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Know The Prospect: Trae Young

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Need points? He’ll make points.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA draft has existed for 70 years. In all that time, the New York Knicks have never drafted someone from the University of Oklahoma. NBA Sooners of note include Wayman Tisdale, drafted one spot after the frozen envelope reaped Patrick Ewing; Harvey Grant, who very nearly became a Knick just as their rivalry with brother Horace’s Bulls was taking off; and Stacey King, who contributed very little to Chicago’s first three-peat, then trolled the Knicks’ “Go NY Go NY Go” anthem at the Bulls’ 1993 victory parade with “Yeah...they gone.” King is now a color analyst for Bulls games, subjecting millions of Midwesterners to his dull repartee six months a year, so in the end the W is ours. Oklahoma point guard Trae Young might soon be, too.

A Wooden Award finalist, Young’s one-and-done campaign climbed and then fell like a bullet. Per David Aldridge: “[Young] led the nation in scoring (27.4) and assists (8.7) per game, and was second...in free throw attempts (236). He led the country in usage rate (37.1)...he also was tops in Offensive Box Plus-Minus (11.2) and was tied for seventh in Offensive Win Shares (4.7), and he finished eighth nationally in made threes (118).” Young started stronger than he finished, but whether you’re an analytics junkie or just some lucky prole who got your hands on the bone first, the evidence is evident: across the board, nobody at the collegiate level was more successful generating points than Young, a quality most teams can appreciate, but one the Knicks in particular thirst for.

New York is offensively deficient in three critical areas: they don’t take enough threes, they don’t make enough threes, and they don’t get to the foul line enough. It’s hard to say how much of that is due to scheme versus personnel; it’s likely a combination of the two. Drafting Young, prolific in all the areas the Knicks are deficient, would mark a newfound embracing of modernity by a front office we’re still struggling to define beyond “seemingly inoffensively competent.”

Out of 30 teams, the Knicks rank 29th in percentage of field goal attempts that are three-point attempts (all stats herein as of Saturday night). It’s chicken-and-egg whether they shoot so few because they can’t shoot, or if they can’t shoot and so they don’t. Either way, in the age of 3>2, the Knicks are on the wrong side of the math. Their point guards exemplify this.

An impressive 53% of Trae Young’s shots were from distance. Often long distance.

Is that sustainable? With Kristaps Porzingis likely out at least half the season, there are shots to be had on this team. In Lonzo Ball’s last year at UCLA, 56% of his shots were threes. This year with the Lakers, it’s still a healthy 52%. LaVar Ball’s musings aside, Luke Walton’s job security seems more a sure thing than Jeff Hornacek’s would be in a lame-duck final year of his contract, but less secure than a new Knick coach starting fresh would enjoy. Could job security impact how much license next year’s coach would grant Young, a teenager until training camp? *rubs temples, eyes closed* Yes. Yes it could.

Remember when Phil Jackson’s Church of the Midrange Jumper was in power? Remember the embarrassment you felt watching other team’s playing like today is now and the Knicks playing like today is 1998? Well, this year’s Knicks have made even fewer three-pointers than Jackson’s last team did. They’re dead last in three-point makes this season. You met the chicken. Meet the egg:

.315
.296
.374
.196

Those aren’t April batting averages. Those are the three-point percentages of Frank Ntilikina, Jarrett Jack, Trey Burke and Emmanuel Mudiay, the four men who’ve played the most point this year. One is essentially average; the others, well-below. The Knicks are also a lowly 24th in three-pointers allowed. They’re getting outscored by 10 points per game on threes. There’s too much of this.

Not enough this.

The Knicks are not blessed with good passers. Young may be readier for that reality than most.

Made baskets isn’t even what it’s all about. In the clip below, Kyle O’Quinn, guarded by Greg Monroe, sets a pick for Burke. Burke hits a three, but notice how far Monroe hangs back off the pick.

This lack of spacing, multiplied by possession after possession over 82 games, is a lot of lost space and opportunity. In a best-case scenario, Young would command so much more attention from defenses honoring him from 30-feet out it’d open oodles of space for the rest of the offense. It’d also be nice having someone on the floor besides Porzingis who’s accustomed to the pressure of centering an offense. Young took more shots (618) than the Sooners’ second- and third-most frequent shooters, Christian James and Brady Manek, combined (554).

Just 27% of Young’s three-pointers were assisted by teammates; every other Sooner had between 83% and 100% of their threes assisted. The four Knick point guards had between 58% and 89% of their three-pointers set up by teammates. Only 2.9% of Young’s two-point jumpers were assisted by teammates. The four Knick point guards had between 19% and 31% of their two-point baskets assisted, which suggests two things: NBA players are light years ahead of collegians, and Young may find certain aspects of life in the pros easier than in school.

The Knicks are 28th in free throw attempts and 27th in free throws per field goal attempt. Mudiay, notoriously gun shy taking shots at the rim, still gets to the line per 36 as often as Frank and Burke combined (Frankenburke!). 21 different players have suited up in a game for New York this season. Next year’s putative point guards — Mudiay, Ntilikina and Burke — rank 7th, 17th and 18th among all Knicks in free throws per field goal attempt.

Just like with three-pointers, the Knicks are outscored on a nightly basis at the charity stripe, by an average of three points. That means between three-pointers and free throws — the most valued methods of scoring in today’s NBA — the Knicks, every game, give opponents a 13-point advantage. You see it play out night after night. The opportunity to push the action and draw contact presents itself, but either Burke is hitting a pull-up, Frank is passing the ball, or Mudiay is missing a jumper instead of driving the lane.

