You’ve almost certainly heard the comparison by now. It’s everywhere—in the New York Times, on ESPN.
You can’t tune into an Oklahoma Sooners broadcast without hearing the name of one of the NBA’s best point guards, hearing how we could very well be looking at the next version of him.
Trae Young is college basketball’s Stephen Curry, they’re all saying in harmony.
But is it really an accurate comparison? And, more interestingly: could Young live up to his prototype—could he possibly mimic the success of a two-time MVP—when he reaches the NBA?
“I hate when we put players in a box and say, ‘he’s this player on the next level.’ Stephen Curry is the only Stephen Curry,” says ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Williams. “LeBron James is the only LeBron James. Players can have tendencies that remind you of those players, but they’re not those players.”
The 19-year-old Oklahoma guard is not Curry, but his tendencies are undeniably Curry-esque.
Young audaciously and effortlessly flicks 30-footers, draining bad shot after bad shot with his lightning-quick release. With the ball on a string like a yo-yo, he leaves helpless big men, isolated after ball screens, spinning. Young whips no-look passes; his court vision is extraordinary. And though the 6'2", 180-pound guard plays below the rim, his ability to change pace and jelly off the backboard allows him to finish among the trees. “Trae Young Watch” is a thing.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas says the Curry comparison is justified.
“It’s absolutely accurate,” Bilas says. “But people can take that to mean you’re saying he’s going to be as good, and no one’s saying that. He certainly could be as good, but nobody thought Steph Curry was going to be Steph Curry when he was in college.”
Will Reigel, now an assistant coach at Davidson, played with Curry in college during the 2008-09 season. He remembers the hype that surrounded Steph—the arenas that were packed for Southern Conference games, the fans showing up at hotels asking for Curry’s autograph—which is similar to all the hub-bub Young is experiencing right now.
Reigel also believes the Curry-Young comparison is rational.
“Steph obviously could shoot off the dribble in college, but now he’s become maybe the greatest off-the-dribble shooter we’ve ever seen,” Reigel says. “And when I look at Trae Young, that’s a major comparison that I see in their games. I would imagine Steph didn’t have anybody growing up that he watched that would come down the court and off the dribble be able to pull from 35 feet. I think that’s something he has done to evolve the game of basketball, and you see that in Trae Young, who has clearly somewhat modeled his game after Steph.”
As Williams notes, Young has other tendencies suggestive of various current and former NBA guards. He probes defenses and passes like two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash. His finishing abilities are a blend of Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving.
This may all sound like hyperbole—Young has only played 19 college games, after all—but consider this: he is on pace to become the first player ever to lead Division I in both points (he’s averaging 30.3 a game) and assists (9.6). And, friendly reminder: he’s a freshman.
Trae Young is the best freshman college guard I have ever seen.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) December 30, 2017
Despite his gaudy numbers, league talent evaluators are somewhat mixed on Young’s pro potential. The majority are bullish on the young Sooner, who is a projected top-five pick, and believe he’ll be a star.
A minority, however, have concerns about Young’s ball dominance and the volume with which he shoots. Young has the highest usage rate—a stat that measures how actively a player is involved in the offense—that college hoops has seen in years. For reference, Russell Westbrook last year set the NBA’s all-time mark with 41.7 percent. Young is at 39 percent.
One scout says Young reminds him of Lou Williams—who, though he isn’t an MVP, nearly garnered an All-Star spot this year and has had an NBA career respectable enough for Drake to write a song about him.
The Curry comparison began to surface when, barely two weeks into his Oklahoma career, Young captivated the college basketball cosmos. It wasn’t just that he exploded for 43 points and seven assists against a formidable opponent in the Oregon Ducks. It was the way the teen did it—something about his game was magnetic.
His quickness, handle, range, size, temperament, “shoot to get hot, shoot to stay hot” mentality, even his appearance to some extent—it was eerily reminiscent of the guard who had suited up for Davidson a decade earlier.
Indeed, Curry heavily influenced Young’s playing style.
“He was changing the game,” Young told the Wall Street Journal of Curry. “And the way I played fit perfectly. I feel like it’s you shoot a three or you get all the way to the rim. The game has shifted in the direction that I play.”
Curry seems himself in Young.
“Just the confidence that he plays with,” the Warriors guard told reporters earlier this month. “I call it the flair, but it seems like he’s always composed and knows what he’s trying to do every time he has the ball in his hands. He shoots a lot of deep threes and has a creativity to his game that’s just so fluid to watch.”
