In the first two months of the college basketball season, no one has improved his NBA Draft stock more than Oklahoma’s Trae Young. The record-setting freshman responsible for accelerating the Sooners’ rebuild leads the nation in both points (29.6) and assists (10.7), helping vault the Sooners from an 11-20 record last season to an 11-1 start this year, and the No. 12 ranking in the nation (as of 12/26 – expect them to move up).
With his ridiculous run of success, the 6-foot-2 point guard has prompted comparisons to Steph Curry, which is about as honorific as it gets for a young guy at that position. Considering that Curry is the most devastating scorer ever for a point guard, it feels a little premature. But on the other hand, Young is really frigging good and clearly ahead of where Curry was at the same age. So before the Sooners embark on the treacherous Big 12 conference schedule, let’s evaluate just how good Trae Young really is.
He averaged 42.6 points and 4.1 assists as a senior at Norman North High in Oklahoma. As the #23 ranked recruit on the ESPN 100 list, Young had his pick of one-and-done hotspots with offers from Kansas and Kentucky. Instead, Young decided to stay home and rock the crimson and cream. Led by Lon Kruger, the Sooners are a sneakily good program, despite being constantly overshadowed by the football program. The team is well on its way to its 27th NCAA Tournament appearance in 34 years.
Sooners’ Sensational Start
Expectations for the 2017-18 Sooners were modest, selected by the Big 12 coaches to finish sixth among ten teams. Currently, thanks to Young’s performance from day one, they are one of four Big 12 teams ranked in the top 12 nationally.
Although Oklahoma returned seven of the top eight scorers from last season, Young carries the load offensively, utilizing his infinite shooting range and slick passing abilities to keep defenses from double teaming him. Young is extremely confident from beyond the arc, attempting 10.1 threes per game. However, despite the volume, he hasn’t sacrificed efficiency, shooting 41.3 percent from deep this season.
Moreover, his aggressiveness in driving the lane and ability to read the defense off the bounce keeps his opponents off balance, creating opportunities to either kick the ball out to open shooters or go to the hoop and finish at the rim or draw a foul. It’s hard to rank Young’s accomplishments, but averaging 9.3 free throw attempts per game as a 6’2 guard who takes over ten threes a game is insane, and you can bet NBA scouts have taken notice.
His jaw dropping abilities were first featured on the national stage at the PK80 Tournament in November, where he scored 43 points in a win over Oregon, marking the highest single-game point total in the nation this season. Since then, Young’s play has demanded the spotlight: he racked up 29 points and nine assists against USC at the Staples Center, followed by a double-double in the Sooners’ biggest test of the season against Wichita State, accumulating 29 points and dropping ten assists. Before the beginning of Big 12 play, Young took advantage of the Sooners’ last non-conference foes, tying the NCAA single game record with 22 assists against Northwestern State. He tallied a remarkably efficient 25 points and ten assists in the first half against Northwestern and 39 points and 14 assists against #10-ranked TCU a week later.
Trae Young is the most efficient player to grace the game of college basketball in years, according to Kenpom.com. Created by Ken Pomeroy during the 2003-04 season, Kenpom views advanced statistics similarly to the way Bill James views baseball statistics, challenging the numbers that most people see and use, because in his opinion, they’re not true indicators of success.
According to Kenpom, Young has the highest usage rate in the country, with 38.3 percent of Oklahoma’s possessions ending in an assist or shot from Young. His overall efficiency rating dwarfs anyone else who has exceeded a 35 percent usage in the Kenpom era, with the previous high coming from Steph Curry’s final year at Davidson. Plus, his assist rate, which is calculated as assists divided by the field goals made by the player’s teammates, would be the highest in Kenpom history at 58 percent.
Just in case your eyes gloss over at the word “statistics,” here’s a translation: Some guys use their talent to get a lot of shots up (Kobe). Others are good enough to make an astounding percentage of their shots (Shaq). Steph Curry, and now Trae Young, are the complete and total freaks who are able to do both. On top of that, Young is also the most effective passer college basketball has seen since at least 2003-04 (and possibly far longer).
Although Young continues to amaze on the offensive end, the primary concern as he projects to the NBA is his size/frame and the effect it may have on his defense. The 6-foot-2 guard is listed as anywhere from 165 to 180 pounds, suggesting that he could be a one-position defender at the next level. However, his 6-foot-4 wingspan has already proven useful in hounding opposing offenses, as he averages 1.8 steals per game.
One of Kenpom’s features is the player comparison tool, which compiles past players with similar advanced statistics. The four players who are the closest comparisons to Young are Kyrie Irving (Duke, 2011), D’Angelo Russell (Ohio St., 2015), Cameron Payne (Michigan St., 2014) and Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State, 2017). Like Young, these players were knocked for their defensive abilities coming out of college, and while they have gone on to have varying degrees of success at the next level, if the comparisons are accurate even at 19 years old, Young’s offensive abilities will be good enough to make him instantly relevant in the pros.
While multi-positional defenders are all the rage these days, Curry and (since he came to Boston) Irving show on a nightly basis that if you are simply willing to compete and put up a decent fight guarding your own position, it’s more than enough when you bring world-class, efficient, high-volume offense to the table.
Stealing the Spotlight
Young is only the fourth McDonalds All-American to play at Oklahoma, joining Sooner legends Blake Griffin, Wayman Tisdale, and Jeff Webster. But even as the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Oklahoma, and a top-25 recruit, Young was not a highly touted NBA prospect until essentially a few weeks ago. In that short time, his stock has skyrocketed to being widely considered a lottery pick, even rated as high as #4 in Bleacher Report’s most recent Mock Draft.
As the Sooners begin conference play in the Big 12, the spotlight will remain fixed on #11. Oklahoma will play 14 of their final 18 games on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNNews, and they enter 2018 on a hot streak after slipping by Jamie Dixon’s #10-ranked TCU team by a single point Saturday night in Fort Worth.
You would think that a reduction in Young’s per-game averages would be inevitable with the beginning of Big 12 play, but all he seems to do is get better and better. Bet against him at your own risk.