When you watch Trae Young play, you see a little bit of a lot of different players. His bullheaded drives to the basket look a lot like those of last year’s player of the year, Frank Mason. The effortlessness of his cartoonish range reminds everybody of Steph Curry. The Oklahoma uniform reminds you of Buddy Hield. Steve Nash comes to mind, too, and if you’re really losing it, you’re bringing up Pete Maravich.
Whatever you see, the facts are that Young, a freshman guard at Oklahoma, is averaging 29.6 points, 10.7 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game. He’s shooting 48 percent from the field, 41 percent from the 3-point line and 86 percent at the foul line. Most recently, he scored 39 in a dramatic win at No. 10 TCU, but he’s been doing this stuff all year. He had 43 against Oregon, 33 against Portland, 32 against North Texas, 31 against Northwestern. He is the front-runner for national player of the year, and No. 12 Oklahoma is 11-1.
So why didn’t anybody know about this guy until two months ago? And, like, how is he doing this?
Unlike Curry and Mason, Young was one of the most ballyhooed high school players in the country, ranked 16th in the class of 2017 by Rivals.com. He turned down offers from Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, UCLA, UConn and everyone else to play at Oklahoma for Lon Kruger, who recently had a lot of success by winding up Hield and watching him spin.
Young is Hield’s spiritual successor. Like a go-cart, Young has two speeds — stop, and full throttle. He has a vast array of clever hesitation moves and a Harden-like feel for timing, but at its core his game is based on his incredible speed. It must be accounted for at every second because for Young there is no “wrong” time to hit the turbo button. He knows he’s not going to make every contorted reverse layup he pulls at the possible moment, but he doesn’t care. He’s playing a volume game. He’ll get the next one.
So, OK, you take a fearless guy like that who can’t be kept out of the lane, and if he’s a really good shooter on top of it, you’ve got Mason, and that’s really good.
But Young isn’t just a good shooter, he’s a threat to score from 30 feet on in, every single possession. He requires very little space to get off a shot, and he does not have, within his marrow, anything like “reluctance.”
He is like Curry in the sense that when he’s on the floor, the geometry of the game is different, and conventions fall apart. With the ball in his hands, Young will make unusual choices that keep defenders on their heels and sometimes surprise his teammates, and he has a shot for every stage of a drive. There’s the pull-up 3 he’ll take any time it’s there, and there is a toolbox full of layup moves he’ll go to at the rim, but then he’s got this floater he can hit from at least 15 feet. Some possessions it looks like he’s playing eenie-meenie-miney-mo deciding which shot to go with.
There is a Johnny Manziel quality to his game. It all looks like chaos, right up until everything magically works out.
If you’re wondering how to stop him, you’re wondering the wrong thing, I think. He’s going to get up 20 shots, and you’d prefer that as many of those as possible be 2-pointers. Although he is a very good finisher and free-throw shooter, he will sometimes over-drive, and can get himself caught attempting layups of extreme difficulty. If you have somebody like, say, Dikembe Mutombo, on your team that would help too.
Oklahoma’s whole thing revolves around Young, so he’s going to see any number of junk defenses, and I’m already geeking out about what Bruce Weber comes up with. Best bet, though, is if you’ve got somebody about 6-foot-5 that can really move his feet and isn’t going to be asked to do much on offense. And you just tell that guy his job is to keep Trae Young from shooting any 3s, and be happy if you hold him to 25. Might not hurt to have one of your goons deliver a hard foul or two, either.
That’s all easy to say, of course.
Young has had just two bad shooting nights all year. The first game of the year, he went 1-for-6 from the 3-point line, and against UTSA on Dec. 4, he went 2-for-11. He hasn’t been held under 26 points since Nov. 15. Against ranked competition, he’s averaging 32 points per game.
Let’s cool it on the Pistol Pete stuff — that guy averaged 44 points per game for four years — but if you want to call Trae Young “Steph 2.0” I won’t argue with you.