One of BJ Young's reasons for returning to Arkansas for his sophomore season was to improve as an overall playmaker.
The Razorbacks guard has done just that so far this season, nearly doubling his assists total while facing defenses that are geared to stop the talented scorer.
Heading into Wednesday night's game against Mississippi State (7-9, 2-2 SEC), Young is fourth in the SEC in assists at 4.2 per game. That's up from the 2.3 assists he had per game last season as a freshman, when he led Arkansas (11-6, 2-2) in scoring at 15.3 points per game.
The 6-foot-3 Young once again leads the team in scoring at 17.2 points per game, third-best in the SEC. It's his role, however, as an offensive facilitator -- including a season-high nine assists earlier this season against Alabama A&M -- that coach Mike Anderson has stressed and noticed.
''He's trying to become a more well-rounded player,'' Anderson said. ''Defenses are gearing up toward him, and I think he's doing a good job of distributing the basketball as well. That, to me, is part of him developing and growing as a player.''
Young's evolution has come at a price: While his scoring is up nearly two points per game from last season, his overall shooting numbers are down across the board. He led all SEC guards in shooting percentage from the field last season, connecting on 50.4 percent of his shots, including a 41.3 percent mark on 3-pointers.
This season, Young is connecting on 46.8 percent of his shots and has hit just 13 of 59 (22 percent) of his 3-pointers. Also, Young's free throw percentage has fallen off from 74.3 percent last year to 65.7 percent so far this season.
''Hopefully, it's a situation where at some point in time he can really get on course in terms of knocking shots down,'' Anderson said. ''But he's more of a scorer. BJ's not a shooter. He's more of a scorer.''
Young said his confidence in his shot remains high, no more so than last week when he stepped back and hit a key 3-pointer in double overtime that led to a win over Auburn. That shot followed a play near the end of the first overtime when the lightning-quick Young attempted to penetrate the Tigers' zone defense, only to run into a trio of waiting defenders.
''I'm sure the scouting reports have changed and they know what I like to do,'' Young said. ''I just have to have a feel for the game and see how the game is going on and where it takes me; just do whatever my team needs me to do to win.''
Young said he's gone through shooting slumps before, but he's not quite ready to put that label on this season's drop-off. He's still fifth overall in shooting percentage in the SEC, and his overall improvement, including averaging 4.4 rebounds per game, likely offsets his drop in accuracy.
The change in Young's game has been noticed by more than just Anderson.
Junior forward Marshawn Powell, who is second on the Razorbacks in scoring with 15.2 point per game, missed all but two games last season with a torn ACL. Powell watched Young rely on his quick first step for much of his offense last season, but he's seen the guard add a variety of pullup jumpers this year, along with the knack for finding an open teammate under the basket.
''He's learning how to play better with other players,'' Powell said. ''Last year he had to score and do a lot of things for us with me being out and other people getting hurt, too. You can tell he's making the progress to be a good point guard in this league. If he continues to make it, we will be better.''
Arkansas hasn't made the NCAA tournament since 2008, and its home game against Mississippi State is its last before a two-game road trip at South Carolina and Alabama. Considering that the Razorbacks have yet to win away from home this season, a win over the Bulldogs is critical for their postseason hopes.
Young would like nothing better than to snap the postseason drought for Arkansas, and he's ready to keep working, and evolving, in order for that to happen.
''Some of the shots I made last year aren't going down for me this year, but I've just got to keep working at it,'' Young said. ''But my role has gotten a lot bigger this year, and I accepted that ... We're going to stay confident and close as a team, and I'm going to keep doing everything I can to help us win.''