Trae Young might be the most fascinating prospect in this year's NBA draft.
Young's freshman season at Oklahoma, which saw him lead the NCAA in both scoring and assists per game, was unlike anything we've seen in modern college basketball. (No player had done so since 1983-84, when the NCAA resumed officially tracking assists after doing so two seasons in the early 1950s.)
Nonetheless, Young's small frame has produced skepticism about whether he can translate his offensive success to the NBA and hold up defensively. So the Wayman Tisdale Award winner as USBWA National Freshman of the Year sits eighth in Jonathan Givony's latest mock draft.
Is Young a future superstar and steal in the middle of the lottery? Or are the skeptics right about his limitations? Let's take a look.
The case for Young: early production at a late-blooming position
Because of his production at Oklahoma and in the Nike EYBL AAU competition,Young ranks third in my projections for this year's draft, and second in the stats-only version of those projections.
Yet those lofty projections might actually undersell how unusual Young is as a prospect. Few recent point guards have stood out statistically as freshmen in the same way as Young, whose stats-only projection -- unadjusted for position -- ranks fourth among one-and-done players at the position dating back to 2003.
That early success is exciting because point guards tend to develop later than their peers at other positions. Consider the MVPs to whom Young is often compared. As a freshman at Davidson, Stephen Curry averaged 21.5 points per game but just 2.8 assists playing as a shooting guard. He wouldn't establish himself as an NBA prospect until leading the Wildcats to the Elite Eight the following season.
Back in 1992-93, Steve Nash's freshman season at Santa Clara, he averaged just 8.1 points and 2.2 assists in 24 minutes per game. It took Nash until his junior season, when he won West Coast Conference Player of the Year, for him to approach what Young did as a freshman.
Now, this certainly shouldn't suggest that Young will become significantly better than Curry and Nash. The list of point guards better than those future MVPs as freshmen is long, and none continued to develop in the same way as Curry and Nash -- the two latest-blooming superstars in NBA history.
The other key variable is how Curry and Nash benefited from changes in rules and style of play that favored their skill sets. Nash only reached MVP level after the NBA ramped up enforcement of rules limiting hand checking, which sped up the game and set the stage for Nash's Phoenix Suns to emerge as a force. Curry's development was a combination of his own physical and skill improvements in combination with increasing his 3-point attempt rate from about a third of his shots his first two NBA seasons to more than half the past three.
Having grown up watching Curry, Young has already benefited from these changes. Young, who attempted 10.3 3-pointers per game at Oklahoma, never had to be encouraged to let it fly from beyond the arc. And Young came to college comfortable shooting the pull-up 3-pointer, so crucial for modern pick-and-roll play. Young's 86 unassisted 3-pointers were the third-highest total for an NCAA player since 2011-12, when Hoop-Math.com began tracking the stat.
The case against: Young a defensive target
During the conference finals, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets settled on a similar strategy: Find the smallest defender on the court, get him switched on their star and attack him in isolation.
Curry, whose Warriors were playing the Rockets, was the primary defender on 14.7 isolations per 100 defensive plays, according to Second Spectrum tracking -- a rate nearly five times as often as he defended isolations in the regular season (3.1 per 100). Cleveland, meanwhile, targeted Boston Celtics guard Terry Rozier. Rozier faced 6.9 isolations per 100 plays, more than 2.5 times his regular-season rate (2.6).
Surely, teams will target Young the same way. Having measured 6-foot-1¾ in shoes and 178 pounds at the draft combine, Young is even smaller than Curry, who measured just over 6-foot-3 and 181 pounds coming out of Davidson. (That was before Curry transformed his body as a way of dealing with recurring ankle injuries.)
Oklahoma was able to hide Young on non-scorers. According to Synergy Sports tracking, he defended just 32 isolations all season that led to a shot, shooting foul or turnover. Young did reasonably well on those plays, holding opponents to .84 points per play, but the challenge will be much greater against NBA players.
As Curry's experience shows, Young's size may not be a huge issue during the regular season, at least in terms of isolations. But if teams aspire to eventually compete deep into the playoffs, they'll have to consider whether Young will be a defensive liability in those settings.
The verdict: Young worth the risk
Because of his size and high-usage style, Young looks like more of a boom-or-bust prospect than the typical top-10 pick. That's reflected by the ESPN Analytics projections, which give him a 12 percent chance of becoming an All-Star -- tied with Deandre Ayton for fourth-best in the class -- but rank him just 10th overall because of a 23 percent chance of being a non-contributor. That's highest among players in the top 12 of the rankings.
Still, I'm encouraged by looking at Young's production in the 2016 Nike EYBL AAU competition. Playing alongside fellow top-10 prospect Michael Porter Jr. (plus Porter's younger brother Jontay, a possible first-round pick before deciding to withdraw from this year's draft), Young used just 29 percent of his team's plays. That's a far more sustainable usage rate for him than the 37 percent of Oklahoma's plays he finished as a freshman.
Young's 2016 campaign rates as the second-best performance by my wins above replacement player metric of any EYBL player from 2012 through 2016. He had the third-best assist rate in that span and posted a strong .636 true shooting percentage. That's the Young NBA teams will want to draft.
I'd put Young in my third tier of prospects alongside Porter and Jaren Jackson Jr., with only Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton clearly ahead of him. So if Young slips where he's projected to go next Thursday, the reward should comfortably outweigh the risk.
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