Teams might be over­think­ing Young

Fresh­man guard’s sea­son had more highs than lows

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Dan Wolken Colum­nist

AT­LANTA – The next Steph Curry came strolling into an interview after his work­out Tues­day with the team that might se­lect him in next week’s NBA draft. Wait a sec­ond, scratch that. Ac­cord­ing to some pundits, point guard Trae Young will be lucky to be the next Lou Wil­liams. Or maybe the next Shabazz Napier.

It’s been hard to keep up ever since Young be­came the big­gest fresh­man sen­sa­tion in col­lege bas­ket­ball since Kevin Du­rant, then got the pre­dictable backlash as he wore down to­ward the end of the sea­son, then resur­faced as any­where from a pos­si­ble top-three pick to the guy who could slip in a draft pur­port­edly filled with po­ten­tial stars.

As the draft ap­proaches next Thurs­day, how­ever, no player will gen­er­ate as many hot takes as Young, who will man­age to be ei­ther mas­sively over­rated or crim­i­nally over­looked based on a dif­fer­ence of a mere hand­ful of draft slots. He seems to be, fairly or not, the most po­lar­iz­ing player in the lot­tery.

But in a year when most of the sig­nif­i­cant ar­gu­ments in the draft seem to be cen­tered on the po­ten­tial of some tal­ented big men and whether a teenage Euro­pean sen­sa­tion will trans­late to NBA star­dom, isn’t it pos­si­ble we’re all over­think­ing this? Is it re­ally so crazy in

2018 to be­lieve Young, who be­came the first player in NCAA Di­vi­sion I his­tory to lead the na­tion in points and as­sists as a

19-year old fresh­man, just might turn out to be a le­git­i­mate star in the NBA?

“I think (my game) trans­lates bet­ter (in the NBA) be­cause of the spac­ing and my abil­ity to shoot the ball, pass the ball and get my team­mates in­volved,” Young said after a work­out with the Hawks, who have the No. 3 pick. “I just have to con­tinue to play the way I’ve played my whole life and just be dif­fer­ent.”

Young is dif­fer­ent. De­spite ar­riv­ing at Ok­la­homa with a rel­a­tively anony­mous pro­file (he was the low­est-rated fives­tar re­cruit ac­cord­ing to Ri­vals, re­ceiv­ing only a frac­tion of the hype at­tached to Michael Porter or Marvin Ba­gley), it took only a hand­ful of games for Young to es­tab­lish him­self as the most elec­tri­fy­ing fresh­man in years.

For two months, he was must-watch TV, car­ry­ing the un­der­manned Soon­ers to huge wins while rack­ing up 30-point games, 40-point games, at­tempt­ing shots only Curry reg­u­larly makes while show­ing off a flair for fancy ball­han­dling and pass­ing that was flat-out fun.

Then, late in the sea­son, Young came back to earth a bit. His ef­fi­ciency suf­fered, and Ok­la­homa un­sur­pris­ingly went on a skid, barely mak­ing the NCAA tour­na­ment after los­ing eight out of 10. Maybe the im­mense play-mak­ing load Young had to carry fi­nally took its toll on a lithe physique that has sup­pos­edly added 11 pounds since the end of the sea­son. Maybe, as teams fo­cused their en­tire de­fen­sive game plans on stop- ping him, he tried to do too much.

Here’s all we re­ally know: His good mo­ments in col­lege are bet­ter than any­one else’s in the lot­tery. His bad mo­ments are prob­a­bly scarier for NBA teams than any­one else’s. Nat­u­rally, Young ar­gues what he went through, in­clud­ing the sud­den fame he gained in a short pe­riod of time, gives him a leg up on prospects who didn’t have nearly the amount of pres­sure on them. Whether you in­ter­pret that as a rea­son or an ex­cuse for his late-sea­son strug­gle is to­tally in the eye of the be­holder.

“I think I got eval­u­ated a lit­tle bit more be­cause I had the ball in my hands a lit­tle bit more and I was do­ing a lit­tle more for my team,” Young said. “I was get­ting face-guarded, dou­bled-teamed off every screen, dif­fer­ent cov­er­ages. I think it helped me to go back and watch film and now know what to do if that hap­pens in the NBA.”

This is where it’s worth point­ing out that I’m nei­ther ad­vo­cat­ing for or against Young ver­sus DeAndre Ay­ton or Ba­gley or Luka Don­cic. But here’s what I know: For all the pur­ported so­phis­ti­ca­tion in scout­ing and data an­a­lyt­ics, the draft is a ridicu­lous crap­shoot that some­how re­mains re­mark­ably sus­cep­ti­ble to group­think.

While there are al­ways a cou­ple of play­ers on draft night who end up go­ing higher or lower than ex­pected, the first 20 or so picks gen­er­ally fol­low a con­sen­sus that works to pro­tect NBA ex­ec­u­tives and their rep­u­ta­tions by giv­ing them cover for their se­lec­tions, even though year after year the con­sen­sus is largely proved in­cor­rect once the prospects have to play in the league.

In other words, if one gen­eral man­ager makes a pick the bas­ket­ball cognoscenti praises on draft night and an­other makes a pick per­ceived to be a reach, they won’t get equal crit­i­cism if both play­ers turn out to be bad three years later. The GM who fol­lowed the con­sen­sus will largely get a pass while the GM who took a risk will get a black mark on his rep­u­ta­tion, which makes no sense when the re­sults are the same.

If a team with a strong con­vic­tion about Young picks him in the top five, it will be gen­er­ally per­ceived as so far out­side the con­sen­sus that it’s la­beled “risky” or a “reach” while a team that takes Jaren Jack­son Jr., whom Tom Izzo couldn’t even trust to be on the floor for Michi­gan State as it was flail­ing around against Syra­cuse in the NCAA tour­na­ment, will be “bet­ting on up­side.”

This is a ridicu­lous way to an­a­lyze a draft where most teams get it wrong.

And maybe the team that goes out­side the con­sen­sus for Young will get it wrong, too. Maybe he re­ally is too short and phys­i­cally weak to be an elite point guard in the NBA. Maybe he’s so bad de­fen­sively he’ll end up more of a sixth man than a starter. Or maybe — and wouldn’t this be a real shocker? — a player who did amaz­ing things night after night at 19 will con­tinue do amaz­ing things as he gets older and stronger?

The only thing you can say for sure is if Young goes in the top five, the team that picks him will im­me­di­ately be­come the most sec­ond-guessed of the en­tire draft. But given the his­tory of an en­ter­prise that is only slightly more re­li­able than a roulette wheel, why is that such a bad thing?

MARK D. SMITH/USA TO­DAY

Ok­la­homa’s Trae Young was the first fresh­man in NCAA Di­vi­sion I his­tory to lead the na­tion in points (876; 27.4) and as­sists (279; 8.7).

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