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Trae Young Has Broken the NCAA Machine

College sports isn’t supposed to be about the individual, but Oklahoma’s super freshman has become the toast of the season. He is putting up numbers that could go up against some of the best players in the sport’s history. Freaking out is not just OK, it’s the only acceptable response.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

You are going to get sick of hearing about Trae Young before this season ends. I’m assuming that you’re reading this because you aren’t sick of Young just yet, but trust me when I say that by March you’ll be complaining about how the media thinks Young is God’s gift to basketball and you’ll be swearing that the best player on your favorite team is just as good as Young.

With this in mind, I’d like to take this opportunity to preemptively tell you that you are an idiot. There can’t be enough Trae Young coverage this season. It’s impossible. If every conversation on the planet for the next three months focused solely on how great Young is, it still wouldn’t be overkill. What he is doing isn’t just rare—it has never happened in the history of the sport. And I don’t just mean that he’s figured out a way to get Bill Simmons to watch college basketball. I mean that he leads the country in both scoring and assists and is well on his way to cementing his legacy as the second-most-entertaining college player of my lifetime (behind Tom Coverdale).

The numbers are mind-blowing. Through 12 games, Young is averaging 29.6 points, 10.7 assists, and 1.8 steals while shooting 47.5 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from the 3-point line. For context, here are the stats that every point guard who has ever won the Wooden Award put up in their award-winning season.

Wooden Award–Winning Point Guards in NCAA History

Season Player PPG APG SPG FG% 3FG%
Season Player PPG APG SPG FG% 3FG%
1977-78 Phil Ford 20.8 5.7 1.8 52.7 N/A
2001-02 Jason Williams 21.3 5.3 2.2 45.7 38.3
2002-03 T.J. Ford 15 7.7 2 40.1 26.5
2003-04 Jameer Nelson 20.6 5.3 2.8 47.5 39
2010-11 Jimmer Fredette 28.9 4.3 1.3 45.2 39.6
2012-13 Trey Burke 18.6 6.7 1.6 46.3 38.4
2016-17 Frank Mason 20.9 5.2 1.3 49 47.1

Even when comparing Young with seven of the best point guard seasons college basketball has seen in the past 40 years, he would still rank first in scoring and assists, second in 3-point field goal percentage, third in field goal percentage, and fourth in steals. Just reading that sentence puts my brain in a blender. And yeah, I know Young is only 12 games into the season and there’s still plenty of time for his numbers to drop down closer to mortal levels. But there’s also this to consider: Are we sure Young’s numbers are going to dip? The Big 12 is a great conference, but it doesn’t exactly contain a murderer’s row of defenses. Kansas likes to run and gun, and it gave up 95 points to Arizona State at home, while good players can get any shot they want against West Virginia’s press if they just remember to not shit their pants (which, to be fair, is easier said than done). Truth be told, Texas Tech and Texas have the only Big 12 defenses I trust right now; Young putting up 30 and 10 every night in conference play is somehow completely feasible.

But forget about all of that anyway. Statistics are boring and ultimately not that important, and if you don’t believe me just ask yourself the last time you got excited reminiscing about Tyler Hansbrough’s career. What really matters is how a player puts up those numbers. When I tell my hypothetical grandchildren about how Anthony Davis had longer arms than Michael Jordan in Space Jam, I’m going to bring up how he could jump from inside the paint and send corner 3-point attempts into the fourth row well before I cite his 4.7 blocks per game. And when I tell them about Trae Young, I’m probably just going to exhale deeply and exaggeratedly shake my head in disbelief until they look up his highlights on whatever the 2047 version of YouTube is.

This is the real reason everyone is losing their minds over Young. College basketball has been designed over the course of 100-plus years to exalt the team above the individual players, which explains why Ben Simmons couldn’t carry LSU to the NCAA tournament and why refs love to bail out unathletic short dudes who just grab their nuts and fall over when they’re about to get dunked on. Unlike the NBA, the structure of the sport is such that the real stars are the institutions and/or coaches, and the players are simply cogs in the machine who are just there to get a free education and do their part to bring glory to their schools before going pro in something other than sports. So when guys who are so great that they break through this mold and transcend the NCAA machine come along, it’s a massive deal.

