Social norms and Trae Young


(Josh Gateley,

It appears increasingly likely that Trae Young will turn out to be the most interesting player of my “writing about college basketball” career so far.

Here’s a freshman who started the season ranked as the No. 23 recruit in the country, yet who then proceeded to out-Curry Curry. (Literally.) That was, frankly, amazing to behold, and we all said so.

Now, as if that weren’t enough, Young has sparked one of the better basketball conversations to come down the pike in a long while, courtesy of his 48-point, 14-of-39 effort in Oklahoma’s overtime loss at Oklahoma State. Depending on whether one focuses on the “48” or the “14-of-39,” I suppose Young might be rendered as either a Prometheus or a problem.

Indeed, that’s kind of how it has played out, though the cast of characters lined up on both sides of this question would baffle the me of a decade or so ago. In the aftermath of Stillwater, it has been, by and large, the most prominent and familiar voices who are pointing with concern at 14-of-39, while lesser known and more analytically inclined figures are the ones saying let Young be Young.

Curious times, yes? I mean, part of the reason I started offering pert analytic critiques of college basketball happenings to a vast readership numbering in the double digits in the first place was to counter the impression that if a player scores a lot of points he must be great.

Before I knew it, challenging that assertion had become an actual job. Who knows, if Bracey Wright hadn’t sent me screaming to my keyboard by being named first-team All-Big Ten by the media in 2005, maybe I’d be an international film star by now. (Let me think that.)

Young’s no Wright, naturally, but at a minimum he stretched a social norm to its limits in the one competitive venue where such norms are most precious and sensitive. Basketball’s the only major team sport where ball hogging’s feasible, and, strictly speaking, Young did miss 25 shots, albeit in a 45-minute game.

That’s unusual. Per, the only other player to have missed 25 shots since 2010-11 is Murray State’s Jonathan Stark last March. No one was looking to fashion a cautionary tale, however, out of a guy who scored 41 points and hit the game-winning three with six seconds left in the second OT of a win-or-go-home conference tournament opener.

Coincidentally, I wrote about Young’s game in real time, and I knew in advance of seeing the number that the freshman would show a good offensive rating for his outing against OSU. He made eight threes, after all, and was 12-of-12 at the line with single-digit turnovers.

Sure enough, Young’s performance against the Cowboys, when allowing for his Herculean workload, would land him squarely in well-duh All-American territory when extended over an entire season. (That would be one incredible season.) This, to me, is the heart of the basketball question. Young can be statistically great while missing 25 shots. Now what?

Now I wonder whether the Oklahoma offense might be statistically greater than the 1.01 points per trip it managed against the ‘Pokes if Young missed fewer shots.

OU’s not North Carolina when it comes to offensive rebounding, and, anyway, Young’s two-point success rate is, not surprisingly, dropping precipitously as he plays Big 12 defenses not named TCU. Yes, those forays into the paint are getting him trips to the line, but there’s still shot-selection fat to be trimmed from a 6-of-19 showing inside the arc.

To my eyes, this matter of Young’s prominence in the Sooner offense is being somewhat misconstrued as a question of whether Lon Kruger should be reining in his star or not. Better, perhaps, to say the head coach has very plainly made a decision to let Young be Young. My own opinion is that the Kruger is something of a genius for having done so, major-conference head coaches hardly being known as the most flexible and iconoclastic sorts one might encounter.

I don’t suppose Young requires in-play guidance or stop-missing-so-many-twos strictures during one of the occasional timeouts with which the college game so reliably blesses us. I do wonder, however, whether he might not benefit from a forward-looking conversation some drowsy morning soon, one in which two-point attempts, turnovers and assists are considered as potential lodestars and pretty much everything else is left to a dialectic between the freshman and the hoops gods.

Needless to say, Young’s season to date still rates out as impossible.

Highest offensive ratings on at least 35 percent possession usage
2003-04 to 2017-18						
                                 Possession      Offensive 
                                  usage (%)       rating
Steph Curry      2009               38.0          117.8
Trae Young       2018 (partial)     41.5          117.7
Lester Hudson    2009               35.3          115.9
Rodney Stuckey	 2006               35.2          114.7
Jimmer Fredette  2011               36.4          114.5

The only question now is what tangible benefit Oklahoma can and will derive from one highly interesting player’s impossible season.