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Despite averaging 43 points per game in high school and being a McDonald’s All-American, Trae Young entered his freshman season at Oklahoma without a great deal of fanfare. That quickly changed around Thanksgiving, at the PK80 Tourney, where he averaged 34.7 points and 6.7 assists in three games vs. Arkansas, Portland, and Oregon. People soon took note of Young’s Steph Curry-like style and the flare that he had for bringing excitement to the college game.
Ultimately, Young would have one of the most historic seasons in college basketball history, becoming the first NCAA DI player to lead the country in both scoring (27.4) and assists (8.7). Along the way, he tied the NCAA record for most assists in a game by dishing out 22 against Northwestern State on Dec. 19. By season’s end, he was a consensus First-Team All-American, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and a unanimous All-Big 12 First-Team selection. Young, however, fell short of winning any Player of the Year awards, mainly due to a late-season slump suffered by the Sooners, who lost nine of their last 11 games.
While Young may have his detractors, no one can deny that he is fun to watch. He plays the game at an extremely high pace, and is excellent at making plays in transition. He has superior vision and a tight handle, and he can be quite creative when dishing out dimes. Young’s game is far more predicated on skill, anticipation, deception, and space than it is on speed and vertical explosiveness. Practically everything that he does – be it passing, shooting, dribbling – is done without hesitation and with great quickness. He is a true triple threat, as his deep shooting range, combined with his ability to drive and create, makes him extremely tough to guard.
The first thing that most notice about Young is his shooting range. This past season, he made 50 of 141 shots between 25 and 30 feet. I would not say that he has unlimited range because, according to Synergy, he made no shots beyond 30 feet. However, better than 35 percent from 25-30 feet is very impressive, and of all the prospects in this draft, Young likely has the best range. He also has an extremely quick and compact shot that he releases before defenders have a chance to react. His release point is a bit low, but it is typically not an issue because he gets rid of the ball so quickly. It’s almost unfair to opponents when he combines his quick release with step-back moves – shooting off the dribble this season, Young averaged 1.05 points per possession, which ranked at the 88th percentile.
Young is much more than a long-range bomber. Foremost, he is a threat to score on the drive. He ranked at the 85th percentile in isolation situations this past season, and nearly 70 percent of the time, he drove with the ball. He doesn’t possess blow-by speed or great length and vertical for finishing, but he compensates by being effective with floaters and runners. Like his jump shots, he has relatively deep range on his floaters, and he averaged .97 points per possession (81st percentile) on those types of shots this season. He also has good body control, and makes some acrobatic shots near the rim. In addition to his ability to make plays off the bounce, Young can be very effective off the ball – this season, he ranked at the 89th percentile or better on handoffs, cuts, and shots off screens.
Even when Young’s shot is not going down, he can contribute by driving and distributing. He is crafty with the dribble, constantly changing speeds and directions, and as a passer, he displays exceptional vision, instincts, and creativity. He can thread the needle in traffic with either hand, and he excels initiating the break with long, accurate passes. On the downside, he does tend to force the issue when passing, and the result is a high number of turnovers. By far, Young led the nation in turnovers with 5.2 per game this season, and his turnover rate per possession was high at 18.3 percent. Despite the turnovers, his overall efficiency as a passer and a scorer combined ranked at the 87th percentile.
The highest percentage of Young’s possessions (37%) this past season, came as a ball handler in the pick and roll. His combined efficiency as a passer and a scorer in the pick and roll ranked at the 75th percentile. The fact the he was a little less efficient in this area than he was overall may have had more to do with his teammates than anything else. For example, as a team, the Sooners ranked 188th in field-goal percentage (37.8%) on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, and there is not much Young can do about his teammates not hitting open shots.
The combination of being a primary ball handler, a prolific scorer, and a frequent driver led to Young finishing third in the country in free-attempts per game (8.6). It also helped that he is adept at drawing fouls with stop-start moves and ball fakes, with some flopping thrown in for good measure. This season, the freshman made 86.1 percent of his attempts at the charity stripe, and he finished second in the country with a total of 236 points from the line.
As a defender this season, Young allowed .87 points per possession, which put him at the 49th percentile. This is not bad for someone who was accused of playing defense only in the second half of games. There is no doubt that Young played cautiously on defense to avoid foul trouble – he picked up a lot of fouls on the offensive end for charging and pushing off, and being so crucial to his team, not fouling out was far more critical than giving up a basket here and there. Young’s lack of size and length will always limit what he can do as a defender, but he does come up with a good number of steals (1.7 per game this season). As he does on offense, he has good anticipation, and he is able to swipe balls away for steals and jump into passing lanes for interceptions.
Young was heavily scrutinized as the Sooners struggled down the stretch. The troubles began during the grueling conference schedule of the Big 12. For starters, Oklahoma was clearly a team that needed to win by outscoring the opponent. In Big 12 play, opposing defenses focused on taking the ball out of Young’s hands, and his teammates were unable to step up. Oklahoma left a lot of points on the court, missing bunnies and wide-open 3s. At the same time, Young’s decision-making was maddening at times; he forced too many passes and launched too many long-distance 3s. He seemed to be affected not only by his teammates’ struggles but also by all of the media attention that he was receiving. The problems appeared to spiral over time – the more Young tried to fix them on his own, the more his teammates became disengaged on the offensive end.
Young’s struggles in conference play are one of the reasons that people question his game. The other main issues are his lack of length and athleticism, his high number of turnovers, and his lack of efficiency as a shooter. The lack of length and athleticism will certainly be an issue on the defensive end, and I believe that anyone drafting him already knows that he will not be an elite defender. Those same factors could limit his effectiveness on the offensive end, especially as a driver, but I believe that his ability as a triple threat is so good that he still will be tough to defend at the next level. As far as his efficiency as a passer and shooter, they are things that Young can control, and with a better surrounding cast, I expect that he will be more efficient. At the same, I think it is clear that Young is not the type of player who can carry a team by himself – not many are – and for him to thrive, he will need to be complemented by players who can convert his passes into buckets and not allow defenders to solely focus on him.
Sources, Credits, and Acknowledgements: Stats used in our scouting reports mainly come from Synergy Sports and RealGM, and occasionally from Hoop-Math.com and Sports Reference. The photos are courtesy of the Oklahoma Athletics.