Age matters and it is easily overlooked when watching college basketball. Before I paid much attention to age, I loved the Hawks picking Acie Law. Law was an extremely clutch shooter coming out of Texas A&M (college highlights) whose productivity and leadership seemed like a great addition to a growing Hawks roster. When selected #11, he was closer to being 23 years old than 22. The problem was that he had become great at playing college basketball, but did not have the athleticism to transition to the next level. Seeing a player like Law completely flop at the NBA level is why experienced college players like Doug McDermott and K.J. McDaniels have to be evaluated differently than the over analyzed one-and-done prospects.
After being hyped into the lottery, Kentucky's James Young spent the early part of the college season struggling with his shot and falling down boards. As Kentucky played better, scouts began to see that he was more than just a shooter and his stock began to rise. After watching Young play live against Louisville, I could not understand why he was not grading with the other elite prospects. Young entered SEC play with his jumper falling, defending the best player on the other team, rebounding beyond his position, and emerging as the mature leader of a young team. In the last month, hisshot has fallen apart, he suddenly cannot stay in front of anyone, and scouts have him trending closer to the second round than the lottery.
Meanwhile, Duke's Rodney Hood entered the season as a top-10 pick and has moved down the board just a bit due to the emergence of other players while he has had a very solid season. The Mississippi State transfer entered the season as a prospect with a great shot, an ability to take the ball to the rim, and no obvious weaknesses that kept him from being an NBA player. He entered March mostly with the same credentials. He also has some limitations which can best be found in the scouting report comparing him to Clemson's K.J. McDaniels.
Young and Hood are both suited best to play small forward in the NBA, although some view Young as a shooting guard. Hood's intrigue is that he could probably slide to the 2 or the 4 depending on matchups, but has no consistent future at either position. Both players could be on the board if the Hawks pick around 15-16, so if you look at their numbers who would you select among the left-handed small forwards:
When my brother challenged me to compare the two players this week, I was prepared to be disappointed in what the numbers might reveal on Young. However, the more I compare the two on film and check out the statistics, the more I continue to get excited about what Young has the capacity to be even if Hood is the better player right now. The biggest reason for that belief: AGE. When teams are selecting in July, James Young is very likely to be the youngest player in the draft. He is a full 3 years younger than Rodney Hood as a direct comparison. That means when Hood was putting up a 44/36/66 shooting split his freshman year at Mississippi State (much more similar to Young's stats this season), he was a year older than Young. If Young has shown the level of production seen above at 18, then what kind of numbers would we expect to see after 18 months with Coach K?
Now, none of this means that Young's game clearly translates to the NBA. Young does not currently possess an elite skill that would easily translate to the next level, although there is still room for him to become an elite shooter as he has flashed at times. Hood already demonstrates being a great shooter. Duke players have had success at duplicating their college percentages at the professional level, so a team can draft Hood feeling confident that he can space the floor and provide good enough defense to be a meaningful role player. The floor for Young could be much lower if his shot does not come around and that is what makes comparing them so intriguing.
Beyond all the stats and film, I love the way James Young plays. That is not enough to be a great player in the NBA, but he possesses the physical tools and resiliency to become a great player. He does not pout like most freshmen when his shot is not falling, he has taken blame for his mistakes unlike some of his teammates (or head coach for that matter), and he does not have to be challenged to give effort. He reminds me of Acie Law in a longer, more athletic body. After Kentucky's loss to South Carolina, much of the talk was about a crucial turnover Young committed late in the game but little was made of him being at the center of a run for Kentucky to get back in the game. The play he makes at the 50 second mark of this clip is unremarkable, yet reveals his competitive character:
Kentucky vs. South Carolina - March 01, 2014 (via NCAA Highlights)
Is it amazing athleticism? No. Should it be a top 10 highlight? No. What should be noted is what happened prior to him saving this ball. Young committed a bad turnover and then the next trip down attracted the defense and made the right pass for a wide open 3. The play above occurs immediately following the 3-point shot. While some of his teammates are standing around, he saves the ball which gives the Wildcats a chance to win. It is his mental toughness to continue to compete through tough shooting nights or a bad turnover that separates him from most 18-year-old players obsessed with the NBA but not the work required to get there.
Young has work to do. He has had a bad stretch of games where he has been exposed as a defender on the perimeter. On a few occasions, teams have been using Kentucky's commitment to switching everything against them. Young's man has often screened the defender of the opposing team's quickest player leaving Young on an island alone where quick guards have been able to get by. As a result, Young has become a liability on defense in recent weeks--something that was not seen earlier in the year. Is it a broken Kentucky defensive system, an unknown injury, or has he simply been exposed? Given the full range of what he has shown this year, I think he will be a good NBA defender against small forwards but has a lot of work to do for covering shooting guards. He needs to improve his passing, but the notion that he is a poor ball-handler is simply false. He drives the ball and finishes well in traffic and will do so even better as he improves his play-making abilities. His passing struggle are not a result of being unwilling to pass, but of not always making the right pass. Given the inexperience of his teammates, this is not entirely his deficiency. All of those weaknesses taken into account, it is hard to look back on his play against Michigan State and not believe that he has all the tools to be a starter in the NBA and the potential to be an All-Star:
James Young Full Highlights 2013 11 12 vs Michigan State 19 Pts (via Pasie15 Sports)
A few differences I notice in his shot in the highlight video versus his struggles over the season is that as the season has progressed his shot has flattened out and his feet are both less balanced and turning more to the right. Like most shooters, when Young is in rhythm his shot comes out higher with his feet mostly square and his feet return to the ground at the same spot they left. During his recent struggles, his release is not going over the top but more toward the basket and his feet being imbalance causes him to twist at the hips. In his most recent game he showed form more similar to what you can see in the video. For all the strengths John Calipari has had with point guards, his resume lacks evidence of helping players improve their shooting. A team drafting Young will have to believe that whatever limitations are present in his mechanics can be corrected.
James Young has as much on the line in March as any other prospect. A couple more games being exposed defensively could drop him low enough that he decides not to enter the draft, yet a couple of great shooting performances without showing his recent defensive struggles could see him rise into the top 10. Personally, I think he has the right mix of skill, toughness, ability, and resilience to become an NBA All-Star if properly developed. With the talent for development shown by the Hawks' staff and the need for Atlanta to add a two-way perimeter player, I think the risk of drafting Young exceeds the security of adding Rodney Hood. While Hood may be helping a team off an NBA bench immediately next year, Young could be starting for one by 2016. He will just have to be careful if it is for an NBA champion since he will not be legally old enough to share the champagne.