There once was a period in NBA Draft history when leading the country in scoring all but guaranteed a top-5 draft pick. All-Americans were the talk of the class, and if he could pass, too, all the entire better. And if that player was a freshman? Forget about it.
But there’s never been a time in history when a player led the country in both scoring and assists. And it was done by a freshman, all of 19 years old. And yet for all Oklahoma point guard Trae Young accomplished in 32 games, doubters remain. He’s not the consensus top pick in next month’s NBA Draft. He might not even be a top-5 pick. He could even fall out of the top 10.
And that’s because the draft has become a science, of sorts. Position-less basketball is taking over, multiple ball handlers are on the floor for a team more time than they’re not, and height/length/wingspan and the rest of those Jay Bilas buzzwords mean more than ever.
And that is Young’s shortcoming (no pun intended). We’ll get the negatives out of the way before telling you why the Sooner is built perfectly for today’s NBA. He measured just under 6-foot-2 and weighed in at 178 pounds, which he told reporters was 10 pounds heavier than he was five weeks ago. His 6-foot-3 wingpsan was the smallest of all NBA Draft Combine participants, as was his 8-inch hand length.
So it’s reasonable to understand why he isn’t a slam dunk option at the top of the draft. But there’s also a number of reasons this 6-foot-2, defensive liability could also hear his name called in the top 5. And it’s because he’s the most dynamic offensive player college basketball has maybe ever seen. And, for the third time, he’s 19 years old.
“I think I’m the best overall player in the draft," he said Friday at the NBA Draft Combine. "My main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft. My motivation is to be the best player in the NBA and that’s what I’m focusing on each and every day.”
Young, a five-star recruit from Norman, Okla., double-doubled in his first collegiate game. He double-doubled in his second game. In games 3-8 he scored between 28 and 43 points, all while leading unranked Oklahoma to an unlikely 7-1 record. Then December 16 happened. And over the course of the next eight games Young took college basketball by storm.
In a span of one month, from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15, Oklahoma went from unranked to No. 4 in the country. Young’s numbers in that eight-game stretch? 31.4 points, 11.3 assists, 4.9 made 3-pointers and 1.6 steals in better than 34 minutes per game. His lowest scoring output in that time frame was 26, and in that game he handed out 22 assists, which tied an NCAA record. He had double-doubles in seven of the eight games, and had to settle for 29 points and five assists on the road against West Virginia, one of the country’s top defenses.
Young’s Sooners went into a nosedive after that, going 4-10 to finish the regular season and putting them close to the bubble, especially after a loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament. Young, the catalyst and only real option for the Sooners, posted modest 24.5 points and 7.5 assists, but wasn’t able to get a hold of the runaway train. The Sooners lost their opening round matchup to Rhode Island, a game in which Young scored 28 points.
But the roller coaster season is in the rear-view mirror. Young’s game is pretty straightforward: he’s a pick and roll nightmare for defenses, has the best range of anyone in the country and finds open shooters with ease. He’s a do-it-all offensively, and has naturally drawn comparisons to Stephen Curry.
“I love the comparisons. He’s a two-time MVP and a champion,” Youg said. “I’m just trying to be the best version of Trae Young, that’s all that matters to me. I’m just getting started in this thing.”
Young will make his presence felt wherever he winds up on June 21. Though he needs to continue adding weight to withstand the physical nature of the NBA (as well as an 82-game season) his skill set was built for today’s game. Though his shooting numbers came at a rather inefficient clip – 42 percent shooting, 36 percent from 3 – those will improve as he’s asked to take fewer shots at the next level.
His passing numbers should also improve; despite the 8.7 assists per game he wasn’t exactly paired up with knockdown shooters in Norman. If a team is able to pair him next to a stout defender – not unlike Isaiah Thomas playing next to Avery Bradley in Boston – his offensive game will cancel out any defensive deficiencies.
“My main focus is going to the right team,” he said. “It’s all about the fit for me and whether that’s (No.) 1 or whatever it is, I’m going to be happy and ready to make an impact and that’s what they’re going to get.”
That impact will be felt. Young opted against naming teams – he has met with the Bulls, he said – but mentioned that he has looked at teams picking in this year’s Lottery and knows the playoffs are a possibility if he enters the mix and leaves his imprint on a team in Year 1.
“There are teams in this draft that I think are one piece away, two pieces away from being a team that’s in the Lottery this year but not next year,” Young said. “There’s been some teams that I’ve met with I feel like if I’m on that team that I can make a big impact for them.”
He made that impact at Oklahoma, and despite his measurements there’s nothing to dislike about his game. He set records, carried a team for four months and dealt with adversity. That, as well as a lethal jump shot, will have him ready for the next level and whatever team selects him in six weeks.