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Trae Young has gained immense hype as an outlier PG, as he posted monster freshman stats for Oklahoma averaging 27 points and 9 assists. He thrives on his excellent shooting, as he made 3.7 three pointers per game and backed it up with 86% FT.

His main weakness is poor physical tools, as he is just 6’2″ with a 6’4″ wingspan and limited athleticism. But Stephen Curry has overcome similar physical limitations, so it’s worth considering whether Trae has similar upside before writing him off.

What If He’s Not Steph?

There isn’t a strong middle ground for small and unathletic players to succeed as decent starters when they fall short of being an elite outlier. After Steph the next best diminutive non-athletes currently are bench players such as Tyus Jones, Shabazz Napier, and Trey Burke.

Steve Nash provides another example of an elite past PG, but him and Steph are rare breeds. They establish that a small non-athlete can be an MVP candidate if he is either

1) The best shooter of all time with elite passing and IQ or
2) The best passer of all time with elite shooting and IQ

Anything less than that, and you are probably a bench player. It’s a steep curve with little margin for error.

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns

Trae and the Sooners

This past season Oklahoma returned all top 9 rotation players but PG’s Jordan Woodard and Darrion Strong-Moore. Overall they returned 79% of their minutes that rated comparatively well statistically, as 81% of their win shares and 80% of their minute weighted BPM came back.

The only significant additions were Trae Young and Brady Manek. You would expect that replacing mediocre PG minutes with elite ones while everybody else gained experience would catapult the Sooners forward. But they only gently crept up the standings.

The Sooners improved by 7.2 pts/100 on defense, but gave most of it back by regressing 4.6 pts/100 on defense. Overall they took a small step forward as they progressed from the #65 kenpom team to #48.

In spite of Trae crushing individual expectations, the Sooners underachieved pre-season expectations with every stat model and poll projecting them top 40.

When individual and team success misalign like this, it’s a flag to take the individual stats with a major grain of salt. Especially for a player with his monster assist rate, it is alarming that he may not have helped the team with his passing as much as he hurt it with his defense.

Big 12 Swooners

Everything was peachy for Trae entering January. He was on fire and so were the Sooners at 12-1 with the #13 kenpom rank. But they had yet to face a single top 80 defense, and unfortunately 16 of their 19 remaining games came against top 60 defenses.

Over the second half of the season, Trae came crashing to earth and so did Oklahoma. His per 40 minute splits tell the story:

Pts Ast TOV
vs non-Top 80 D 35.1 12.3 5.3
vs Top 60 D 27.7 7.9 6.3

This is ugly. Notably his assist rate fell off a cliff against better defenses. Trae has complained about seeing frequent double teams, but he could have done a better job of punishing them with his passing.

eFG% 3PA 3P%
vs non-Top 80 D 56.6% 12.6 39.7%
vs Top 60 D 47.7% 10.7 32.7%

Further, his shotmaking took a major hit against better opponents. He faced bigger defensive players, struggled to get his shot off, and forced low quality attempts that often missed. This is a major concern in the NBA, as most 6’5″ pros can easily stay in front him and tightly contest his shot.

Everybody wants to throw Trae’s teammates under the bus, but Oklahoma was 2.3 pts per 100 better in conference play in ’16-17 when the same players were less experienced than they were in ’17-18 with Trae.

Maybe we should focus less on Trae’s teammates being bad, and instead consider the possibility that Trae is the bad Sooner who will be bad in the NBA later.

Bottom Line

trae-young-ou

In spite of his many flags, there is some hope for Trae. His individual stats cannot be completely ignored, as he has a rare combination of shotmaking ability and vision. He could become a very good pro if his decision making rapidly improves over time and he isn’t too bad on D.

But this is a long-shot gamble. He will likely be bad defensively, he will have trouble getting past most NBA defensive players, he will have trouble getting his shot off, and even though he sees the floor well he is not currently a high IQ passer.

He is such an outlier that it is fair to give him non-zero all-star equity. But this is a low % outcome, and there aren’t many cases where he falls short and is still useful.

Realistic Comps

The next tier of little guy after Nash and Curry includes Isaiah Thomas who a two time all-star. But he was a huge liability on defense, it’s hard to build an elite offense around him, and his performance fell off a cliff in the playoffs. After the Celtics traded him, he went from a likely max contract to a bench player who may never start again. This is why he slid to #60 in the draft– it only requires a small decline for his type to go from all-star to backup.

Trae has decent odds of being similar to IT. This outcome is better than nothing, but it’s such a difficult piece to fit into an elite contender, I would aim higher in the lottery.

And most of the time Trae will fall short of IT and be a Trey Burke or JJ Barea bench PG, which makes him far too risky to justify a top 5 selection. He is an underdog to be as good as Tyus Jones.

It’s fine to gamble on Young’s super-powered skill level working out in the back end of the lottery. But I prefer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as the best PG in the class, as he has a higher IQ, higher ceiling, and higher floor.

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