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NBA Draft 2018 | The meaning behind Trae Young’s slump

Ben Stram

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Feb 17, 2018; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners guard Trae Young (11) walks off the floor for halftime from action against the Texas Longhorns at Lloyd Noble Center. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Oklahoma Sooners freshman point guard Trae Young was one of the draft’s biggest risers in the non-conference season, exploding out of the gate and putting up video game-like numbers on his way to leading the nation in both scoring and assists. He wasn’t really on the NBA radar initially, since there were questions about his explosiveness and shot selection against college-level athletes.

Those questions were quickly answered. Young has proved himself to be an elite-level shotmaker off the dribble from distance while adding to his incredible court vision and ballhandling ability. Young is deceptively quick and fast, with the ability to change speeds and direction on a dime and pass on the move. He looked to be a lock to be a top-five pick in the 2018 draft, barring any injuries or hasty drop-off in play.

But as conference play continued to move along, his performance has slipped quite a bit. The turnovers have worsened, the efficiency has fallen, and his team has now lost five straight games. Oklahoma might not make the NCAA Tournament. What’s going on with Young? How did we get to this point? What will his slump mean for his draft stock?

ROAD WOES

Young has struggled on the road all season long. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent in a true road game since a 29-point, 10-assist outing against Wichita State on Dec. 16. He shot just 9-22 (40.6 percent) from the field in the game, his best true road performance of the season:

In eight true road games since, with seven against Big 12 opponents plus his game against Collin Sexton and Alabama, Young has shot just 63-181 (34.8 percent) from the field while knocking down 26-96 (27.1 percent) from deep. Young has also been incredibly turnover-prone away from his own building during this eight-game sample, turning it over 56 times for seven per game.

It has been a big-time struggle for Young when facing teams in their own building, which is something NBA teams will be curious about in March. He will have another chance to show he can perform in a high-profile road game Monday against Kansas at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.

OVERUSE

Young has had a historically high usage rate for Oklahoma this season. He was over 40 for most of the season before recently “falling” to 38.3 after Saturday’s loss against Mohamed Bamba and Texas. He has scored or assisted on 463 out of 792 baskets, good for 58.5 percent of the team’s total offense for the year:

Young doesn’t have an incredible amount of talent alongside him and is seemingly the sole creator on the Sooners. Unlike Duke, Kentucky or Michigan State, he’s the lone first-round talent on the radar trying to will his team to victory. Some of his recent slide is the product of his lack of help, which has been accompanied by fatigue from carrying such a heavy load all season long.

Sure, the increase in turnovers isn’t what you want to see as a talent evaluator for the next level, but remember that the best players in the NBA can be a bit slippery with the ball when they’re handling it so much. Look at Russell Westbrook or LeBron James — both average about 4.5 per game as main ballhandlers and shot creators for their teams. Young at 5.3 per game shows he has some development to make as a decision-maker, but wouldn’t scare me away as an NBA scout.

DRAFT IMPLICATIONS

Young may not be the top-two pick some projected upon his immediate rise through the prospect rankings, but I still have him as a top-seven pick at worst in June. He is too savvy as a primary ballhandler and too gifted as a scorer and shooter to slip too far in the 2018 draft.

There’s a lot of momentum for Arizona freshman big man Deandre Ayton at the top of this draft. After Ayton, we have a cluster of talented freshman bigs, including Bamba, Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. (who has been on a recent surge as well). Then there are two talented ballhandlers in Young and Slovenian phenom Luka Doncic rounding out the top six. Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. is a wild card of the group coming back from a back injury, but he should be in the top seven.

I just can’t see Young falling out of this group of prospects. He has been too good all season long, even with this slump. Even LeBron James is saying he has to go to the next level. Maybe LeBron will even stay in Cleveland if the Cavs can find a way to draft Young with the Nets’ pick.

Either way, while Young’s slide will draw extra scrutiny, it shouldn’t hurt him too much.

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Ben is a Michigan State student studying journalism from the suburbs of Chicago. He has written for Scout.com covering Michigan State's football team, The State News and WKAR as Michigan State's softball beat reporter. He specializes in the NBA and NBA draft.

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