The National Player of the Year race in college basketball fell apart and descended into chaos about a month ago.
Until February, Oklahoma freshman Trae Young had the award essentially won, with everyone else fighting for second place. Since then, a few things happened. The national media and collective college basketball fanbase started searching for someone else to challenge Young for the award. Upperclassmen like Devonte’ Graham and Jalen Brunson came to the forefront, almost by default. Perhaps more importantly, Oklahoma flat out collapsed down the stretch. The Sooners lost 11 of 15 games, including a six-game skid. During those six consecutive losses, Trae Young shot 19 percent from outside the arc on more than nine attempts per game. Not good!
Now with the award(s) being presented this month, Young has been cast aside as a thing of the past, as if the first 20 games of the season don’t matter. When Graham won Big XII Player of the Year, it made some sense, since none of Young’s non-conference brilliance is considered for that award. For National Player of the Year, big games in December can’t be simply forgotten.
As we sit here today on March 8, Trae Young is still the leading scorer in college basketball. He also leads the nation in assists. No one has ever accomplished that feat since assists became regularly recorded. Those also aren’t purely volume stats. He leads the nation in assist rate as well. Despite shooting 11 for 56 from outside during Oklahoma’s losing streak, Young is still making 36 percent of his threes while attempting the 3rd most threes in college basketball, with many of those threes over a double-team or from well beyond the arc.
People attacked Young for his high number of turnovers, in many cases unfairly. The freshman leads the nation in turnovers committed, but also has the country’s highest usage rate. He turns the ball over on 19.9 percent of possessions, barely north of the national average of 18.5. Keep in mind, the national average is against average defense, not the attention Young receives.
People have latched on to Oklahoma’s team struggles as a reason to not hand Young major season ending awards, forgetting that in most cases, the awards in question honor individual performance. We’re talking about “Player of the Year” and not “Most Valuable Player”, a distinction that actually matters. The players around Trae Young pale in comparison to those around Graham or Brunson. Lon Kruger would do unspeakable things to line Mikal Bridges or Svi Mykhialiuk up next to his do-everything point guard. Instead, Young is flanked by the remnants of a team that went 11-20 last year, plus fellow freshman Brady Manek, billed as a knockdown shooter, but making south of 40 percent from beyond the arc.
Even during Oklahoma’s swoon, Young has been productive. In that six game stretch where he couldn’t make a three, he still averaged 22 points and 8 assists. In those games he shot 35 of 36 from the free throw line and averaged 37.5 minutes per game. Imagine for a moment where the Sooners would be without his services. I question how successful they would be if Young magically swapped spots with Brunson or Graham. My guess is not any better off.
When push comes to shove, it’s pretty simple. My (non-existent) vote for National Player of the Year would be for the guy putting up generational stats and doing things no other player is capable of doing. No player in college basketball demanded more space on the opposing coach’s scouting report or altered opposing defenses more than Trae Young.
Here’s who I’d have as the rest of my All-Americans:
Trae Young, Oklahoma
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas
Deandre Ayton, Arizona
Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State
Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Keenan Evans, Texas Tech
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
Carsen Edwards, Purdue
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, SALTMoney.org, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.