While Young excelled at getting to the line in college, some fear his sub-optimum height (6’2”), wingspan (6’4”) and sleight frame (180 lbs.) will make him susceptible to the same struggles finishing at the rim that have characterized the career of Mudiay, a much bigger player.

Ntilikina averages less than one free throw attempt per game, and has shown a proclivity for avoiding contact rather than initiating it. That may change as his body and confidence grow, but right now there’s a lot of this happening with him.

Again, this time with feeling:

As refined a shooter’s touch as Young possesses from the perimeter, he’s yet to show it on floaters, a necessary adjustment going forward. He hit just 53% of his shots at the rim in college.

Here’s what one scout said about Young’s prospects of drawing fouls at the pro level:

“His first step is average at best, and considering his skinny frame and poor explosiveness around the basket in traffic, it’s unlikely that he’’ll be able to get to the free throw line anywhere near as much in the NBA as he does in college. While he is a good ball-handler and is excellent at using change of speeds, fakes and hesitation moves to get by defenders, he usually prefers to settle for a pull-up jumper rather than take the way all the way to the rim. For that reason he’’ll probably need to have some other shot-creators playing alongside him, especially in order to take full advantage of his perimeter shooting ability.”

That quote wasn’t really about Young. It’s what a scout said about Steph Curry ten years ago when he was entering the draft. It’s stupid to say Young’s career will echo Curry’s just because he approximated his game at a lower level; Harold Miner was called Baby Jordan for good reason, yet by 24 he was out of the league.

Curry averaged a little under two free throws per game as a rookie; this year he was getting to the line a career-high six times a night. It’s as impossible to equate Curry’s success to Young’s likelihood of success as it was to speculate a decade ago on what kind of pro Curry would become. But it’s worth remembering what we see of guys at 19 is generally not who they end up being as pros.

One noticeable difference between the two players: Curry’s jump shot has always had a high release point, even while at Davidson. Young’s is lower, which some worry could cause troubles as a pro down the road. Lonzo Ball shot 73% on two-pointers and 41% on three-pointers in college. As a Laker rookie, those figures are 42% and 31%. Ball’s form is obviously more unorthodox, but it’s fair to wonder how translatable and sustainable Young’s form will be in the NBA.

Defense is a thing, too, and this is where the eyebrows Young raises are out of concern. A scout from David Aldridge’s Morning Tip a few weeks ago voiced some of these concerns, describing him as “first and foremost a guy who wasn’t going to play defense, or can’t play defense, or won’t play defense, and it’s gotten worse at Oklahoma...a guy who’s very light in his body...who would struggle with the physicality of the NBA game.” A Southeast Division college scout put it more darkly:

“A lot of what he does isn’t going to translate. Think about for 82 games, if he’s the starting point guard on your team, think about the guys he has to play against that have length and explosion. Elfrid Payton isn’t an All-Star in our league, but he’s 6-5, long and athletic. He’s going to swallow Trae Young up. If you put (Kings guard) Garrett Temple on him, he’s going to struggle. The guards his size, the small guards with the big bodies, excel, like the Jameer Nelsons, the Kyle Lowrys. This kid isn’t a bulldog, and his defensive effort is equal to Jimmer Fredette’s.”

If only the Knicks had a player on the roster with exceptional defensive abilities, someone who could tackle the assignment of guarding the other team’s trickiest guards night after night, absolving Young of the burden...

Another critique of Young is that his season started out like gangbusters and ended up kinda busted. On January 3rd, Oklahoma was 12-1 after crushing rival Oklahoma St. by 20 points. Over the rest of the season, the Sooners stumbled to a 6-13 finish, including losses in the opening rounds of the Big-12 and NCAA Tournament. The Big-12 tourney loss was to Oklahoma St. It’s easy to look at Young’s best stat lines and be spellbound.

But the NBA is a Darwinist dog-eat-dog ecosystem. If Young struggled when opposing teams saw him for a second or third time, won’t NBA teams eat him for lunch after there’s film of him to study? Here are some of Young’s numbers versus Big-12 teams the first time they saw him versus the second (including the third meeting with Oklahoma State):

FIRST TIME: 28.1 ppg (40% FGs/49% 2PA/34% 3PA/11 FTAs), 9.8 assists, 6.5 turnovers

SECOND: 26.2 ppg (33% FGs/40% 2PA/35% 3PA/7 FTAs), 5.8 assists, 5.5 turnovers

Your takeaway from these numbers probably mirrors your initial biases for or against Young. After teams saw him a second or third time, he shot worse on two-pointers, got to the line less, and his assists fell by 40%. Maybe that means once defenses get a taste of Young’s game, they get a handle on how to handle him. Or maybe a teenager putting up 26 and 6 when the whole country is game-planning against him is proof he’s ready for bigger and better things, and that with 10 years left before he’s in athletic prime, now’s the time to get on-board. The turnovers look high, but that’s due to pace; Young’s turnover percentage (18%) is virtually identical to Dennis Smith Jr. (17%) and Ball’s (18%) from a year ago and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s (18%) this season.

Young isn’t even a Knick, yet already it’s clear he knows where the bread here gets buttered.

Someday, if for no other reason than probability dictating it inevitable, the Knicks are going to play exciting basketball. Someday all the numbers will lead them to try things that generally work for the league’s best teams. Someday they’re going to have a good point guard. A guard who can shoot. A guard who other teams have to worry about. Trae Young may or may not be that guard. Just because he suggests All-Star talent doesn’t mean he is one. But where there’s smoke, there’s often some fire. If When the Knicks fail to advance in the lottery and they’re picking in the 7-9 range, Young, who created more offensive fireworks than any other option, may be their chance to finally make up for Jordan Hill, once and for all.