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  • It's highly unlikely that Trae Young is the next Steph Curry, but Oklahoma's star freshman is drawing comparisons to other NBA point guards after his explosive start.
By Jeremy Woo
December 18, 2017

It’s time to really talk about Trae Young. By that, of course, I mean it’s time to talk about Trae Young incessantly for the next six months until he’s drafted by an NBA team. Over the course of the last month, Oklahoma’s freshman standout has taken college basketball by storm, seized control of the National Player of the Year discussion and put himself on a path to shake up the draft. His 29-point, 10-assist showing on the road against a tough, defensive-minded Wichita State team over the weekend tied a neat bow around his case as a lottery pick.

When it comes to smallish point guards putting up massive early-season numbers, it’s normal to proceed with some air of skepticism. After breaking out at the PK80, Young’s (28.8 PPG, 8.9 APG, 3.6 RPG) historically productive pace has elevated him from curiosity to champ in a matter of weeks. Deep threes, pinpoint passes and the constant threat posed by Young’s penchant for the unexpected make him one of the most difficult covers in college hoops. And while it’s still fair to wonder exactly to what degree his strengths will carry over in full, with each game it becomes more difficult to doubt him.

To add some statistical context: Young is using a whopping 37% of Oklahoma’s possessions, third-most of any player in the nation, according to KenPom.com. Young has done that with a True Shooting mark of 63.5%, drawing nearly eight fouls per 40 minutes and shooting 37% from three. Among qualifying players, he owns the second-highest individual offensive rating (125.1 points per 100 possessions), a hair behind Saint Mary’s center Jock Landale, and comes in second nationally with an assist rate of 48.4%. The amount of responsibility Young is shouldering, coupled with his efficiency, plus the fact he’s a 19-year-old freshman who’s elevated the Sooners to an 8–1 record? You can pick the adjectives you want to use here.

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As of this writing, KenPom spits out five quality statistical points of comparison for what Young is doing, in this order: Kyrie Irving’s freshman year at Duke, D’Angelo Russell’s year at Ohio State, Cameron Payne’s first season at Murray State, and the respective one-and-done years of Dennis Smith at NC State and John Wall at Kentucky. That’s great company, given all five were lottery picks, two went No. 1, and four have enjoyed some degrees of success (it’s still early to crown Smith, but he looks the part). Young lacks Wall and Smith’s explosiveness, Russell’s size and Irving’s burst into the paint, but the fact his early-season feats can be placed in the context of those players surely doesn’t hurt. 

The comparison already being made on television broadcasts, social media and the like is Stephen Curry. This is almost certainly unfair when it comes to projection, given that Curry is a two-time MVP, on track to go down as the greatest three-point shooter ever, and the engine of perhaps the most dominant team in modern NBA history. BUT, when you dig into the numbers, the pure data actually makes for a decent comp, just for historical context. Tenable or not, Young’s averages through nine games (small sample size!) actually hold up rather well with Curry’s junior year at Davidson. The comparisons are only absurd because of the fact Curry ascended and tapped into the highest possible end of his NBA potential. Take a look:

Just because it can’t be spelled out enough times: I’d seriously doubt anyone thinks Trae Young, talented as he is, has emerged as Steph incarnate. If this becomes a misleading touchstone to exaggerate the comparison, I’ll feel terrible.  But the side-by-side numbers are certainly eye-popping. How much of this pace Young can keep up (for starters, there’s no reason to think the Sooners will scale back his usage much) will make for a fascinating show as Big 12 play gets underway. Of course, Young’s 6’2” listed height is a bit generous. He’s able to create offense for himself with ease, but how much separation he can generate using a quick but low-ish release point against more difficult defenders is worth debating. But Young’s cool demeanor, offensive feel and ability to pour in points from outside have set him apart, and there’s hope that his instincts and quick trigger will help mitigate any issues getting off his jumper.

There will be ample opportunity to get nitty-gritty with Young’s draft case: he’ll face Kansas's Devonte’ Graham and West Virginia's Jevon Carter twice this season. And the Sooners will travel to face Alabama on Jan. 27, where Young will go head to head with Collin Sexton and make for appointment viewing. Those two are night and day stylistically, to say the least, but look like the top of the point guard in college basketball. And regardless of how it shakes out in the end, Young’s potentially transcendent season will be a ride worth enjoying.

Could Daniel Gafford crash the first round?

There are a slew of athletic bigs hovering as potential first-rounders, from Chimezie Metu to Brandon McCoy to Nick Richards. It’s time to add Daniel Gafford to that group. The Razorbacks' standout freshman, who despite being a four-star recruit flew in relatively under the radar, has moved into a starting role with Arkansas and emerged as a player with obvious NBA tools, despite being highly raw in a number of areas. Last season, mobile bigs like Justin Patton, D.J. Wilson and even lottery pick Zach Collins rode surprising production into early selections. It’s conceivable Gafford could follow that type of precedent based on what he’s shown.

