- Matt Cox
*Reader beware* Last night, I got suckered into the vortex that is the Trae Young talk show and am now officially part of the college hoops media herd overreacting to Young's performance each time Oklahoma takes the hardwood. And with the Sooners set to square off with Alabama this weekend in Tuscaloosa, who knows how far the pendulum will swing by Sunday after we watch Young go mano-e-mano with Collin Sexton in what should be a prolific point guard duel.
Setting the stage...
Remember two months ago when Trae Young was just another really good freshman in one of the more promising rookie classes in recent memory? Sure, his 43-point outburst against Oregon in the PK80 raised a few eyebrows, but the 'buzz meter' barely budged as most of us were distracted at home by Thanksgiving feasts and family bonding.
Perhaps we should blame Michael Porter Jr. for somewhat overshadowing Young's hype entering college, given the duo had to share the spotlight as teammates on a borderline unfair MoKan Elite AAU squad. But MPJ sounded like a prophet in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Adam Zagoria back in early 2017 when he chimed in about Young's potential college landing spot:
“I think Oklahoma is best for him because he’ll be able to shine.”
Fast forward to the here and the now: Young has morphed into a human pyrotechnic show at the college level, capable of torching the nets from anywhere inside 40-feet as if he’s a Steph Curry surrogate – but his hijacking of the college hoops media coverage has exposed us to some minor - and I do mean minor - blemishes in his near-perfect game.
Young's hyper ball dominance and volatile decision making are indicative of the fact that he's just a 19-year old kid still advancing along the historically choppy freshman learning curve. His sporadic struggles against Kansas State and Oklahoma State prompted me to think of a bizarre [and debatably rude] comparison to a smoking hot girl in my Econ class way back when I was a freshman at Indiana University. She was an absolute knockout by every physical attraction measurement, but caught me off guard on one occasion when she strolled into our 8 A.M. lecture late without her normal dose of makeup applied. It reminded me that even the "creme de la creme" are by no means perfect and are still susceptible to a few 'off days' from time to time.
The college hoops fan base seems to have had a similar revelation with Young after a few tumultuous turnover episodes, which has ignited a scorching hot debate on the national scale - I attempt to present both sides of the discussion below in a dumb and meaningless back-and-forth argument with myself...
Joining the debate...
On one side you have those who feel that Young is trying to do too much, which is manifesting in outrageously high turnover count and a marginalization of his teammates. A lot of the knocks on Young closely mirrors the criticism that Russell Westbrook received last year during his historic MVP season. Bill Simmons illuminated some of Westbrook's less desirable record breaking statistical figures, most notably his whopping 42% usage rate. While NBA to NCAA stat comparison are often 'apples-to-oranges', for context, Young's usage is currently 41% - the highest EVER in the kenpom era. As someone who was high on this OU team preseason because of my belief in their talented returning core (specifically Christian James, Kameron McGusty, Khadeem Lattin and Rashard Odomes), I see merit in the argument that Young's 'ball-hogginess' can inhibit his supporting cast from getting into any real offensive rhythm or flow, which is precisely the stance Simmons took on Westbrook's team impact last year.
On the other side of the aisle sits the majority of college basketball fans and media members who choose NOT to overanalyze what we're watching so far this season. In their eyes, the notion that Young's ridiculous shot binges are somehow hurting Oklahoma's chances to win is ludicrous - after all, the dude is shooting 51%, 40% and 84% from 2-pt, 3-pt and the free throw line, respectively, and sporting a cool 119 O-Rating at the moment, even with the turnover woes.
But even the turnover story can be reasonably rationalized - herein lies why I stand with the masses on this debate:
Through the first 8 games of Big-12 play (reminder: this league has an outside chance of sending 8 of it's 10 schools dancing), the Sooners team turnover rate (18.6%) ranks 6th in the conference and OU's season long team TO rate (17.2%) ranks inside the top-70 nationally. This lesser discussed narrative is valuable ammo for the devout Young defenders and here's how: "Turnover Trae" is in many ways taking the turnover pressure off of his teammates. In other words, if Young played a much more passive offensive role, guys like James and McGusty and Odomes would be turning it over at a much higher clip as more relied upon playmakers.
Don't buy that? Well just look at the significant drop in James, McGusty and Odomes individual TO rates this season compared to last year:
Dissecting Young's individual ball security issues ignores the broader - and much more important - picture, which is the fact that the Sooners per possession turnover rate is the lowest Lon Kruger has had since Buddy Hield was just a sophomore back in 2013-14.
In last night's 85-80 victory against Kansas, we may have witnessed the first glimpse into the next chapter of the Trae Young saga, which I’m uncreatively labeling 'Trae 2.0'. Young finished with 26 points on just 9 shots (20 fewer attempts than his Big-12 record 39 shots in Bedlam) to go along with 9 assists, only using 26% of his team's possessions. His approach to the game was encouraging evidence that he's becoming self aware about his most effective role in the Sooners' offense, which was further reinforced in his post game interview and [unnecessary] apology to "Miss Holly Rowe".
To be clear, I'm not predicting we'll see Young be this unselfish every game from here on out. There will still be a time and a place where 'Takeover Trae' needs to make an appearance - just refer to the aforementioned Oregon game way back in November when his teammates went ice cold from behind the arc and hopped on Young's shoulders for the full 40 minutes.
The point is that this was a pivotal performance which showed me 'Trae 2.0' is capable of reacting and adapting to the defense put in front of him on a game-to-game basis. Some nights, he'll face constant double teams off ball screens that will force him to give up the rock early and often. Other nights, he'll see a more straight-up defensive look with no accentuated schematic tricks that will allow him to go into full bore attack mode.
This is why Young's mental maturation over the next 4-6 weeks will determine just how high the ceiling is for the 2018 Sooners - and if last night is any indication of where Young's evolution is headed, no one will have a bigger grin on their face than Lon Kruger by the time Selection Sunday rolls around.