Hawks draft prospect watch: Trae Young, Oklahoma

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

Credit: Sue Ogrocki

The Hawks are on track to have as many as three first-round picks in the 2018 draft. Their own pick is almost certain to be in the lottery. The Hawks also own a pick via the Rockets and will have a third pick if the Timberwolves quality for the playoffs. 

This is the seventh of my occasional reports on prospects expected to be selected in the first round of the draft. 

Previous entries

College: Oklahoma

Hometown: Norman, Okla.

Class: Freshman

Height/weight: 6-2, 180 (listed)

Age: 19 (Sept. 19,1998)

ESPN draft projection7th 

NORMAN, Okla. -- I was born into college basketball in Louisville, Ky. I still love the college game despite the corrupt NCAA system that prevents players from earning their true market value. The Louisville Cardinals are the only team in any sport that I root for because, even after seeing how the sausage is made, my cynicism hasn't severed my emotional connection to my hometown Cardinals.

But after covering the NBA for so many years the college games, by which I mean the actual game play, can be hard to watch. I get so frustrated seeing college teams fail to make plays that seem so obvious and simple (you should see me screaming at the TV as my Cardinals fail to execute the basics). Plays that happen like clockwork in NBA games at a sizzling pace develop slowly in college games and happen haphazardly, if at all.

That’s why watching Oklahoma’s Trae Young play is such a relief. For all the hype about his long-range shooting, I’m most impressed by Young’s feel for the game. Here is a freshman point guard with an NBA-level understanding of how to play to go along with NBA-level skills. Young sees what plays should be made and he makes them (even if his teammates aren’t good enough to convert at a high rate).

I sat behind one of the baselines for the Oklahoma-Iowa State game on Friday. From that vantage point, I could see Young's eyes and his teammates' movements. Several times, I would see an opportunity develop for one of his teammates at the exact moment Young whipped a pinpoint pass leading to an open shot. Sometimes Young whipped passes before I saw the play develop (he's masterful at not letting his eyes give away what his intentions).

Young’s 49.0 assist rate (tops in Division I per Kenpom) and 10.1 assists per 40 minutes are ridiculous numbers for any player, let alone a freshman playing at a high-major school. Yong has outstanding court vision and ball-handling ability. Young isn’t particularly quick but he’s crafty about shifting speeds, changing directions and using the threat of his 3-point shot to get where he wants.

About that shot: Young has a low release point and often launches at a moment’s notice without being square to the basket. Young’s unorthodox methods, slight build and his high-volume 3-point shooting have led to comparisons to Stephen Curry. Here’s how Young’s season so far compares to Curry’s sophomore season, his best at low-major Davidson:

Age* G USG% TS% PTS/40 FD/40 min AST% TO%
Stephen Curry, 07-08, Davidson 20 36 31.8 64.0 34.0 7.2 40.2 16.1
Trae Young, 17-18, Oklahoma 19 30 38.7 58.8 31.3 7.3 49.0 20.0

*age by end of season

You can see why Young is a top NBA prospect despite his small stature and questionable defensive ability. The Warriors selected Curry seventh overall in 2009, when he was 21-years old, before the pace-and-space revolution had taken over the NBA. There is no way Young would be overlooked by NBA teams even if the game hadn’t evolved but certainly Curry’s smashing success helps his stock.

Young's usage rate (38.7) is tops in Division I per Kenpom.com and yet he's posted a 58.8 true shooting percentage (55.7 in Big 12 games). Young draws fouls at a very high rate (7.3 per 40 minutes) and is shooting 86 percent on 263 free-throw attempts. His turnover rate (20.0) vs. usage rate (38.7) is fine for his age.

NBA teams will have to figure out why Young hasn't shot as well late in the season. After making 44 of 107 3-points attempts (41 percent) in 11 non-conference games, Young has shot 33 percent in conference play, including 20-for-85 (24 percent) over his past nine games. Young went 5-for-19 from the field against Iowa State, including 1-for-9 on 3's, with less than ideal shot selection. (Young also may have been limited by a hip injury.)

After watching several Oklahoma games this season, I suspect that Young is worn down from carrying such a big offensive load. There aren’t many other Sooners players for opponents to worry about so they sell out trying to contain Young, who surely must be affected by seeing his teammates blow so many easy chances that he creates.

According to 247Sports.com’s composite rankings, only one of Young’s teammates (sophomore Kameron McGusty) was a top 100 national high school recruit. McGusty was No. 41 in the 2016 class; Young was No. 23 in 2017.

“Everybody game plans for him,” said Iowa State coach Steve Prohm, who had 2015 No. 14 overall pick Cameron Payne at Murray State. “I think you’ve got to cut him a break from that standpoint. If you coach a great point guard, that’s what happens. He’s in a tough situation.”

Still, even accounting for the circumstances, Young has some offensive limitations because of his size and relative lack of athleticism.

He’s shooting just 49.5 percent on 2-pointers (46.6 percent in conference play). According to Synergy, Young has shot 47.9 percent on 121 field-goal attempts around the basket with 1.04 points per possession (36th percentile). Young has drawn fouls on just 9.1 percent of those plays — against Iowa State Young, he threw up some wild shots on drives while trying to draw contact.

One positive for Young is that, according to Synergy, he's shot 49 percent on runners. Making that shot consistently is crucial for smaller guards in the NBA, especially if they aren't explosive athletes, because finishing at the rim is so hard to do. (For the record, shooting stats at Cleaning the Glass show that Curry didn't become an All-Star until he started converting in the "short midrange" area consistently and now he also is a very efficient scorer at the rim.)

Young steals percentage (2.5) is good, no surprise for a player with good instincts. But to be an effective defended in the NBA Young will have to overcome his small frame and relative lack of athleticism. Iowa State, like all of Oklahoma’s opponents, ran Young through a gauntlet of screens and the NBA is much more physical. (Young has drawn criticism for poor defensive effort but, in my opinion, that’s related to Young wearing down from having to do everything for the Sooners at the other end.)

Young is an elite NBA prospect because of his skill, feel for the game, play-making and shot-making. If he can develop into an adequate defender and diversify his offensive game Young can be an outstanding NBA player in the pace-and-space era.