SportsPulse: USA TODAY’s Trysta Krick makes her predictions for who each of the top-five teams in the upcoming NBA draft will select.
USA TODAY Sports
ATLANTA — The next Steph Curry came strolling into an interview after his workout Tuesday with the team that may select him in next week’s NBA Draft. Wait a second, scratch that. According to some pundits, point guard Trae Young will be lucky to be the next Lou Williams. Or maybe the next Shabazz Napier.
It’s been hard to keep up ever since Young became the biggest freshman sensation in college basketball since Kevin Durant, then got the predictable backlash as he wore down toward the end of the season, then resurfaced as anywhere from a possible top-three pick to the guy who could slip in a draft purportedly filled with potential stars.
As the NBA draft approaches next Thursday, however, no player will generate as many hot takes as Young, who will manage to be either massively overrated or criminally overlooked based on a difference of a mere handful of draft slots. He seems to be, fairly or not, the most polarizing player in the lottery.
But in a year where most of the significant arguments in the draft seem to be centered on the potential of some talented big men and whether a teenage European sensation will translate to NBA stardom, isn’t it possible we’re all overthinking this? Is it really so crazy in 2018 to believe Young, who became the first player in NCAA Div. 1 history to lead the nation in points and assists as a 19-year old freshman, just might turn out to be a legitimate star in the NBA?
“I think (my game) actually translates better (in the NBA) because of the spacing and my ability to shoot the ball, pass the ball and get my teammates involved,” Young said after a private workout with the Atlanta Hawks, who have the No. 3 pick. “I just have to continue to play the way I’ve played my whole life and just be different.”
It seems to have gotten lost in the ether over the past few months, but Young is different. Despite arriving at Oklahoma with a relatively anonymous profile (he was the lowest-rated five-star recruit according to Rivals, receiving only a fraction of the hype attached to Michael Porter or Marvin Bagley), it took only a handful of games for Young to establish himself as the most electrifying freshman in years.
For two solid months, he was must-watch television, carrying the undermanned Sooners to huge wins while racking up 30-point games, 40-point games, attempting shots only Curry regularly makes in the NBA while also showing off a flair for fancy ballhandling and passing that was just flat-out fun.
But then, late in the season, Young came back to earth a bit. His efficiency suffered, and Oklahoma unsurprisingly went on a skid, barely making the NCAA tournament after losing eight out of 10 to end the season. Maybe the immense playmaking load Young had to carry finally took its toll on a lithe physique that has supposedly added 11 pounds since the end of the season. Maybe, as teams focused their entire defensive gameplans on stopping him, he tried to do too much.
Here’s all we really know: His good moments in college are better than anyone else’s in the lottery. His bad moments are probably scarier for NBA teams than anyone else’s. Naturally, Young argues what he went through at Oklahoma — including the sudden fame he gained in a short period of time — gives him a leg up on other prospects who didn’t have nearly the amount of pressure on them. Like everything else in the draft, whether you interpret that as a reason or an excuse for his late-season struggle is totally in the eye of the beholder.
“I think I got evaluated a little bit more because I had the ball in my hands a little bit more and I was doing a little more for my team,” Young said. “I was getting face-guarded, doubled-teamed off every screen, different coverages. I think it helped me to go back and watch film and now know what to do if that happens in the NBA. I think that type of stuff helped me.”
This is where it’s worth pointing out that I’m neither advocating for or against Young versus DeAndre Ayton or Bagley or Luka Doncic. But here’s what I know: For all the purported sophistication in scouting and data analytics, the NBA draft is a ridiculous crapshoot that somehow remains remarkably susceptible to groupthink.
While there are always a couple players on draft night who end up going higher or lower than expected, the first 20 or so picks generally follow a consensus that works to protect NBA executives and their reputations by giving them cover for their selections, even though year after year the consensus is largely proven incorrect once the prospects actually have to play in the league.
In other words, if one general manager makes a pick the basketball cognoscenti praises on draft night and another makes a pick that is perceived to be a reach, they will not get equal criticism if both players turn out to be bad three years later. The GM who followed the consensus will largely get a pass, while the GM who took a risk will get a black mark on his reputation, which makes no sense when the results are the same.
If a team with a strong conviction about Young picks him in the top five, it will be generally perceived as so far outside the consensus that it’s labeled “risky” or a “reach” while a team that takes Jaren Jackson, Jr., whom Tom Izzo couldn’t even trust to be on the floor for Michigan State as it was flailing around against Syracuse in the NCAA tournament, will be “betting on upside.”
This is, of course, a ridiculous way to analyze a draft where most teams get it wrong, year after year after year.
And maybe the team that goes outside the consensus for Young will get it wrong, too. Maybe he really is too short and physically weak to be an elite point guard in the NBA. Maybe he’s so bad defensively he’ll end up as more of a sixth man than a starter. Or maybe — And wouldn’t this be a real shocker? — a player who did amazing things night after night at age 19 will continue do amazing things as he gets older and stronger?
The only thing you can say for sure is if Young goes in the top five, the team that picks him will immediately become the most second-guessed of the entire draft. But given the history of an enterprise that is only slightly more reliable than a roulette wheel, why is that such a bad thing?
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter.