When the Cleveland Cavaliers pick eighth in the 2018 NBA Draft, Trae Young of Oklahoma might be available. Several mock drafts have scenarios where Young slips out of the top five, with Sports Illustrated and Bleacher Report having him going to the Cavs at eight, and many others, including The Step Back and Tankathon, have him falling to sixth. The idea that Young, one of college basketball’s most exciting players this year, falling to Cleveland is very real.
This likely stems from Young’s combination of lack of stature, and the degree to which he cooled off in the second half of the college basketball season. Young measured poorly at the combine, at just under 6’2” in shoes with a 6’3” wingspan, and there are questions about his frame projecting to the next level in terms of defense and finishing at the rim. There’s also the factor of Oklahoma crashing and burning down the stretch of the college basketball season, as Young’s shot stopped being liquid hot magma and his limited team struggled to compete without his elite efficiency.
Young’s shooting is both his best skill and his biggest question mark in terms of NBA value. He shot 36 percent from three, a disappointing number given his early heat from deep, and nothing special on the surface. But his ability to pop a shot from basically anywhere on the floor is incredible, and his comfort pulling up from NBA three already is fantastic. It doesn’t matter what the offense he lands in is — if he’s able to do this consistently, he’ll be an effective player in the NBA:
However, it also creates a situation where he can be over-reliant on that range, and that’s going to be an issue as he transitions to the NBA, where he could be limited in finishing at the rim thanks to his size. Young was an average finisher at the college level, able to get into the paint with his burst off the dribble, but struggled to actually get to the rim or deal with contact. He does have some crafty finishing talent, but most of his successful finishing in college looked like this — impressive move to get there, followed by high degree of difficulty to just convert.
This lack of balance in his scoring profile limited his effectiveness in college, and definitely could at the NBA level, where his lack of finishing ability could limit his effectiveness as a pick-and-roll scorer. If teams focus on trapping him, it will be difficult for him to utilize his shooting on-ball, as he isn’t strong enough to turn the corner on a big. That’s the biggest reason to worry about his effectiveness as a lead creator, and something NBA teams are probably worried about.
However, that doesn’t mean Young isn’t a top-five player in this class. It merely sets a floor that could give potential for him to bust, which puts him in line with several other players in this class. Young still has incredible potential as an offensive initiator, because of his other elite talent - passing.
Young’s scoring outbursts throughout the year hit the fact that Young had an incredible passing season. He averaged 1.1 more assists per 40 minutes than Lonzo Ball as a college freshman, playing with much more limited offensive teammates. This was certainly influenced by his role as Oklahoma’s sole offensive initiator, but it has appeared that scouts have swung too far in using that explanation for his output. This belies Young’s true abilities as a passer, which are only approached by Luka Doncic in this class:
Young’s passing ability, much like Doncic’s, stems from both his elite vision and the technical skill he possesses at hitting shooters in the right spots. It’s very apparent that Young is going to be a talented passer on the break, both because of highlight passes like shown above, and because of his anticipation of where teammates will be while filling lanes:
This ability helps Young maintain effectiveness in the open floor when he faces equal or disadvantage breaks. Despite not being able to power his way to the rim, Young still is an effective transition player, because he uses the movement of his teammates to bail out the break. Plays like this one, where Young uses his handle to force a rotation and then dumps to the trailer, are commonplace on Young’s tape:
Young’s also a capable outlet passer. While he’s no Ball or Kevin Love, he has pretty good accuracy on cross-court slings like this, which he throws with one hand:
This comes to a larger point, which is what truly makes Young’s passing special - he has a wide diversity of passes that he’s able to make, out of the pick-and-roll and open-concept offensive sets, similar to what the Cavs run. He has the basic package, such as drive-and-kick, this one to the opposite corner:
He also shows hints of being able to pass over the top out of the pick-and-roll. He can be a little bit sloppy with his timing in these opportunities, but when he’s comfortable, he can deliver impressive passes over the defenders, despite his height. Plays like this will help keep an aggressive trapping scheme under control:
But more impressive is Trae’s ability as a cross-court passer. Young can bend a defense as a shooter, and adding the ability to skip passes across court further breaks the back of the defense. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving both thrive on their ability to bend the defense and then put a help defender on an island, firing a crisp cross-court pass to an open shooter:
Young’s shooting opens up the same types of opportunities for him, and he’s very skilled at these skip passes. As the defense loads up to stop him, he’s able to swing the ball quickly before the defense reacts:
Young’s shooting in college preoccupied the defense to such a large degree that he was able to do the same, and the results were pretty solid. This pass seems simple, but it’s an incredibly difficult pass to be able to time, especially to a shooter that doesn’t have an NBA-level quick release:
Even harder is to make this type of pass with your off-hand. This type of skip pass is something Doncic doesn’t even make. It takes technique and confidence in your off-hand, something that’s rare at the college level. Young does it regularly with his left:
This collection of passes does hide some negatives with Young’s passing. He’s turnover prone, can be sped up by length on the perimeter and he’s not a great pick-and-roll decision-maker yet. But these are both things that can improve, and Young has demonstrated an ability to make several types of passes that are rare for guards his age - and would make his shooting even more powerful. Put him on a team with LeBron James, and the Cavs suddenly have a secondary playmaker who can create similar opportunities for role players, and delivers an unparalleled catch-and-shoot option off the ball. If LeBron isn’t there, you take the first step at a primary initiator, the most important piece to building back towards the playoffs.
Trae Young’s draft narrative has focused on his scoring and his lack of defensive potential, but that’s short-sighted. Without his large outburst to start the year, maybe his passing gets more credit, and he stays higher in the draft rankings. But that works out for the Cavaliers. If he falls to the No. 8 pick, the Cavs are absolutely getting a steal, but it won’t be because of his potential to be Steph Curry. It will be because of his passing, which makes him a best of both worlds outcome as the Cavs head into another LeBron decision.