Why Gary Harris Is Safer 2014 NBA Draft Prospect Than James Young

Jonathan WassermanNBA Lead WriterFebruary 19, 2014

Michigan State guard Gary Harris drives on Kentucky guard James Young (1) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013, in Chicago. Michigan State won 78-74. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Michigan State sophomore Gary Harris and Kentucky freshman James Young are two of the highest-ranked shooting guards or wings in the projected 2014 NBA draft class. 

Teams looking for some supporting firepower will likely have Harris and Young in mind just outside the top tier of elite prospects. 

They each play major roles for their respective high-profile teams. Harris is actually the No. 1 option in Michigan State's offense (27.9 percent usage rate), while Young (22.8 percent usage rate) is the second in Kentucky's. 

But they're each producing and fulfilling their duties as priority scorers and shot-makers:

Season Averages
MinutesPointsThree-Pointers Made
Gary Harris32.917.42.3
James Young32.314.32.2

In comparison, Young, 6'6", 215 pounds, has two inches on Harris, 6'4", 210 pounds, and they're both the same caliber athlete—high quality, just not in a freakish sort of way. 

They also each share the same go-to weapon: a jumper. Both Harris and Young attempt over six three-pointers per game.

But so far this year, they've struggled with shooting consistency. Harris is only shooting 41 percent from the floor and 32.3 percent from downtown, while Young is at 40.9 percent shooting and 33.9 percent from three. 

Still, scouts love the offensive skill sets these guys can bring to a half-court offense. And for both Harris and Young, their shooting consistency is likely to improve over time. Regardless of the low numbers, I don't think many are doubting their abilities to light it up from outside.

However, there are a couple of differences in their games and outlooks that could help tip the scale when evaluators are choosing between the two. And the biggest one starts at the defensive end. 


Defensive Impact

There are two ways to describe James Young's offensive game from what we've seen through three months of college hoops. From a glass-half-empty perspective, he's erratic. The optimist calls him a streak scorer or microwave. Young can catch fire, but he can also go cold or disappear.  

Either way, 2-guards or wings who struggle with offensive consistency hold little value to NBA teams if they don't defend. And while Young has some defensive tools, he lacks the instincts.  

He's got a low defensive IQ. And that's just not something you can typically improve on or change. 

On the other hand, Harris is a terrific all-around defender, from his technique to his awareness. And it's something you can count on every night. Harris hasn't been a model for offensive consistency this season, either, but he's an every-possession contributor at the defensive end of the floor.

Maybe one of the biggest defensive red flags with Young is his abnormally low steal rate for the position he plays. 

Despite his athleticism, agility and quickness, he's averaging less than a steal per game in over 32 minutes of action. 

Defense, Steals
Defensive Rating (estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions)Steal PercentageTotal Steals
Gary Harris95.3.3545 (23 games)
James Young102.2.1521 (25 games)

ESPN's analytics expert Kevin Pelton recently wrote (subscription required) that "Historically, however, steal rate has outsized importance in predicting how well prospects will translate to the NBA."

While the stats show he's not a defensive playmaker, we've also seen Young blow a number of assignments this year, something that can easily go hidden in the box scores. 

Let's start with the Kentucky-Michigan State game from earlier this season, when Harris hung 20 points in the win. 

Young actually played fairly well offensively this game, but the amount of buckets he gave up on defense helped neutralize his individual scoring production. 

He just makes it a little too easy for his man to get a good look. Here's an example of some awful pick-and-roll defense by Young, where he gives up a wide-open three to Gary Harris at the top of the arc.



via ESPN

On the play below, you'll see Young in another ball-screen situation, with his teammate Julius Randle helping out to the left. Only Young doesn't force him into Randle—he simply lets Harris drive right by him on the side where this is no help.



via ESPN

In the same half, we've also got Young falling asleep defending off the ball.

Below, you'll see him lose track of the ball, as he's caught staring into space—and given his position as the only help defense at the rim, he picked the wrong time to daydream. 

Without any defenders ready to step into the lane, Harris, who has the ball at the wing, makes a line drive to the rack—where Young is a step too late:


via ESPN

These mishaps all happen to have come in the same game against Gary Harris, but I can assure you Young has made a habit of getting caught or beat. He got burned a few times in Kentucky's recent loss to Florida, including on this backdoor play below, in what was a textbook example of how not to play defense. 

Defensively, Harris remains alert for all 35 seconds of the shot clock. He's a pest on the ball and disruption off it. 

Harris' defensive IQ is extremely high—he reads passing lanes and anticipates screens and playmaking activity.  

A legitimate two-way shooting guard, an off night from the floor won't stop Harris from making an impactsomething you just can't say about Kentucky's Young.

"If (Gary) Harris isn't the best player on both ends of the court in the league, God bless whoever is," coach Tom Izzo told Mlive.com's Gillian Van Stratt

Defensively, Harris is a stud, while Young just doesn't have the same defensive aptitude.  

Offensively, Harris and Young are both similar, with styles of play that can be vulnerable to inconsistency. They don't get to the basket much, while both average fewer than five free-throw attempts per game. 

But this year, we've seen Harris take that next step up in terms of expanding the threat he poses with the ball in his hands. 


In-Between Game 

At this stage, Harris is more of a threat in between the arc and the rim. The majority of Young's offense comes off spot-up three-pointers (54-of-56 made threes have been assisted as of February 18) and drives to the rack. Unless a lane is open or he's got room to catch and release, chances are Young won't find a scoring opportunity.

Harris has become more creative off the dribble, where he's added to his mid-range scoring arsenal. Pull-ups, step-backs, runners—Harris now has the ability to play some one-on-one and separate into high-percentage shots. 

Despite the fact he's not shooting the ball nearly as well as he was a year ago, Harris is still knocking down an excellent 41.6 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.

Young has been solid in the mid-range as well—his 37.7 percent stroke on two-point jumpers isn't bad. But creating those jumpers isn't a strength. 

Take a look at what happens when Young tries to put it on the floor and make something happen:

Maybe one of Harris' most glowing attributes is his ability to score within the offense. He moves extremely well without the ball, and he knows how to position himself for scoring opportunities without disrupting his team's flow or rhythm. 

And with the ability to knock down shots from any angle or spot on the floor, he's a threat to put one in the second he catches or gets a look:

via ESPN

Both Harris and Young offer attractive offensive packages to NBA teams, but at this point, Harris is further along in terms of his development.

Scouts dig Young's ability to shoot with range, score in bunches and attack in the open floor. He should make for a potent complementary spark in someone's NBA lineup. 

But when picking between the two, I'm going with Harris, who's just more refined offensively, while his consistent defensive effort and impact keep him from disappearing or hurting the team.

Expect both players to be in the lottery conversation come June, with Harris offering the safer two-way package of services. 


All advanced stats courtesy of Sports-Reference unless otherwise noted.