How Oklahoma Sooners Trae Young has taken over college basketball

It’s only December, but based on what we’ve seen from Oklahoma’s Trae Young thus far, we have to remain open to the possibility that he’s going to have the best season of any player in the past 15 years. Seriously.

The OU point guard is combining usage and efficiency in a way that college players are supposed to be incapable of doing, let alone college freshmen. Take it from Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, who watched his Shockers fall to Young and the Sooners 91-83 in Wichita, Kansas.

“I haven’t seen a freshman guard that I’ve coached against that plays at that level,” Marshall said.

Young would be newsworthy enough even if his shots weren’t going in as often as they do and even if he were committing a few more turnovers as a point guard. We’ve simply never seen a freshman in a major conference carry this heavy a load for his offense in terms of possession usage.

Add in the fact that Young is being incredibly effective on all those possessions, and it’s clear that he’s off to a start that is truly astonishing.

Data: kenpom.com/2003-04 to 2017-18

Again, it’s December, and 18 Big 12 games — including, most notably, nine true road contests — still await the freshman and his glittering stats. But we should be under no misapprehension regarding what we’ve seen so far.

Young took control of a road game against the No. 3 team in the country virtually from the opening tip. Young almost casually reduced a proven and veteran-laden defense to rubble. And Young, so far, has planted his flag confidently on the game’s performance horizon.

No, no one saw this coming.

How did we get here?
I don’t want to say Young has been something of a surprise, but a mere 39 days ago I projected the statistical performances of the nation’s top freshmen … and Young was nowhere to be found.

Michael Porter Jr., Trevon Duval and Kevin Knox were all covered in great detail, but not Young. In fairness to my list, Young was merely the No. 23-ranked freshman in the country.

Yeah, that was a bit low. My colleague Fran Fraschilla has speculated that Young might have been ranked a bit higher if he’d committed to Kansas or Kentucky (both programs made offers) instead of to Oklahoma.

That may indeed have nudged the freshman a bit higher in the rankings, but, in fairness to those whose job it is to rank elite basketball recruits, any player performing to this other-worldly level would qualify as a surprise. Put it this way, a preseason No. 1 ranking for Young ahead of Marvin Bagley III, and an accurate prediction of what the freshman really has done over his first nine games would have won far more abuse than converts. It’s difficult to predict arguably the best start to a freshman season in a decade or more.

How does Lon Kruger keep getting these guys?
For the second time in three seasons, I find myself in the position of rubbing my eyes in disbelief at what an Oklahoma player is doing. In 2015-16, Buddy Hield was the performance comet across our hoops sky. Today that role is on the brink of being occupied by Young.

OU is a fine program, of course, but it’s not up there on the same reputational bleachers for basketball as certain other programs that I’m not even going to bother naming. Yet, here we are once again, preparing, it would seem, to make a figurative pilgrimage to Norman, Oklahoma, to see the best player that college basketball has to offer.

Kruger would be the first to acknowledge that good fortune plays its role in talent assessment and development, just as it does in everything else. (As a freshman, Hield shot 24 percent on his 3-pointers.) Still, you have to give the head coach credit. He recognized either what was happening with Hield or what he was successfully pulling out of Hield, for example, and he reconfigured the Sooners’ offense accordingly.

Likewise, an intriguing thought experiment would be to ask what percentage of major-conference head coaches would have given Young the keys to the car to the same truly historic extent that Kruger has. My guess is not many.

In these past three seasons, Kruger has shown that he knows full well when he has a good thing, even if said good thing comes in the form of a freshman playing incredible basketball in November and December. I’m not sure every coach could say the same.

What’s next?
In the second half of their game against Oklahoma, Wichita State went to a zone defense. You’ll see some of that going forward, and a good deal of discussion of “stopping Young.” In particular, you will hear how important it is to “control the tempo” against the Sooners.

This is, in other words, what happens when a player has an incredible season. The built-in advantage that Young has, of course, is that he’s a point guard. You won’t keep the ball out of his hands, and excessive attention could just free up a teammate for open 3s the way the Shockers left Brady Manek open on at least five such occasions.

Young may not finish the season showing the same insane numbers that he carries now, but, in a way, numbers are beside the point. We now know what he’s capable of doing to an opposing defense. It is a capability the likes of which we have seldom seen before.

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