Remember when Adam Morrison single-handedly launched live sports streaming in 2005-06? Don’t fact-check me—that’s how I choose to remember it. Morrison vs. J.J. Redick was just as hot of a rivalry as was Team Kristin vs. Team LC in those days. Redick played for Duke and was therefore constantly on national television, but it was way too much of a gamble back then for ESPN to put Gonzaga on national TV every night, so it started experimenting with a new technology by showing Morrison’s games online. And every time that happened, I made it a priority to monopolize my family’s home phone line for two hours to look at a choppy and fuzzy stream on a tiny computer screen because I had to watch the mustachioed goofball in BFE, Washington, who was taking the college basketball world by storm. There were plenty of great players who came before Morrison, and many of them were unquestionably better than he was, but that 2005-06 season was the first time I remember altering the rhythms of my life so I could watch a college basketball player break my brain. In the handful of times it’s happened since—Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Steph Curry, Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Anthony Davis, Brad Davison—I’ve always been left feeling like I’m seeing color for the first time after living in a world of only black and white.

That’s the experience Young is delivering this season. The big difference from the rest of the guys on that list, though, is that he’s becoming appointment TV as a freshman without any inherent physical advantage, which should be impossible. I don’t know how else to describe it. Young is a 19-year-old who is 2 inches shorter than he should ideally be, he’s got noodle arms, he isn’t particularly quick, and I’m still not sure there is any evidence that he can dunk. Yet by virtue of his unlimited range, a great feel for the game, incredible vision, and a set of balls the size of watermelons, he is torching everyone in his path and turning the entire college basketball world on its head. I swear there are at least three moments in every Oklahoma game when Young does something that makes me gasp in amazement like I’m a 4-year-old watching my uncle pretend to pull his thumb off. He casually pulls up from 35 feet with a hand in his face, he dribbles circles around defenses, he effortlessly completes passes that most guys wouldn’t even try, and it makes no damn sense how he does any of it. The obvious comparison for Young is Curry, but the only comps that fully capture Young’s game are of the mash-up variety. (I’m onboard with Simmons’s take: “Young is what you’d get if Steve Nash and Curry had a baby.”) We’ve never seen anything like him.

And yeah, I get that this all feels like way too much way too soon. The man has played one conference game in his life, and people are already anointing him as one of the all-time greats. I understand the impulse to want to pump the brakes and wait to see what he does when he goes into Allen Fieldhouse with the potential opportunity to end Kansas’s Big 12 title streak in late February. It makes sense to first find out if Young can still put up monster numbers when it matters most in March. But then again, time is no longer a luxury that we can afford in the one-and-done era. Waiting for Young to prove it on the proverbial big stage means not appreciating in the moment what will likely be the bulk of his collegiate career. (Not to mention that he’s already played two true road games against top-10 teams in Wichita State and TCU and led Oklahoma to wins in both by averaging 34 points and 12 assists.) Considering how rare true superstars are in college basketball—even in this era when seemingly every freshman in the country has been labeled a future top-five pick—erring on the side of overhyping a hot start is always the right call if missing out on a transcendent season is the alternative.

So appreciate Trae Young while you can, America. Even when you inevitably find yourself annoyed by how much people are talking about him, remember that there’s an end in sight and it will be here much too soon. And besides, even if he comes back down to earth these next few months, Young will, at the worst, end up being a very good player who put up great numbers for a decent team and provided some incredible highlights when he got hot. But if he can maintain his current trajectory, it’s entirely plausible that he will shatter records, carry the Sooners deep into the NCAA tournament, and go down as one of the best and most exciting players to ever set foot on a college basketball court. And if that is, indeed, what is about to happen, may God have mercy on the brave souls who will be tasked with trying to guard him the next three months.