Schmeelk: The Dangerous Temptation of Trae Young

Are Defensive Deficiencies Too Much To Overcome?

John Schmeelk
June 04, 2018 - 12:59 pm
Oklahoma point guard Trae Young

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The NBA draft is only 17 days away -- days that will be filled with private workouts, rumors, speculation and anticipation as the Knicks try to build their team through the draft. Odds are there will be a future NBA All-Star or maybe even two available when the Knicks select ninth. The trick is identifying that player.

If there’s something the NBA playoffs have shown us, it's that you can’t hide someone on defense anymore. In the past, you could get away with having a bad defender on the floor, since odds were the opposing offense had someone who wasn’t a dynamic scorer whom they could guard. That is no longer the case.

As the Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets have demonstrated, teams will keep setting screens to force switches until the offense gets the matchup they want. With the way the rules are officiated today and the current skills of NBA players making hedging screens and getting back nearly impossible to execute, switching has become a necessity. Teams need to have as many versatile defenders to avoid situations like when Ryan Anderson or Kevin Love gets switched onto Stephen Curry.

It is no different for guards who struggle defensively. The Rockets set screens until they got Curry onto James Harden, and the Cavaliers are doing the same thing with LeBron James. It turns games into isolation contests with the worst defender on a team often having to stop the opponent’s best player. The need for two-way players has never been so stark.

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Enter Trae Young, the top-10 prospect from Oklahoma who is supposed to meet with the Knicks this week. The 19-year-old point guard does the most important things you need NBA perimeter players to do to be extremely successful. He is an excellent shooter. He has great vision and is a good passer. He has an excellent handle. He was a nightmare to cover in the screen-and-roll in college. He led the NCAA in points (27.4) and assists (8.8) per game. It’s everything you want out of a lead guard in the modern NBA.

He is also an absolute train wreck defensively. At just 6 feet 2 inches tall with a 6-3 wingspan and 178 pounds, he doesn’t have the strength or length to be imposing physically. His effort and play on defense were also extremely inconsistent at Oklahoma. In the NBA, he would have a huge red bull's-eye put on him by opposing offenses.

There is a chance Young’s defense improves with less of a burden on his shoulders offensively and better training in the NBA, but he can only be so good given his measurables. Playing next to Frank Ntilikina, last year's first-round pick, would also give him some cover defensively, but eventually opponents would find him. Whether he can survive on that end of the floor is a main question teams have to answer.

Assuming Young does not improve defensively, his offense is going to have to be truly game changing if he is going to help his team win a lot. Despite his collegiate numbers, there are reasons to believe that won’t be the case. The first warning light is that he is not an explosive athlete (though he is quick and changes direction well) and might have trouble getting to and finishing around the basket in the NBA like he did at Oklahoma. In college, he also reached the free-throw line constantly, something that will be more difficult in the NBA.

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The second red flag offensively is his efficiency. He shot only 42 percent at Oklahoma (36 percent from 3-point range) thanks mostly to a suspect shot selection. He would often fire long-range jumps off the dribble from well beyond the 3-point line. They fell a lot the first couple months of the season, but stopped as the conference schedules heated up and teams had more film on him. His shooting percentages dropped precipitously.

The third red flag is his decision making. Young averaged more than five turnovers per game and often found himself caught in the lane with nowhere to go with the basketball. He would try to squeeze passes where there was no room or force actions that simply weren’t there. In the NBA, with longer and better defenders, those problems could be exacerbated.

The second and third problems above do not worry me as much as the first. Young’s team at Oklahoma was not very good, and it needed him to score and shoot in high volumes to win. I think that led to more bad shots and turnovers as much as issues with Young’s game itself. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t problems worth investigating, but I don’t believe they should be deal breakers for teams thinking about drafting him.

The lack of elite athleticism and defense, on the other hand, should be. If he can improve in both areas after being exposed to a NBA training regimen, he has a legitimate chance to being an impact player on the level of Curry. A ball handler who can pass and shoot the way Young does can transform a franchise.

If Young remains completely hopeless defensively and is not quick enough to consistently get by NBA defenders to create for himself or teammates, he could be the next Jimmer Fredette, the former BYU star who proved to be a bust after being draft 10th overall in 2011. In other words, it's hard to find situations to use someone who can hit a bunch of long jumpers but struggles so much everywhere else. Selecting a player like that at No. 9 would be a disaster.

New Knicks coach David Fizdale and general manager Scott Perry have talked about wanting versatile players who are strong defenders. Young is not that. He is someone, however, who might be able to lead a team offensively with his superior passing and shooting ability for a decade. If he is all that offensively, he would be the perfect offensive player to put in the screen-and-roll with Kristaps Porzingis. The Knicks need a lead ballhandler who can score in the worst way, even if it means issues defensively.

Young, and perhaps Michael Porter Jr. (due to his injury), are two of the most polarizing players in the draft, each with stocks that can either soar or plummet. Neither might be available when the Knicks pick, or perhaps one will slip. Then the Knicks will have to decide whether they want to roll the dice on Young. He is the shiny object in this draft, and there will be someone who won’t be able to resist.

You can follow me on Twitter at @Schmeelk for everything Knicks, Giants and the world of sports.​