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Who's Leading Your Franchise: Luka, Zion, Ja or Trae?

Tim Bontemps asked 20 executives to rank the four following players based on "their potential to lead a franchise": Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Trae Young, or Ja Morant. There's good insight there so I won't post everything but two things stuck out. First, the following things were said about Luka Doncic:

"His upside is his athleticism. Doncic may be as good as he ever is because he's limited athletically. For today, I'd say Luka, but moving forward, I say Ja because his athleticism is off the charts, his makeup is great and his shooting will get better."

"I don't know if Luka can be any better than he is," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He's really good. But I think this might be who he is -- which is very good.


Doncic is limited athletically. I think we can all agree to that. But to assume at 21 years of age, his body just is what it is and he won't develop any athletically/physically seems unfair to Luka. 

Also, Luka is going to make First Team All-NBA this season. "I don't know if Luka can be any better than he is" is a horrible take for many reasons. One, he's already a First Team All-NBA player at 21. Two, why would we assume the guy that's been playing professionally since he was like 15 is just going to tap out at his craft? I don't think he's scratched the surface of what he can be athletically but he's not there yet. He'll never be Westbrook athletically but he'll improve at the things that benefit his game (probably strength and deceleration). It will come.

 The second thing is this description of Trae Young:

"Being an elite deep shooter has so much value," another Eastern Conference exec said. "The thing with Trae is: Does he become James Harden, where you say, 'F--- it, and we'll build around him because he's so good you win 55 games,' or does he not work with other better players, like a Russell Westbrook, so you have to minimize his role?"

I understand what he's saying but "Is he the guy that won an MVP or is he the guy that won an MVP?" feels like a good problem to have here. Neither has won more than the other as well, so it feels like a weird comp to Russ. PG had his best season next to Russ so this feels strange.

You can read the executive's picks above. You can read mine below. The question posed was:

Which rising star would NBA decision-makers most like to build a team around?

4. Ja Morant

3. Trae Young

No, Mush did not pay me to write this. Yes, I will ask him for payment after I write this. Glad we settled that.

The tale of the tape from Ja's rookie year (2020) to Trae's (2019) is pretty similar. Ja has the edge in PER, TS%, he turns the ball over slightly less and grades as a better defender. Trae takes way more three-pointers, has a better Assist-to-turnover ratio, and grades as the better offensive player via Win Shares and Box Plus-Minus.

Athletically, Ja is at a level that Trae will never get to. As a shotmaker, Trae is at a level that Ja will never get to. Defensively, Trae is worse considerably…but Ja hasn't been good on that end of the floor. The question is about projecting forward and Ja projects to be a much better defender than Trae, but how much does guard defense matter? Is Ja's slight frame going to hold up as a multi-positional defender? I don't trust Trae to get to anything but competent defensively, and he's got his work cut out just to get there. This comes down to me betting on Trae's shot-making ability, along with his passing ability. Trae's range unlocks things for other players offensively and once he gets another player that can initiate the offense, I think he'll be a devastating off-ball player. 

We saw what those rookie numbers foreshadowed for Trae's sophomore campaign: top-five in PPG, APG, FTA and, 3PA. He started in the All-Star game and earned a spot on the Mickstape Third Team All-NBA. I can't wait to see Ja's second season. I'm also betting on Trae's shooting aging better than Ja's athleticism/defensive advantages. But this is arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. The real battle is for the next two spots.

2. Luka Doncic

1. Zion Williamson

It's probably easier to take a look at the flaws of each here. It shouldn't take long.

Luka isn't an elite athlete and from the concerns voiced above, there are worries that he's maxed out athletically. Either way, despite his strength/smarts he will be looking at an athletic disadvantage on most nights. He's a fine defender, but he's usually hidden on lesser offensive threats. His form looks good and his makes look great, but he hasn't been a good three-point shooter through his first two seasons: 33% on seven 3PA per game last season, 32% on nine 3PA per game this year. It's nothing concerning but peripheral numbers don't point to an elite shooter either. He's a career 73% FT shooter and he shot 27% from 3P on catch-and-shoots this season. He didn't take a whole lot of them but that's kind of the point: He takes a lot of pull-up threes but he doesn't make a lot of them. He's second in the league in touches per game and time of possession, so I think there are fair questions about how he can contribute off the ball with his shooting numbers.

Zion had a phenomenal 19 game debut but it was only 19 games, and there are injury concerns with him. He's missed time in each of his last two seasons, and there are legit questions about how his frame will hold up to an NBA schedule. He's not much of a shooting threat this far and has been dreadful defensively, especially compared to the preseason expectations for him on that end.

I'm going with Zion. I think that a couple of years in an NBA training system may unlock things athletically that we haven't seen yet. This is scary because he was taunted for being out of shape and still, he's a freak athletically. He wasn't good defensively yet but he projects to be terrifying there, either as a 4 that can fly in to reject shots on the weak side or as a 5 that can defend the rim with verticality. He's an excellent passer out of the post or in transition. He'll never be a great shooter, but it might not matter because he's close to impossible to defend in the post 1-on-1. He finished his rookie year with an ORB% that topped Embiid and got to the line at a rate that bested Harden. He won't be the shooter or shot-creator that Luka is but he won't need to be. I go with Zion because I can drop him on to just about any team and see a role for him without having to change things too much. Luka cooks with an offense built around him and a defense built to minimize him. Zion has the potential to be a plus offensively without a play being called for him and to possibly anchor a defense in the frontcourt. It's a tough choice but I feel good about it.