As Kentucky basketball prepares for the postseason, the Wildcats face a paradox with regard to small forward James Young. Although the gunslinging freshman has noticeably increased his scoring output during SEC play, the ‘Cats are actually better off when Young takes a backseat in their offense.
Including Tuesday’s ugly win over Alabama, the streaky Young has scored fewer than 10 points in eight games this season. Kentucky’s record in those games? A perfect 8-0.
On the flip side, when Kentucky has lost, the forward’s production has actually skyrocketed. His overall average of 14.4 points per game is impressive enough, but it pales in comparison to the 18 points a night that he's posted in the Wildcats’ eight losses.
A major reason for Young’s productivity in defeat is that when Kentucky struggles on offense, he’s usually the first one to try to put the team on his shoulders. Even when he’s at his best, though—say, a 7-of-10 shooting effort against Florida—he’s not good enough to rescue the offense by himself.
When Young tries to take over, there aren’t many shots left for anybody else in a Kentucky uniform. He serves his team’s cause far better when he’s moving the ball and participating in, rather than gobbling up, the offense: The ‘Cats are also undefeated in games in which he has four or more assists.
The obvious objection to the premise that Young needs to dial back his shooting is that somebody has to replace the points Julius Randle isn’t scoring. However, while Randle can’t be counted on for 18 points a game as he could in nonconference play, Kentucky gets a lot more benefit out of pounding the ball in to him—whether or not the big man is scoring.
That’s because Randle is a far more efficient offensive weapon than Young, taking 2.1 fewer shots per game while making dramatically more of them (.516 from the field to the wing’s .397). He’s also a lot more likely to draw a double-team that creates an opening for someone else, considering that opposing defenses would much rather have Young launching a trey than Randle barreling to the rim.
With the Harrison twins failing to provide a consistent long-range shooting threat, Young (the team’s most prolific scorer from beyond the arc) often takes it upon himself to put up the shots that they don’t. While there’s certainly something to be said for spreading the floor as a way to help Randle inside, missing treys (as in last night’s horrific 1-of-11 performance from the small forward) is not the way to do it.
None of this is to say that Young should disappear entirely as a scoring option. Like the rest of the Wildcats’ mega-talented starters, he absolutely needs to shoot when he has a good shot. He just needs to revise his definition of what a good shot is so that he doesn’t destroy the offense he’s trying to save.