Young also has a fan in LeBron James, but critics like to point to Young’s sometimes-poor shot selection and his 5.3 turnovers per game. Though Bilas says the criticism Young has faced “is absolutely valid,” the longtime analyst remains high on Young, whom he analogizes is like a Maserati.
“He’s still learning how to handle all of the gifts he has,” Bilas says. “He can do 200 on the highway, which not very many people could do, but he’s learning how to downshift and drive in residential areas.”
Curry faced similar criticism. An explosive scorer from day one in college, the rail-thin, 6-foot-3 guard had to learn how to harness his abilities, amassing 13 turnovers in his first career game.
Young, like Curry, has also faced questions about his toughness. His critics cite plays like the one below, in which Young did not dive for a loose ball in a crucial moment of Oklahoma’s loss last weekend to Oklahoma State.
Want to see the difference between a Freshman and Senior? pic.twitter.com/FEfC37Q8xe— Alex Budke (@AlexBudke) January 20, 2018
Young filled it up in that game, scoring 48 points, but he also turned the ball over seven times, attempted 39 shots, and forced a deep three against two defenders at the end of overtime. Oklahoma State won, 83-81, and the cries of Young’s detractors reached a fever pitch.
After coming under fire for the Oklahoma State game, and facing perhaps his biggest challenge to date—against No. 5 Kansas and Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year Devonte’ Graham—Young on Tuesday responded with a performance that silenced even the most meticulous faultfinders. He was outstanding, scoring 26 points on nine shots, adding nine assists, and reminding the country: this year belongs to me.
With Oklahoma trailing throughout the game, Young was patient. He didn’t attempt a three in the first half. He took over in the final minutes—but not in the way you’d expect. Kansas overplayed the freshman sensation and Young found his teammates, leading to two open 3-pointers that sealed an 85-80 win for the Sooners.
By no means is Young a finished product—by no means could he match up with Stephen Curry today—but no one should expect that he would be. He’s 19. And he has the mental goods to continually improve.
His attitude and work ethic were molded by his support system. Take a look at the way his father, a former Texas Tech star who’s been instrumental in Trae’s career, constructively critiques his Oklahoma State performance in this SportsCenter feature.
Williams, the former Duke standout and 2002 Naismith Award winner, recently spent a day with Young in Norman. He left the interview wowed by the freshman’s maturity and inquisitive nature.
“The kid just is infatuated with the process,” Williams says. “I never find 18, 19, 20-year-olds who are in love with the process of understanding the game…all this hysteria that’s being created around him pales in comparison to the internal pressure he has for himself.”
Young could become the third freshman ever to claim the Naismith (Kevin Durant won it in 2007 and Anthony Davis in 2012). Beyond individual stats, he has also helped engineer the Oklahoma program’s turnaround. The Sooners finished the 2016-17 season 11-20; at 14-4, they already have more wins. Now No. 12 in the country, the Sooners have spent time in the top five.
Because of his size and the criticisms noted above, people will continue to doubt Trae Young, just like they doubted him coming into college. He was No. 23 in his recruiting class.
Though Young received offers from top programs like Kansas and Kentucky, he elected to attend Oklahoma because he’s from the area—he was around the Oklahoma program his whole life—and knew he would get lots of minutes as The Guy from the jump.
Some NBA teams will probably pass on Young for the same reasons they passed on Curry, who fell to No. 7, behind two other point guards (Spain’s Ricky Rubio and Syracuse’s Jonny Flynn), in the 2009 NBA Draft. Needless to say, that decision looks foolish in retrospect.
Young will be challenged both at this level and the next. Teams are already trying to bully and blitz him to get the ball out of his hands.
He’ll face a formidable foe Saturday as Oklahoma battles Alabama and the Crimson Tide’s stud freshman, Collin Sexton, who will jockey with Young to be the first point guard selected in June’s draft. Sexton is a pitbull-type guard.
He’s more Russell Westbrook. Young is more Stephen Curry.
Why do we insist on linking college players to the pros? Humans are prone to it. We relate the unknown to the known. It’s an evolutionary survival mechanism that extends to sports. A young Ben Simmons was compared to LeBron James, who was—and forever will be—compared to Michael Jordan.
So, is Trae Young Stephen Curry 2.0? Not quite. He is the remix.
He takes the chorus of his game from Curry, but also chops and screws samples from Nash, Lillard, Irving, and Tony Parker. And he is simply too gifted not to have an NBA career that will place him in that pantheon of elite point guards.
Don’t believe me? Just watch.