouls Young or has to stop short and contest from behind his shoulder blades as to not commit the foul.
How Young can get to these spots while playing at full speed is a testament to the individual training regimen he undergoes in the offseason. He has zero wasted movements, zero wasted dribbles and plays only in straight lines.
Young can also toy with his defender in these situations. He doesn't have to go full speed ahead to get to such an angle. He can do so with a long-step move or even a hostage dribble before he gets to the rim for a layup.
See if you can spot the long step in the first clip and how it serves as an explosion to get past his man:
That's a thing of beauty. Young isn't a very long guy, but he uses long finishes and a lanky gather step to add separation from his man. Again, not a single step is out of line or wasted.
Now let's get tricky. There are times when Young gets past his defender and has a step, yet he doesn't have the luxury of gathering into a clean finish. Layups have been taught in such a fundamental method, particularly to Americans. When you use your right hand, we're all taught that you are supposed to raise your right leg and take off your left foot so that your right elbow and right knee are on a string. As one raises, so does the other.
Real game situations don't work like this, though.
Young has repped wrong-foot takeoffs and done them so well that he finishes at an incredibly high level. Whenever he gets a step, he's going to get to the rack and score, even if it's off the "wrong" foot:
Left hand, right hand, doesn't matter. Young is still cutting off his man in all those clips and taking perfect angles, but he doesn't worry about getting the perfect footwork in order to have a shot that feels right.
He makes the ugly ones, the unorthodox ones, and that's why he's so unique. Young is comfortable with being uncomfortable so he can finish amongst the bigs.
But Young also finishes through contact. Built a bit like Mighty Mouse, Young needs to have strong gather-steps and first moves in order to sustain contact as he begins his descent on the hoop. A right-hand-dominant player, he has gotten pretty strong at a running back move, pinning the ball to his right breast as he goes into a gather:
Whether you are a Hawks fan, a Trae Young fan or just a basketball fan, there is so much to appreciate about how a 180-pound 21-year-old is so adept at finishing on the interior.
He's so dang smart with his angles and crafty with the ball, but those traits can be lost in his overall speed and quickness. Anybody who is super fast like Trae must have great footwork in order to keep that speed as an advantage. He's learned how to accentuate it.
The Power and Grace of Luka Doncic
While Trae Young gets to his spots with sheer quickness and perfect angles, Luka Doncic is the perfect combination of strength and elegance. With a large frame for a driver, Doncic has a strong core and absorbs contact well without getting bumped off his spots.
As such, he always plays off two feet and square to the rim. He isn't trying to finish around anyone and doesn't feel the need to circle past his man. He just lowers his shoulder, takes the boom and stays on course.
What's amazing is how Doncic can take contact and stay on his direct path to the hoop without losing a step. His first step after contact is always in a straight line. It's almost like any contact he gets on the perimeter is meaningless:
Of course, this penchant for physicality shows up in the stat sheet.
Doncic is shooting 9.8 free throws a night, third in the NBA. More than a quarter of his points come at the line, so it's a central part of his game playing through and seeking out contact. But Luka knows he won't get every call. He has to play and finish through physicality, particularly if he wants to have success in the postseason when he inevitably gets there.
Similar to Young, Luka works on his angles with his last step before a finish and cuts off his man to prevent a blocked shot. Doncic isn't dunking with regularity, so he needs to keep defenders on his back when he gets an advantage.
Unlike Young, however, Doncic doesn't have such a burst into the lane or the ability to so quickly reorient himself in a straight line.
Instead, he uses his length to take one gather step from about eight-to-ten feet from the hoop. That gather goes in the exact spot that would cut off his man and give Doncic an advantage for the layup. For good measure, he throws his off arm in the air as a means of protection from any lanky shot blockers:
Luka deserves credit for the work he did this summer in tightening his handle. He can play in straighter lines rather than banana-peeling around ball screen hedges (as he did a bit too much last year).
That has allowed him to use these angles in a much more efficient fashion.
To say Doncic is pretty slow might be an understatement. He is thick and physical, but he isn't just a bully driver. Instead, he has a great change of speeds, which is arguably more important than playing at a high speed.
(Think about how effective baseball pitchers aren't always the ones who throw the hundred mile-per-hour fastball, but rather are the ones who have a drastic dropoff in velocity from their fastball to their changeup.)
That's nowhere more evident than when Doncic uses a shoulder shimmy or a simple crossover to gain what little burst he has. He doesn't rely on that one step to stay in front and sometimes doesn't have the time available to veer back and take the extra step to cut off his man from re-entering the play.
Sometimes the situation calls for a direct path to the rim, where he uses his length to make sure defenders cannot recover. One explosion into a scoop shot does the trick:
Anybody who plays basketball without elite speed knows they likely have to separate from contact. If you're not going to finish by going around anyone, you have to do it through them.
Well, we covered how Doncic is getting to his spots, but what about the finish if he can't cut his man off?
Doncic has that in his arsenal too, and it's all the more impressive when you consider his age. Luka can drive with a man on his shoulder and get into a jump stop or a one-two step in the lane to get square to the rim. Instead of falling over or getting bumped off his spot by contact, he stands his ground, absorbs contact and elevates to finish off two:
Doncic was guarded by Davis Bertans in all three clips. How many youngsters would see that as a mismatch, try to just quick their way to the hoop against a near-seven-footer and force up a rushed shot?
Not Luka. He's always playing balanced and would rather bait Bertans into riding his shoulder, leaving his feet or getting caught in a vulnerable position where Luka can step through to a finish.
Rick Carlisle and the Mavs will throw Luka in the post when he's guarded by a smaller defender, and Luka has proven patient and valuable in these situations. His go-to move is a deceptively quick baseline drop-step to a little push floater, exhibiting great touch, good instincts for contact on his inside shoulder and great footwork.
His ability to spin all the way around and square his shoulders to the basket in one, fluid motion is impressive:
As the great philosopher Lil' Scrappy once said, "Money in the Bank".
The scouting report on Doncic is out, and smart, prepared defenders will anticipate this drop-step to the baseline side. As Luka begins to spin, they will jump back to that bottom shoulder in hopes of undercutting the pivot and preventing that push shot from getting off.
Luka is ready. He's never pushed off-balance and reads defenders so well. He'll spin to the baseline and stay grounded, see the contact, and get into a counter move that allows him to play through it all:
Perhaps the best word to describe Luka as a player is balance.
He's well-balanced with his scoring arsenal, putting up points in every manner and from every spot. He's physically on-balance, not getting knocked off a spot or rushing despite impending contact. He doesn't need top-level footspeed where he wants to go. He knows how to use his body, but never plays too strong or quick for his feet to catch up.
Doncic is a legitimate MVP candidate, and hopefully, we all appreciate how quickly he got here. Young is a little further off in total contributions, but his scoring and playmaking ability is going to put him into All-Star, and then All-NBA, buckets before too long.
Spoiler: It came through both mastering the fundamentals and footwork.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).