Every time Trae Young has done something great this year -- and that's been pretty often, as he has been far and away the best player in college basketball -- people have found ways to pick his game apart.
A career-high 48 points in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State? Sure, but he did that on a hugely inefficient 39 shots. An NCAA record 22 assists in a nonconference game before Christmas? Yeah, but he had 12 turnovers in a game that mattered much more, when Oklahoma got smoked at Kansas State. Think he's the next Steph Curry? Well, the secret to Steph's magic isn't the stats but instead the fact he plays on one of the most team-centric basketball dynasties ever put together.
The implication is Trae Young is all stats (he's leading college basketball in points and assists) and much less substance (going into Tuesday night's game against Kansas, Oklahoma had lost two in a row and was sitting at an unremarkable 4-3 in the Big 12).
But after Tuesday night, you can no longer pick Trae Young's game apart and come away anything other than floored.
There was a great basketball lesson in Young's performance Tuesday as Oklahoma beat Kansas, 85-80, giving us one more reason why this Big 12 Conference is going to be the most exciting conference in basketball for the next six weeks. Young played better by doing less, and Oklahoma was the better team because it.
In what could be considered a must-win game for Oklahoma's chances of staying in the Big 12 race and in contention for a top NCAA Tournament seed, Young played within himself. He scored 26 points on nine shots -- that's just about the most efficient game a player can have -- and he dished out nine assists. He was scarred from his 39-shot circus performance against Oklahoma State, and he vowed not to take a three until the second half. His first three didn't come until nearly five minutes into the second half; it was from Steph Curry range, and he nailed it.
The most important plays of Young's night came late, after Oklahoma had employed the annoying but effective Hack-A-Udoka-Azubuike strategy (sublimely dubbed "Poke-A-Doke" by @JayhawkTalk on Twitter) to get back into the game. With a bit over a minute left, Kansas' Devonte Graham missed a three, and Young rebounded it and brought it up the court. Everyone in the building assumed the Trae Young Show was about to take over. Young duked and dodged and drove toward the hoop -- then rocketed a gorgeous pass to a wide-open Christian James in the corner, who buried the three to go up 82-80.
It should be noted that James had been 0-for-6 from three against Oklahoma State, yet his teammate still trusted him with the biggest shot of the game.
On Oklahoma's next possession, and with the clock winding down, freshman Brady Manek moved to set a screen for Young -- but then the slick-shooting Manek slipped the screen, and two Kansas defenders swarmed to Young. Young swung the ball over to a wide-open Manek, who launched a three that put away the game. Both of Young's passes were dead-on perfect, and together they gave Oklahoma its fourth win against a top 10 team this season.
"This is how I'm going to continue to play -- I liked how I played today," Young said in the postgame interview. "It makes everyone's confidence go up."
Trae Young is going to be the story every time he sets foot on the court the rest of this season, but the best version of Trae Young is when he makes his teammates valued supporting characters in that story. This is what Trae Young looks like at his best: not jacking up 39 shots, not forcing 19 threes, not trying to be the superhero for a team that's not nearly as talented as he is. He is at his best when he tries to do less for himself and more for his teammates. This is what an NBA team will want to see, too, when they inevitably use a top-five pick on him in this June's draft.
And this is also the version of Trae Young that turns Oklahoma team from a one-man band called the Trae Young Show into something that's very different, and something that's much more exciting: a legit Final Four team.