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  • Trae Young and Collin Sexton, two of the most interesting 2018 NBA Draft prospects, faced off in front of 57 scouts on Saturday. How did the matchup shake out?
By Jeremy Woo
January 29, 2018

Fifty-seven NBA scouts descended upon the University of Alabama on Saturday for a non-conference game of more interest to pro basketball fans than college diehards. The rare in-season meeting between the Crimson Tide and visiting Oklahoma Sooners doubled as a showcase for the top two point guards set to enter this year’s draft, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and his Oklahoma counterpart Trae Young. Their dueling styles of play and lofty reputations made for a game with substantial hype built around it.

The Sooners entered ranked No. 12, but left with an 80–73 loss that should prove a quality résumé win for the Tide. While one regular season game will rarely hold significant sway in the long run, it was an opportunity to make an impression, perhaps more so for Sexton, who entered off a stretch that included three poor shooting performances and two missed contests due to a mysterious abdominal injury. He led his team to victory with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting and two assists, while Young totaled 17 points (6-of-17), eight assists and four made threes.

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Beyond the box score, the matchup cast light on the intriguing dichotomy between their games. Sexton is a physical downhill scorer who prefers to attack the paint and seek contact. Young has proven a prolific perimeter shooter and playmaker, reliant on the threat of his jumper more than his own athleticism to open up space for the rest of his floor game. Both were All-Americans. Sexton opened the season riding a substantial wave of hype, but Young proceeded to set college hoops on fire out of the gate, posting prolific numbers and elevating an Oklahoma team that won just 11 games a season ago.

While one game shouldn’t and won’t change the conversation completely—at the Front Office, we rate Young as the superior prospect—it offered a great opportunity to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

Sexton stands 6’2” and is listed at 190 pounds, with a 6’7” recorded wingspan. Young is similarly listed at 6’2”, 180. Sexton’s build is a bit more muscular than Young’s, and his style more vertical and reckless. He made his money as a prep star by hurtling toward the basket, getting to the foul line and playing fearlessly. He was composed and didn’t force too many shots Saturday, and his physicality showed. 

Sexton generates easy baskets like these simply by being able to outrun defenders with a full head of steam. He’ll advance the ball and push it himself if he has to, rather than look to advance with the pass. He’s able to use both hands around the rim capably, and being able to keep up in the open court is more valuable than ever.

Above are two instances where Sexton’s coordination as a finisher is on display. They also point to the concerns about Young’s ability to keep up on defense at the next level. Throughout the season, Oklahoma has generally done a good job of switching defenders and keeping Young out of difficult matchups. But his inability to muster much opposition to Sexton (an NBA-caliber athlete) on drives like these are telling. At the next level, Young will be forced to run through ball screen after ball screen and picked on as much as possible when his team chooses to switch. It’s a lot harder to hide as a mismatched defender in the NBA, and that won’t change much for him.

Although he gives something up on defense, with the ball in his hands, Young’s remarkable change of direction and deceptive handle combine to make him an extremely difficult cover. Young has consistently demonstrated the body control and touch to hit floaters, which is an essential checklist item for any guard who thrives on skill and smarts and hopes to become an elite player (Kyrie Irving and Tony Parker are among the best at this).

On the above play, Sexton is forcing Young left but loses contain. Alabama’s help defense is a step slow and fails to take away the high paint area. Sexton wasn’t always able to stay in front of Young off the dribble but did a good job of face-guarding him away from the ball and applying pressure as part of Alabama’s scheme. However, there’s a narrative casting Sexton as an intense, win-at-all costs competitor, which has at times been wrongly conflated with him being an NBA-ready defender.

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The Crimson Tide intelligently covered Young by committee and had success rotating Sexton, Herbert Jones and other athletic players onto him, wearing him down over the course of the game. They were able to key on him thanks to Oklahoma’s lack of secondary playmakers, and earned the win as a result. However, Young can still be damn-near impossible to bottle up because of the way he stretches the floor and shoots the ball. See the below three he hit over a great contest from John Petty.

When you play up on him in space, Young has the shiftiness to get to the next level. He’s an expert at probing, drawing attention and making the right pass. His absurd 52.8% assist rate is best in the country, per KenPom data, and while he can be prone to unforced errors, there’s generally a lot more good than bad coming from him as a playmaker.

On paper, this is an easy distinction to draw between the two players. This season, Sexton has never recorded more than five assists in a game. Young has never had less than five, and rates much better when it comes to efficiency in pick-and-roll distribution. But as evidenced below, Sexton also possesses a good understanding of how to use ball screens.

Sexton has more of that reputation due to his assist numbers, but both players can be classified as shoot-first point guards. The disparity in assist totals is affected on some level by how Oklahoma and Alabama have structured their offenses, with the former running everything through Young, and the latter leaning on a greater variety of scorers. Young’s shooting has been markedly better by every statistical measure, but his team’s offense is also built more explicitly to feature him. Oklahoma has also played at a much faster tempo, and when adjusted for pace, the scoring numbers are a little closer than you might imagine.

In terms of intangibles, the head-to-head matchup was illustrative in many ways, affirming what makes each player tick on the court. Sexton’s motor was running high, spurred by his matchup with Young and a friendly, high-energy home environment. His shot selection and decision-making were fairly sound, and it was positive to see a good showing from him to help snap his recent slump in a game that mattered. If Sexton can lift Alabama into the NCAA tournament and finish strong, he should finish with a case for mid-to-late lottery position.

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As for Young, he’s played his way closer to the top tier of prospects based on his historic pace and is still the favorite to be the first guard selected. He had some predictable struggles against Alabama in his second-lowest scoring game of the season and appeared to grow frustrated toward the end. How well he can deal with rangy, athletic defenders would have been called into question regardless, and his style of play makes him prone to streakiness. But there is value in his demonstrably high self-confidence and willingness to take and make tough shots, particularly from three. He will need to stay disciplined and ensure evaluators that his shot selection can be a strength and not a weakness at the next level.

Young’s elite perimeter skills may give him an edge when it comes to starry upside in the modern league, but there will be some difference of opinion as point guard-needy teams process each player’s situation and decide what they value. The greatest challenge in decision-making is placing each player’s successes and failures into context.

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