There are typical rhythms and currents to a basketball game that are present just about anytime 10 people share a court. There’s the natural movements and interplay that makes it easy to identify cause and effect, even before anything even happens.
Then there are games with Trae Young, whose creativity, ESP-level feel for the game and boundless shooting range wholly turns a game on its head. It makes for breathtaking basketball because those conventions that are so well-worn into your psyche simply don’t apply to Young. He operates outside the standard rules of the game.
It makes for breathtaking basketball, but it also has its limitations.
Oklahoma appears to be butting up to those borders.
Nineteenth-ranked West Virginia topped the No. 17 Sooners, 75-73, on Monday night with Young putting up 32 points but with just one assist and six turnovers.
Young is undoubtedly awesome, but the Sooners are swooning, losers of three of their last four and five of their last seven. Their freshman phenom has taken heat in recent weeks for his shot selection – and volume – but there’s more at play than just that, not to mention he’s tempered his 3-point shooting quite a bit. His teammates shot just 41.7 percent overall and were 2 of 6 from 3-point range. Hard to rack up assists when your teammates don’t make a ton of shots.
The bigger issue, though, is the charge that the rest of the Sooners do too much watching of Young. That’s often a criticism of teams and players when one guy does so much – Young’s 40 percent usage rate is the highest in the country and his 35.5 percent shooting rate is seventh – but it’s particularly interesting to consider with the Sooners.
Usually that critique comes as commentary on how players tune out and become disengaged when they know the ball is going up and not coming to them. There’s standing because there’s no ball movement, and there’s no ball movement because, for lack of a better term, there’s a ball hog on the floor. Think of those particularly grinding Allen Iverson 76ers teams.
I’m not convinced that’s the case with Oklahoma.
First off, there’s the easy data point that Young leads the country in assists with more than nine helpers per game. He’s finding teammates in positions to score and situations to be successful. The trick of it is there still is standing around. It’s almost like Young’s teammates are like us – they get caught watching Young because the don’t know what he’s going to do next. When you’ve got a guy that – in a single game – made a 35-footer like it was nothing, made a layup in which the ball bounced off the top of the backboard and then through the rim and had a number of passes only he could see the lane for, it’s easy to see why.
Young is unpredictable because he’s playing the game on another wavelength, one that really only he can see. Sometimes it can be hard to run coherent offense when your teammates struggle to predict what’s coming next, no matter how dazzling that next move may be.
West Virginia also deserves a ton of praise for their work against Young. Sure, he went for 32, but by limiting his assist total, the Mountaineers contained his offensive contributions to just his scoring. That’s a major win when you’re facing a player that can totally tilt a defense with his all-consuming gravity. Young got his, but West Virginia blunted his impact by making him solely a scorer and not the hub that Oklahoma’s whole offense can spin around.
West Virginia has dealt with Young as well as anyone, handing him two losses in their two meetings while forcing him to commit a total of 14 turnovers. The concerns facing the Mountaineers after three-straight losses to end January seem to have blown over with their 38-point beatdown of Kansas State over the weekend and now a win in Norman. Jevon Carter went for 10 points, eight assists and six steals while Sagaba Konate continues to be a dominating presence inside, blocking two shots and altering plenty more.
West Virginia seems just fine.
The Sooners are probably fine too, but they’re learning how being so utterly dependent on one transcendent player can put a ceiling on success, but maybe just in the regular season. Big 12 defenses get two cracks at solving Young, and they usually have multiple days to put together a game plan. In the 18-game grinder that is the Big 12 round-robin, some clunkers – and it’s absolutely bonkers to call a 32-point performance a clunker – are inevitable.
In the NCAA tournament, though, handing the whole workload over to Young is a high-upside proposition. Playing Young is something that you can’t truly prepare for until he’s canned a 35-footer right in your face. Plus, while Young is going to have off nights over 18 games and two months, him getting hot for a few games could put Oklahoma in San Antonio. Sample size can be your friend in a one-and-done tournament when you’ve got a player who can fill it up like Young can.
Young is a force that makes you bend to his presence. That works both for and against Oklahoma at times. That’s one of those good problems.