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Trae Young has drawn many comparisons over the course of this season, from Stephen Curry to Damien Lillard to Kyrie Irving. Certainly, leading the NCAA in both points and assists as a true freshman garners a certain level of attention. Attention that some would say ultimately derailed the Sooners season leading to an early NCAA tournament exit at the hands of Rhode Island 83-78, lack of defense being the standout answer to the Sooners woes. Regardless, Trae was front and center for all of it. ESPN gave the super frosh around the clock coverage. He was the best player in college basketball averaging 27 points and almost 9 assists leading a team that finished 11-20 with nearly the same roster from a year ago to a top 5 ranking and the NCAA tournament. He performed well on the biggest of stages in front of scouts and lookers on which has ultimately led to his decision to leave early and enter the NBA Draft as a freshman.
The media coverage of Young throughout the season reached its peak after the Sooners defeated TCU at home in early January on the heroics of an onslaught of threes from Young. After a 14-2 start, Trae was everywhere all the time. Deservedly so, a freshman leading the nation in scoring and assists has never been done. But it became borderline absurd. Suddenly, it became a race to determine if this was sustainable. Ultimately, Trae was able to maintain his averages throughout the season; in large part the makeup of his team required such efforts. However, when the Sooners struggled suddenly you heard murmurs of whether this was a fluke or the real thing. One scout was quoted stating that there was no way he would take Trae in the lottery. The Sooners season was one of epic ascendance and utter catastrophe that ended in a first round exit that many writers and analysts felt was undeserving to begin with. And Trae was at the point of all the coverage. The blame did not elude him as Oklahoma crawled into the tournament.
Despite the team's struggles, I cannot recall a player having such an impact on the trajectory of a team in the history of college basketball. Oklahoma ran a pro system with mediocre talent surrounding a superstar player that ultimately caught up with them. Lon Kruger’s experience in the NBA certainly played a role in his ability to manage Trae and give him the free reign he needed to be successful. However, teams eventually figured out that his teammates were not of a certain level and began throwing two and three guys at him every night. With that, he still managed lead the country in scoring and assists. He simply does not have anything left to prove at the collegiate level. The NBA, while different, is more suited to his style. The floor will be more spaced and his ability to find shooters will be reciprocated at the next level with the ball finding the bottom of the net, unlike in Norman.
Success for him in the NBA should not surprise people at this point. Let us not forget how grossly over looked he was coming into college. Ranked behind Kentucky’s Quade Green and Duke’s Trevon Duval, no one expected the season we got from Trae. He was not even Preseason Freshman of the Year in the Big XII. As an Oklahoma City native, I was able to see him in high school multiple times. This was not necessarily as surprising as many would believe. His gaudy numbers in high school led one to believe that he would be able to score in college; the assists, however, were more of a shock. What that says about his ability to adapt to a faster game indicates that his game will translate well to the NBA level.
Trae’s trajectory depends on where he lands. The most recent mock drafts have him landing between the 7-9 range, meaning he will most likely be playing in either Chicago or New York, two major markets for a soft spoken 19-year-old kid. Lucky for him he has the talent to match the expectation based on what he produced in college. New York drafted a point guard last year but given they passed on Dennis Smith Jr. leads many to believe they would not make the same mistake twice. Chicago is in full tank mode. They do however have a couple of promising young players in Lauri Markkenen and Zach Lavine who looks to have recovered from his knee injury a season ago. Regardless as to where he lands, he will have the keys to the boat. Playing point guard in the NBA, especially in 2018, means that there are no nights off. Everyone has good guards and on any given road stretch you are looking across at Dame, Steph, and Russ. Tall task for a wide-eyed kid embarking on a career.
With that said, Trae has given us no indication that he will not adjust accordingly to the new challenge. In High School as a senior he averaged 42 points a game and has been regarded as the best guard to come out of the state since Mark Price. He is no stranger to the spotlight and expectation any more than any other highly touted player coming out of high school. Many NBA players have reached out to show support and a tip of the cap to the performances that he has turned in. This is different however; this is competition. Those in the NBA that have admired his game from close and afar are now looking to find any edge to win that matchup. More than that, I think that he has the mindset for it. Unafraid of the big moment, Young expects to compete at the highest level. He has a solid support system around him in his mother and father who himself played collegiately at Texas Tech University.
His father also expressed his desire that he stay another year in college to develop. These days with the intensified microscope on these players another year in college means another year to be exposed. There is no greater training ground for players to develop than at the pro level. The jump for most is a sink or swim scenario in which your attributes will either be able to flourish or exposed, but I digress.
The biggest adjustment for Young will be at the defensive end, an area in which he struggled this season. He will be expected to guard his position at the next level which is something that he will need to adjust to. Teams especially in conference play saw this as a weakness in his game and attacked it. The most poignant example being the second matchup against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in which the Sooners were routed. Trae was exposed that night by Big 12 Player of the Year Devonta Graham in a matchup that ultimately called his defense into question. There is a difference between guys who cannot guard and those whom defense is not important. This season was a little bit of both for Trae. So important to his team, he often played 40 minutes a night and could not risk foul trouble. Yet and still, there are considerable contrasts between doing what is best for the team in remaining available and becoming a defensive liability.
With that, his ceiling, to quote Michael Jordan, is the roof. While he will certainly have an adjustment to make, should he get stronger and more explosive he has the chance to be special in this league for a long time. His ability to shoot the three ball at the clip he does and how quick he gets it off will help him immensely. For point guards, a lot of your success is determined by how well you bring your teammates along. Playing with better players will boost his efficiency rating at the next level which will help him cut down on turnovers, another area in which he struggled in large part due to his ridiculous usage rate in college. Despite the comparisons, no freshman has ever turned in a season like the one we just witnessed. The only thing that will hold him back at the next level is the expectation—good thing he has experience in that area.