In lieu of a video, I'm just going to leave this dunk here, and then let you imagine this happening a bunch of times. That’s Gafford.

More specifically, Gafford is a fluid, 6’11” center known for dunking as much as possible, and has made an impact on both ends of the floor this season. Right now his post skills are pretty rudimentary. He runs the floor, finishes lobs and collects easy buckets, working to clean up off the ball or as a roll guy when not posting. On the defensive end he’s highly mobile and averaging four blocks per-40 minutes, but also extremely prone to fouling. It’s hard not to like his fiery on-court disposition as he flies around the floor. While an unfinished product, Gafford has all the tools to be a useful two-way big with time.

While Gafford is certainly improving, the odds of his overall feel taking a massive jump in a few months are still long. He’d benefit from multiple years of college, but there’s a chance the production he’s shown is more than enough for him to test the waters. Gafford is averaging 12.2 points on 69% shooting and grabbing 5.9 rebounds per game to go with those blocks, all of which may see an uptick as his minutes increase. Arkansas certainly needs his interior contributions to make a dent in conference play, and there have been plenty of first-rounders who have done more with less. When you put Gafford up next to the other bigs in his range and consider his athletic upside, you have to think he’s worth a dice roll in this class if he wants to be.

Welcome back, Rawle Alkins

The strange arc of Arizona’s (8–3) season received a major uptick thanks to the return of sophomore Rawle Alkins, the No. 28 player on our most recent Big Board who has recovered from a foot fracture and returned to the Wildcats’ starting five. It’s going well (see below). He had a career-high 26 points in a win over New Mexico in just his second game back.

I profiled Alkins during his high school days and have since been intrigued by his blend of athleticism, skill and competitive makeup. His energy appears to have given Arizona a shot in the arm. Alkins has become a defensive standout and finds ways to contribute without scoring. After playing a complementary role last year, there was founded speculation that he’d be allowed to take on a larger scoring load this season. Even with DeAndre Ayton and Allonzo Trier established, Alkins gives the Wildcats a third potential game-changer, as evidenced by his outburst against New Mexico.

Alkins received serious interest from teams last season while testing the waters, earning an invite to the draft combine where he played well and tested impressively. Watch closely as he gets himself—and Arizona—back on track.

Three to watch

• Jalen Hudson, Florida: A junior transfer from Virginia Tech, Hudson has put up big scoring numbers for the Gators all season, turning heads at the PK80 and keeping up his strong output nearly a month later. He’s averaging 19.5 points and shooting a high-quality 44% from deep. I caught Florida in action against Cincinnati about a week ago and took note of Hudson’s ability to score in spurts and provide bursts of offense. His Synergy shot-type data also profiles well: he’s scored nearly all his points in transition, spotting up or using a ball screen. He looks comfortable shooting off the dribble and the catch. I’d be curious to see him run off more screens without the ball, but Hudson seems to know what he is, and that could certainly make him a viable specialist. All in all, he’s likely created a nice opportunity for himself when this year’s draft process comes around.

•​ Jarrey Foster, SMU: Though largely unheralded as a role player on last year’s SMU team that went 30–5, Foster has ably assumed a larger scoring and playmaking role as a junior for the Mustangs. He’s an athletic, versatile wing who can play with or without the ball, averaging 15 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.4 blocks through 11 games. He’s a quality shooter (41% from three) and ball-mover, and his ability to make plays in space makes him a potentially great fit within a fast-paced attack. SMU uses him all over the floor offensively, and he’s shown ability to match up with guards, wings and bigs. If the shooting numbers hold Foster should play his way into draft conversations, whether this year or next.

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•​ Max Strus, DePaul: I was courtside in Chicago to watch DePaul host Northwestern on Saturday and left impressed with Strus, who put up 33 points and hit six three-pointers in a two-point loss. The junior guard was a Division II All-American at Lewis University before joining the Blue Demons this season, and has already emerged as their best player, averaging nearly 17 points per game. His blend of size, athletic ability and outside shooting on the wing coupled with a nice degree of toughness on the court makes him a player worth following. Strus uses screens well to get himself open, has a quick release and will continue to receive a ton of looks (with good reason, though it contributes to some of the high variance game to game). While he’s shooting just 34% from deep right now, that number may well correct itself in his favor.

Highlight tape of the week: Dzanan Musa, Bosnia

This video was called to my attention this week via email, and gives you a nice glimpse at the offensive skill set that has Musa tracking as a first-rounder. He’s got a quick release, some bounce and the ability to create his own shot (plus, a whole lot of confidence). It’s a package that should play at the NBA level. He’ll have some hurdles defensively, but placed in the right scoring role could be an exciting guy to watch.

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