Right now, it isn’t a stretch to say that Trae Young is the most talked about player in college basketball — and at this particular moment, there’s nobody even close. The 6’3 guard who plays at Oklahoma has lit the sport on fire, averaging a Division I best 28.8 points per game, and is also third in assists at 8.8 a contest as well. And he’s doing it for a non-traditional power, with no one close to his talent level on the roster. While it’s arguable if Young is the “best” player in college basketball, there’s no one — not Marvin Bagley, Kevin Knox or Devonte Graham — who is anywhere near as valuable as Young is to his team.
Young is also a player who has been on the minds of Kentucky fans for a few weeks now, for a few different reasons. The first is because Young was once considered to be leaning towards attending Kentucky during the recruiting process, meaning that many UK fans couldn’t help but think “what if” after Young’s hot start. What if Young had enrolled at Kentucky, and played alongside Knox, Hamidou Diallo and Nick Richards? How much better could this team be?
More recently however, Young has been on the mind of Kentucky fans after John Calipari actually talked about him during an interview on Jim Harbaugh’s podcast.
While Calipari didn’t name Young by name, it was clear he was talking about him when he said:
“Tell me what kind of program you want to be in,” Cal said of how he talks to families on in-home visits. “Tell me how you want to play or be coached. And through the questioning, sometimes I look and say, this is not going to work. Now, it doesn’t mean they’re wrong in not coming to Kentucky. There’s a kid that’s father wanted him to shoot every ball and I said, we just don’t do that here. Well, he’s gone to a school and he had 40 last night as a freshman. The most in 20 years. Well, that may have been right for their son.”
Now of course when Calipari’s comments dropped, it caused a little bit of an uproar in the college basketball world, because well, any time Calipari says something interesting it causes an uproar. At the same time, after seeing Young play in person last Friday night when Oklahoma faced off with USC at Staples Center, I feel pretty safe saying that Calipari is exactly right. That’s not a knock on Young and certainly not on the Kentucky program, but instead reality. Young’s commitment is one of the rare ones where a big-time recruit turned down a big-time tradition rich program, and it worked out for both sides.
To understand why, just go ahead, sit down and watch Young and Oklahoma play a game or two at some point this season. Do that and you’ll see that Young’s game is wildly unique. He’s a player who is often compared to Steph Curry (although he grew up idolizing Steve Nash according to a recent profile by CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander) and it only takes a few possessions to see why. Young’s game is a lot like Steph’s game in the sense that what he does best are the things that a basketball player isn’t supposed to do. He takes deep three’s, tosses up off-balance runners and throws wild, sometimes reckless passes. Yet in the same way that it works for Curry, it has worked for Young so far this season.
Of course with the good comes the bad, and like Steph Curry, Young can be erratic at times too. Keep in mind that while Steph gets so much credit for the highlight reel plays, if you actually watch the Warriors play entire games, you see Curry do two or three things that make you say “Dude, what are you thinking?” For every off-balance 26-foot three-pointer that goes in, there are two or three that clang off the side of the rim or air ball altogether. For all the beautiful no-look passes, there are two or three that sail wildly out of bounds, like the behind-the-back clunker that came late in a Game 7 NBA Finals loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers two seasons ago.
— Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) November 30, 2017
And really, Young plays basketball in much the same way. Young takes a lot of good three-point shots, but a lot of bad ones too. When he beats a defender off the dribble he too often tries to wildly flail, in attempt to draw a foul. And for all the beautiful assists he creates for teammates, there are also a handful of times where he tries to force passes into lanes that aren’t there (he’s averaging close to four turnovers per game). Watching him Friday night, I couldn’t help but think that sometimes rather than trying to make the easy or obvious play, he tries to make the spectacular one.
But while that sounds like criticism, it really isn’t, and it’s not a knock on Young. For starters, that’s just who Young is, and two, that’s how Oklahoma needs him to play. The simple truth is that the Sooners really have no scoring punch outside of Young and one other player (wing Christian James) so not only is it OK for Young to shoot 20 times a game, Oklahoma needs him to. They also lack any real playmaker outside of Young as well, so I’m guessing Lon Kruger is happy to deal with the 2-3 bad Young turnovers a game, if only because the alternative is, well, a team with no playmaking skill at all. If you want to know the impact Young has had on Oklahoma, just know this: They probably wouldn’t even be an NIT team without him. They’ll probably be a four or five seed in the NCAA Tournament because of him.
At the same time, that doesn’t mean he would have the same impact at Kentucky. If anything, I feel like it’d be the exact opposite. Put simply, Trae Young wouldn’t be allowed to do the things that make Trae Young great, because Kentucky wouldn’t need him to be great. What they’d need him to do is run the team, get others involved and play good defense — stuff that Quade Green and Shai Alexander are already doing for the Wildcats right now. Therefore, even if Kentucky had gotten Trae Young, they wouldn’t have gotten this version of him. The one that has taken the college basketball world by storm.
So while Calipari was a bit criticized for his comments on Young last week, the simple truth was that he was right. Trae Young is better off without Kentucky. And Kentucky is better off without Trae Young.
This is the rare situation where a big-time recruit turned down a big-time school… and both sides ended up better because of it.
Aaron Torres is covering basketball for KSR this season after four years at Fox Sports. Follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres or e-mail at [email protected]. He is also the author of the only book written on the Calipari era, “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats.”