Let’s break down two of the top point guards in the country who will square off on Tuesday night.
Here are Graham and Young’s per-40 numbers. We’re using per-40 to mitigate the difference in minutes.
Obviously, Young’s numbers are superior. It’s fair to point out that Oklahoma plays at a turbo pace – the Sooners rank fifth in tempo, which boosts Young’s counting stats. Kansas ranks 96th.
Either way, Young’s numbers are otherworldly. He turns the ball over more often than Graham (though that figure is also inflated due to Oklahoma’s fast pace), and surprisingly shoots a lower percentage from 3. But as we’ll get into, degree of difficulty matters when talking about a player’s shooting ability. And nobody takes tougher shots than Young.
Before we get to Young, let’s acknowledge that Graham is a terrific shooter. He’s making 44 percent of his 3s this year on 7.3 attempts per game. Graham is a 42 percent 3-point shooter for his career and has elite range.
Graham has all of the tricks in his bag. His signature move: jacking a triple whenever his defender loses focus for a split second and ducks under a pick. Too late, TCU:
Graham busts zones by himself. Syracuse’s standard defense is a 2-3, which is part of the reason why the senior hung 35 points on the Orange in December. Graham’s range must be respected -- he shoots the NBA 3 with ease. So when he pulls up like he’s going to heave a long-range bomb, he spooks Cuse’s back line. Graham was just toying with them – watch as he uses his shooting prowess to create an easy bucket for a teammate:
Now that that’s out of the way, here is near four-minute video of Young’s ridiculous outside shots this season.
The fact that you can compile 3:38 worth of insane Young shots tells you everything you need to know. Graham is an elite shooter in, like, a way that is conceivable. Young looks like he’s playing a different sport than the other nine dudes on the floor.
Attacking the rim
This is Graham’s biggest weakness, and the main reason why he hasn’t been quite as effective as Frank Mason was for the Jayhawks last year.
Graham is shooting 44 percent from 3 but 43 percent overall – which tells you he’s not very efficient near the rim. His issue: Graham lacks next-level burst. He dribbles to set up a stepback jumper or a 3; not a floater or a strong finish near the cup.
Here against TCU, Graham pulls off a beautiful shimmy and hits his defender with a devastating stepback. But it was a super difficult shot, and a player with more explosiveness would have blown by his defender for a more efficient look. Notice the all of the empty space behind his man:
Graham gets to the free-throw line 5.1 times per game – which is fine, but considering Young shoots 10 foul shots per game, he won’t get the edge here. Graham is a career 46 percent shooter from 2 and a career 42 percent shooter from 3. The craziest stat: he’s attempted 149 more 3s in his career than 2s.
Playing alongside Mason, his role was to space the floor and attack closeouts when necessary. Now that he’s the lead ball-handler, Graham is being asked to create more – with varying results. That said, he remains an elite sniper. But speed isn’t his strength.
Young gets to the free-throw line a ton and has an exquisite floater game. He struggles to finish over length, though – often hunting foul calls when he could simply go up strong and take his chances. Here’s an example against Oklahoma State:
Admittedly, this is nitpicky. Young is a good attacker for his size, but size doesn’t bode in his favor. That said, he’s a better penetrator than Graham.
Graham’s playmaking has improved drastically as a senior. He’s averaging nearly twice as many assists as he did as a junior and is the only true ball-handler for the No. 12 offense in the country. That sums up Graham’s passing chops: he’s the primary creator for a good offense. Sweet passes similar to the earlier clip against Syracuse are regular for the senior.This facet of the argument is similar to the outside shooting section. Graham is a really good distributor who is perfectly competent. But some of the stuff Young does will make you rewind the DVR.
This is a snippet from an earlier film study we did breaking down Young vs. Collin Sexton, and it holds up now:
Ever seen Aaron Rodgers throw a back-shoulder fade to a seemingly covered receiver, only to see him break open at the last second? Young does the same kind of stuff.
Watch as Wichita State tries to hedge and recover on a Young ball screen. Most point guards wouldn’t see anything open here, and reverse the ball to the other side.
Not Young. Manek doesn’t seem to be open at first glance – Darral Willis is on him, and Landy Shamet is in full help mode. But Young anticipates Willis leaving to bump the roll man, and Young catches Shamet sleeping. Then, he fires a bullet in the perfect spot for Manek to hoist:
That’s next-level stuff. Young’s exquisite court vision is also on display in transition. In this clip against USC, the Trojans lollygag back on defense — against 95 percent of opponents, they’d have time to retreat and get set. Not against Oklahoma, because Young advances the ball to an open shooter:
The assist numbers jump off the page, but passes like that make Young a joy to play with. James is shooting 14 percent better than he did last year, and Young’s chemistry with Manek is evident. His passing unlocks so many possibilities for the Sooner offense.
If you were wondering if Young would sweep this film study – the answer is no, because Graham is significantly more careful with the ball than Young.
The freshman is averaging 5.3 turnovers and has coughed it up a whopping 40 times in his last five games. Some of this is explainable: as mentioned before, Oklahoma plays very fast. So if his scoring and assist numbers are a bit inflated, the same idea applies to his turnovers. No team relies more on one guy than the Sooners do on Young, so of course he’s going to turn the ball over a lot.But you can’t be giving the ball away eight times per game, no matter the caveats -- as he has been since the West Virginia loss. Part of the reason why Young is so beloved is because of the spectacular plays he makes. He opens himself up for risk there; for instance, a pass that barely threads the needle is just an inch away from being intercepted for an easy 2 on the other end. Stephen Curry turns the ball over a lot for the Golden State Warriors. It's just part of the experience.
Graham, meanwhile, is as reliable as they come. He’s averaging fewer than three turnovers per game, and while he isn’t asked to do as much as Young, he has the ball in his hands a lot. Graham had never averaged more than 1.8 turnovers coming into this year. The fact that he’s a senior who has seen these Big 12 defenses several times helps.
Big edge: Graham
Both guys are feisty for their size – they each average at least two steals. But Graham is generally better on the defensive end.
Experience is part of the reason for that. Graham is three years older; so much of defense is mental, so he should be better on that side. Oklahoma’s defense has been slightly better with Young is on the bench – he has a defensive rating of 104.3; the Sooners’ team mark is 102.7. The Jayhawks, on the other hand, are 2.1 points per 100 possessions stingier with Graham on the floor than when he rests.
Since both players carry such a heavy offensive burden, they can’t be expected to use just as much energy on defense. There’s not a huge difference, but it comes down to this: Graham is as much of a menace in the passing lanes as Young without veering out of scheme nearly as often. Young may become the better defender in time, but for now, it’s Graham.
Young is simply more dynamic, so he’ll obviously get the overall nod. But Graham is an awesome player – and as we’ll likely see tonight, a worthy adversary to Young (for example: Young is better than Jevon Carter, but Carter bested him in their head-to-head matchup. Graham is good enough to do the same).
The Big 12 is a joy to watch this year, and these are two of the biggest reasons why.