A lucky break made Arkansas freshman B.J. Young a basketball star.
Growing up in his native St. Louis, Young played football, baseball and basketball. He was partial to football, but that changed in an instant when, toward the end of his eighth grade season, he broke his left wrist. The injury tamped down Young’s enthusiasm for football and his dreams of becoming a wide receiver/punt returner in college, but a five-star combo guard was about to emerge.
Long before the state of Missouri and the St. Louis area were brought into the Southeastern Conference fold when the University of Missouri announced it was leaving the Big 12, the Gateway to the West provided basketball talent to the SEC. Florida in particular has mined St. Louis for David Lee, Alex Tyus and now freshman guard Bradley Beal, Young’s long-time friend and rival.
Given the way Beal and Young are playing this year, and with Missouri set to join the league next season, it’s a certainty that St. Louis to the SEC pipeline will continue.
Young’s game, just like Beal’s, is mature beyond its years. Though Young has come off the bench in 18 of the Razorbacks’ 20 games, he leads the team in scoring (14.6 ppg) while averaging just 24.1 minutes. To do that, you have to be efficient, and Young’s shooting percentages (.509 from the field, .411 from 3-point range) clearly show that he is.
“B.J.’s been giving us some quality, quality, efficient minutes,” first-year Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said. “He’s continuing to learn the game, but I’m sure you’ll see him more and more on the floor. I’ve been really pleased with his progress, from day one to where he is right now. He’s only going to get better.”
Young’s shooting percentages are all the more impressive given the fact that he’s not a pure, knockdown shooter.
“He’s not a great shooter,” said Arkansas assistant coach Matt Zimmerman, who has been with Anderson throughout his previous head-coaching stops at UAB and Missouri. “But he’s a very good maker. He can make shots in games.
“In practice, you could ask him to make 10 3s from the corner, and it might take him 30 shots. But in a game, he’ll make 50 percent from 3. At Missouri, we had Matt Lawrence, who started on our Elite Eight team. In practice, he’d make 10 out of 11 threes from here, 12 of 13 from there, and shoot 40 percent from 3 for the season. He was just a pure shooter.
“B.J.’s the opposite of that. He’s a gamer. He just finds a way to make shots.”
Young - who last season averaged 30.9 points in leading McCluer North High School to Missouri’s Class 5 state championship—has always had the ability to put the ball in the basket. But during his short time at Arkansas, he’s refined the art.
“Coach Anderson has helped me out a lot,” Young said. “We think the same. We have the same winner’s mentality. He’s just helped me become a complete player. In high school, I was either a 3-point shooter or I’d try to get all the way to the hoop. Now I’ve learned to take [defenders] off the dribble and pull up in the mid-range. I’m getting transition buckets off steals. The system is making me a better player.”
With his whippet-like 6-foot-3 frame, long arms, quickness and jumping ability, Young is uniquely constructed to be a scorer. He can get to the rim in a flash and finish with authority when he gets there. YouTube is loaded with video clips of Young dunks.
It’s a good bet Young’s opponents have seen his high-wire act. That’s one of the reasons he’s been so effective from the perimeter.
“B.J.’s not physical - any,” Zimmerman said. “But when people run out at him, they’ve got to know this guy is a driver. He can get to the basket and tear that rim down; he can really jump. Because of that, he can get himself pretty decent looks from 3. Michael Jordan was that way. He could just rise up and shoot because you had to be afraid of the drive.”
The other reason Young is such an efficient shooter has nothing to do with athleticism. It’s all between the ears. His shot selection is uncommonly refined for anyone, let alone a freshman.
“He doesn’t take a lot of bad shots,” Zimmerman said. “Every one in a while, he’ll jack up a bad one, but his teammates respect he’s getting his 15 points a game and he’s not taking a lot of shots to get them. He’ll pass the basketball; he’ll give it up.”
Young and a celebrated freshman class that includes Hunter Mickelson, Rashad Madden and Devonta Abron have helped put the Hogs (15-5, 3-2 SEC) in position to claim an NCAA Tournament bid. But that’s what Young envisioned when he signed with Arkansas. He could have gone anywhere, but his familiarity with the state - his mother is from Arkansas and his grandmother and several other family members live there - and the program’s history of success gave him a comfort level even after the coach who signed him, John Pelphrey, was replaced by Anderson last March.
“When the change happened, it was right after the [Missouri state] championship game,” Young said. “It was all in the news: ‘Young goes through another challenge.’ I was like, ‘wow.’ But I met with coach Anderson, and we had a good talk. I liked him and his style of play; he likes to play fast and get up and down the court. I talked to the other [Arkansas] recruits to see if they were on the same page. And they were.”
Young’s decision to honor his commitment to Arkansas will allow him to renew his old rivalry with Beal. The last time the two faced one another, on March 5, 2011, Young’s McClure North team, ranked No. 2 in Missouri, ousted Beal and top-ranked Chaminade from the Class 5 tournament. Young scored 32 points, 27 of them in the second half, as McClure North atoned for an ESPNU-televised Chaminade beat down just three weeks before and went on to claim the state championship.
Young has had Feb. 18 marked on his calendar for a long time. That’s the day Beal and Florida come to Fayetteville for a game that could have postseason implications.
“That game has already been built up like crazy,” Young said. “I probably need 20 tickets already. It’s going to be a rematch of our childhood competition; we’ve been going at each other all our lives. But he’s one of my best friends; we still talk on the phone throughout the week. I’m glad to see him doing well at Florida, and I know he’s hap