When it comes to summing up the season of freshman center Ryan Young, Coach Collins said it best, “He’s playing a position in this conference like I’ve never seen. He’s a freshman who on a nightly basis had to go against Luka Garza, Daniel Oturu, Kofi Cockburn, Xavier Tillman and all the other guys. Some nights you do okay and some nights you get outplayed by those guys, but I think he’s going to be a guy that has a great career for us.”
Young was far from perfect. Heck, the whole team, as we all know, was flawed on multiple levels. But ultimately, in a year where expectations were low, Young left a positive impression for his future.
The 6’10” New Jersey native averaged nine points and 6.1 rebounds per game on a 57.2 true shooting percentage, in around 25.7 minutes of action each night. If you’re just looking at those raw stats alone, it’s easy to assume that Young had a thoroughly mediocre season, but the game film offers a deeper and more true understanding of his value.
While small-ball and a dearth of post-ups define the modern NBA, size and strength on the inside is still a major factor in college basketball. At 235 pounds, Young is the second heaviest player on the team, trailing only Jared Jones (though you wouldn’t know it to look at them), and his strength was needed on the court to keep the ‘Cats from getting mauled by the plethora of elite big men in the Big Ten.
The best example of this was the Iowa game, as Luka Garza dominated with 27 points, most of which came in a second half spurt during which Young was on the bench watching Garza repeatedly bull over Pete Nance and Robbie Beran in the paint. While he certainly didn’t put the clamps on Garza in that game, Young definitely gave the all-American center a harder time than his teammates, as his physical girth and knowledge of how to defend the post made it so that touches in the paint were not an automatic two points.
The reason Young had to watch the Garza onslaught from the bench was that he had racked up four fouls through only 30 minutes of that game — a rarity, as he finished sixth on the team with only 2.1 PFs committed per game.
It’s one of those weird situations in which his lack of vertical leaping ability is actually a benefit. He understands that he isn’t bouncy enough to soar in the air and send shots back, and correctly chooses to just go with his straight up rather than to risk getting a dumb and inefficient foul called against him.
However, Young does have his deficiencies on the defensive end of the floor. He moves like his feet are stuck in quicksand, which often leads to open threes for the opposition, as Young is hesitant to leave the paint for fear of getting beat off the dribble. That gives him no chance to recover if a stretch five flares out to behind the arc.
That play above illustrates all of the problems Young’s lack of mobility brings. Not only does he surrender an open three-point attempt to Jalen Smith (a 36.8% shooter from deep) after his pitiful attempt to go over a down screen, but he moves in slow motion trying to first get out on the next three-point shooter, and then failing to recover to his original man, Smith, in time.
But while defense is usually the main concern for centers in the modern game, it’s Young’s offensive potential that is truly intriguing. There were multiple instances this season where he deployed deft footwork in the post full of spins, up-fakes, and ultimately, soft finishes.
Young’s post-up style is unique, as he often dribbles several times while backing down his defender in contrast to the typical one or two lone dribbles a player will use to gather himself before the shot. He doesn’t have shifty moves, but Young is confident in his ability dribble at full speed and pounds the ball fast enough to constantly have control over it.
In that play above, Young realizes that he needs to get Smith off his left shoulder before he can go into his patented right hook, so he dribbles hard and fast to the baseline, forcing Smith to get off that shoulder and cut him off, leading to an easy counter spin by Young.
That ability to read a defender and put together a quick and precise move gives hope that in future seasons Young could be a guy you give the ball to as the shot clock winds down and you need a bucket. He can create for himself in tough situations, arguably the most important skill in basketball.
His jump shot, though, leaves plenty to be desired. Young shot 3-21 on three-point attempts and 67% from the foul line on three attempts per game this season. His form starts way up above his head, which often leads to him getting poor rotation on his shot. He either needs to lower it or change the way he holds the ball above his head, as the lack of bend in his elbow is likely the cause of the lack of power and accuracy in his shots.
One of his three makes this year specifically came when he shot differently, as he took the time to bring the ball down, flex that elbow and flick it smooth off of his fingertips.
This season for Northwestern was never going to be about winning and competing for a potential post-season birth. It was about developing for the future and preparing to make the leap in the following season.
Young was the essence of that mentality. He was very clearly not amongst that elite tier of centers that Collins rattled off during his post-game press conference following the win over Penn State. However, a lot of names aren’t coming back next year. They were veterans who rose up the ranks and developed into marquee names capable of carrying teams in the best conference in America.
There’s no guarantee that Young becomes that caliber of player, but the encouraging signs he showed throughout the year made it clear that it’s not unrealistic that he could make that leap. Losing seasons require a fan to look for silver linings, and the potential of Ryan Young was certainly one of them.