TAKING THE GAME BY STORM
At 6’2 and only 180 pounds, he doesn’t really look the part of one of a dynamic basketball player who can single-handedly control the outcome of the entire game. But then he steps on the court, and demonstrates a smooth release that helps him drain jump shots from absolutely ridiculous ranges, the agility and dexterity to finish around the rim, the ability to break down the defense and drop off passes in the tightest of areas to open teammates, and an off-the-charts basketball IQ which makes him virtually impossible to guard. Quite simply, Trae Young is the best story in college basketball.
To the more casually basketball fan, you’d think we’re describing Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. But instead, we’re actually talking about Young, the freshman point guard of the University of Oklahoma men’s basketball team, and as of this moment, the best college basketball player in the nation.
Of course, the number of people unfamiliar with Young’s play this season continues to decrease, given that he’s become a social media phenomenon, thanks to his Curry-like style of play, swishing three-point shots from ludicrous distances, and bringing a methodical and controlled flair for the dramatic; both of which are enormous reasons why the Sooners went from being an unranked team in early November, to the 7th-ranked team in the nation entering the first weekend of January.
PROVING THE DOUBTERS WRONG
But how is it that a player who’s been described as a hybrid between Steve Nash and Stephen Curry, and a guy whom Curry himself has publicly called “unbelievable” only just recently break into the national conversation? And how is it that we’re only recently starting to learn more about a player who is on pace to become only the eighth point guard in to win the John Wooden award (given annually to the most outstanding basketball player) over the last four decades?
In fairness, Young was a relatively heralded recruit coming out of Norman, Oklahoma. ESPN ranked him as the fourth-best point guard in the nation, and a top 25 recruit overall in the high school class of 2017. John Calipari at Kentucky and Bill Self at Kansas both made big pushes to have Young come to their respective programs. But while the obvious answer might be his overall lack of size, some college scouts (and even NBA scouts) reportedly saw Young as a one-dimensional scorer with a somewhat selfish shoot-first mentality, and ironically, a somewhat questionable ability to shoot from three-point range.
CHANGING HIS GAME FOR THE BETTER
Those questions weren’t unfounded, either; Young averaged less than 4.5 assists per game during his junior and senior year of high school, and hit less than 36% of his three-point attempts in his high school and AAU playing days. His high school team finished 19-6, and failed to qualify for the Oklahoma Class 6A State Championship. By his own admission, Young admitted (previously) envisioning himself as an off-guard, playing off a ball-dominant point guard and preferring to hang out on the wing and take jump shots.
That’s why Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger might deserve almost as much praise for Young’s play, as Young himself. It’s been said that the greatest leaders are able to first find out what truly motivates an individual to be great, and then uses that to bring out the best in that person.
With Young, Kruger was able to tap into the fact that Young feeds off controlling the dynamics of a game: what the scoreboard says, how the opposing team plays against him and his teammates, and even the energy and the emotions of the fans in the stadium. He saw that Young was able to do that in high school simply with his pure scoring ability, and while he wasn’t necessarily a “willing” passer, he was certainly more than able to do so at a high level.
Kruger tapped into that, convincing Young that he would be able to have an even greater impact on the game by thinking of himself as more of a “playmaker” versus only a “scorer.” And in return, Kruger has not only given Young the freedom to go out on the court and let his god-given basketball instincts guide him, but he’s essentially running the offense through Young.
THE SOONERS ARE THE TALK OF THE TOWN
You could say that things are working for both sides. Prior to their rock ’em-sock’em loss to Big 12 rival West Virginia University on Saturday, the Sooners were riding a 10-game winning streak, which included wins against three ranked opponents (#25 USC, #10 TCU, and #3 Wichita State). During said winning streak, they scored at least 90 points in eight of those 10 games. Even after the loss, the Sooners are still the highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 94.4 points per game.
They average just under 28 three-point attempts per game (the highest average among all Big 12 teams), and convert over 40% of them as a team. In the Sooners’ blowout win against Northwestern State in mid-to-late December, Young tied the NCAA D-I record with 22 assists in one game (while still scoring 26 points in the game as well). In the ensuing two games, against Northwestern and TCU, Young became the first player in 20 years with consecutive games with at least 30 points and 10 assists.
CAN HE CONTINUE AT THIS HISTORIC PACE?
For as much as Young and the Sooners might be enjoying the national spotlight, that actually might be the biggest impediment to Young and the Sooners reaching their ultimate goals. The hype train has left the station and reached top speed, without anyone double-checking if the brakes still work.
As long as Young’s name is being discussed by the likes of Curry and even LeBron James, the Sooners can expect every one of their opponents to circle their game against Oklahoma for the remainder of the season. For example: Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers did everything they could to harass and frustrate Young. While Young’s 29 points in the box score might look impressive, his season-high eight turnovers, and 8 for 22 shooting from the field (including 3 for 12 from 3-point range) might be more indicative of the game he had.
While Young’s play has been nothing short of historic so far, let’s not forget that we’ve barely rounded the halfway point of the season. There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played, even if Young does end up being another one-and-done player. There’s still plenty of chapters to be written in this already-great story, so instead of trying to predict the ending, let’s enjoy how the rest of the story unfolds. As any fan of college basketball will tell you, Trae Young is the best story in college basketball.
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