What’s Wrong With Trae Young: An in-depth look at how defenses are adjusting to the Oklahoma superstar
In the past two weeks, Oklahoma’s Trae Young learned the hard way that there is always a cost that comes with success, and for him, it appears to be the weight of expectation.
Young has become a sensation in college basketball this season. He is this year’s version of Adam Morrison, or Jimmer Fredette, or Stephen Curry. He is the best story in college basketball, must-see TV not just because of the numbers he puts up but because of the entertainment that comes with getting seats to the The Trae Young Show.
Not only that, but Young is playing in the toughest conference in college basketball for a title contender as a 19-year old freshman in the biggest, most important and most influential role I can ever remember seeing a player in. Put another way, he has the best coaches in the country ranking their brains for a way to slow him down and get the ball out of his hands all while he, in the back of his mind, is wondering how he can top what he did the game before.
Young has never told me that’s the way he feels, but isn’t that human nature? When I write a great story, I want the next one to be just as good if not better. Musicians want their next single to be better than their last. Lawyers that crush a cross-examination want their closing argument to ensure they win the case. And Young wants to be better every game than he was the previous.
And that, it seems, is why Young has hit the first slump of his post-high school career.
On Tuesday night, No. 4 Oklahoma went into Kansas State and got whooped, 87-69, as Young shot 8-for-21 from the floor and turned the ball over 12 times. Against the Wildcats, Bruce Weber came up with a game-plan that was as simple as it was effective. They blitzed Young on every ball-screen and dribble-handoff, forcing the ball out of his hands before face-guarding him to try and prevent him from getting the ball back.
That came on the heels on committing nine turnovers against TCU over the weekend. He currently leads the country in turnovers - 5.2 per game, including 39 turnovers in his last five games - and it’s a result of the degree of difficulty of the plays that Young is trying to make; it’s almost as if he’s trying to get an assist, to make a highlight reel pass, on every possession, an issue that gets magnified by the number of layups opponents get off of those turnovers:
“He’s trying to do too much,” Young’s father, Rayford, said this week. “He wants to win so bad. He’s got to understand in this league coaches make a lot of money to scout you and shut you down.”
“That’s the difference between now and the beginning of the year. People didn’t understand how to get the ball out of his hands. Now there is some film on him.”
The other issue with Young of late is making the right read. I wrote earlier this season about Young’s passing and how he is so good at reading where defenders are in pick-and-rolls. He had a knack for almost always making the right pass:
But he’s made mistakes more often in recent games than in the first couple of weeks of the season.
In the first clip below, you’ll see Young try to make a no-look pass to the roll-man out after getting blitzed, not seeing that Kansas State was sending a weak-side defender to help. The pass that was open was to the weak-side corner, where Christian James would have had an open look at a three:
In the second clip above, the pass Young tries to make isn’t wrong - getting Jamuni McNeace the ball with a smaller defender on his back can work - but he didn’t put the ball on the money.
That is another trend I noticed watching Young in recent games. I’m not sure sloppy would be the right word to use, but where he typically had been putting the ball exactly where it needed to be previously, he’s now throwing the ball into the crowd.
In the first clip below, you’ll see Young make the right read and find Brady Manek for an open three. The shot didn’t go down, but that’s the shot that Oklahoma is looking for. In the second clip, Young does the same, except the pass ended up three feet off the mark and resulted in a turnover. At the end of the play, Young is visibly frustrated:
In the end, I think the fix here is fairly simple.
For starters, Lon Kruger just needs to settle the kid down. The first action of a possession doesn’t have to lead to a shot. Keeping possession and running more offense is better than forcing a pass with 20 seconds left on the shot clock. I would also expect Kruger to find more ways to get Young into a ball-screen action that goes beyond a simple high-ball screen. Some false motion at the start of a possession can work wonders moving a defense around and getting individual defenders into uncomfortable positions.
Young also needs to trust his teammates a little more, and not in the sense that he doesn’t think they can get the job done but because it would alleviate some of the pressure that falls on his shoulders. Brady Manek, Christian James, Kameron McGusty. Those are good players that can probably handle more of the load.
At the end of the day, opponents have made some adjustments to what Oklahoma wants to do.
And now it is on the Sooners to tweak what they do.
This happens with every team in the country during the course of the season, but given how reliant Oklahoma is on one player, the effect is magnified.
That’s a long-winded way of saying this: The Sooners are fine.