Trae Young Is Puttin' in Work

LeBron loves him. Steph can't stop watching. And Russ has got company in OKC. This 19-year-old might already be a superstar, but he's doing his own thing. Part 1 of an exclusive B/R Mag issue on the future of 🏀, right now.

By Jason King

Photography by Brian Finke

January 29, 2018

Last fall, a few weeks into his Oklahoma basketball career, Trae Young realized he had to change his game-day routine. Not for the contests he plays in, but rather, the ones he attends.

Young has been a staple in the bleachers at Oklahoma City Thunder games since his parents purchased season tickets nearly a decade ago. Most nights, he’d show up about 10 minutes before tipoff, stop by the concession stand for some chicken fingers and then slip into his seat nestled above the Thunder tunnel just before the national anthem.

These days, though, Young must arrive at Chesapeake Energy Arena early.

Really early.

“It takes him a half-hour just to get through the door and down the aisle,” Trae’s mother, Candice, says. “Everyone wants to talk to him or get an autograph. The people who’ve had the seats around us for years are like, ‘I can’t believe that’s the same kid who’s been sitting next to us all this time.’”

Such is life nowadays for Young, a freshman who’s spent the past three months atop college basketball’s leaderboard in both scoring (29.6 points per game) and assists (9.6).

Considering he was a star just down the road at Norman North High School, Young—a guard who averaged 41 points as a senior—had gotten a taste of being a local celebrity before he ever signed with the Sooners.

But now the buzz has gone national, with Young quickly becoming your favorite player’s favorite player.

“When I turn on the game, [I'm] just watching him on the floor, where he is at all times. That kind of magnetism is pretty special.”

— Steph Curry on Trae Young

LeBron James posted a picture of himself and Young along with some words of encouragement on Christmas Eve (Young gained 5,000 Instagram followers soon after). Chris Paul is regularly at the other end of Young’s FaceTime chats, and recently, Stephen Curry sang Young’s praises to reporters at a post-practice media session.

“He’s unbelievable,” Curry said. “I call it ‘the flair.’ … When I turn on the game, [I’m] just watching him on the floor, where he is at all times. That kind of magnetism is pretty special in the college game.”

The praise from Curry surprised Young, considering the two have never met. Yet they are often connected, as college basketball analysts call Young the next Curry, mainly because of their shared ability to score from long range. When Young was in high school, he filled the memory on his family’s DVR to capacity with recordings of Golden State Warriors games.

Still, as much as he appreciates the comparison to Curry, Young also backs away from it.

“I’m definitely humbled by it,” Young says. “But ultimately I want to be my own self. I want people to say that I’m something new, something different. Something they’ve never seen before.” 

At 19 years old, Young is poised to make that happen. At least at the collegiate level.

Only one freshman has ever won the NCAA scoring title, and just twice has one ranked first in assists. The 6’2” Young is on pace to accomplish both as he churns out performances that have made Sooners contests must-watch television.

Game after game, it seems, Young finds a way to one-up himself.

His 22 assists against Northwestern State tied a major-conference record. He has eclipsed the 30-point barrier seven times and tied a Big 12 single-game record with 48 points at Oklahoma State. Pegged as a fringe second-round selection entering the season, Young is now projected as a top-10 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. 

If there were ever a shoo-in for National Player of the Year honors, Young is it.

ESPN commentator Fran Fraschilla has been predicting big things for Young since he watched him play as a seventh-grader on the AAU circuit.

“I know he was really good and that he was underrated by all of the recruiting experts,” Fraschilla said. “But even I couldn’t have imagined he’d be putting up these kind of numbers at the Division I level. I’m amazed just like everyone else.”

The calls are nonstop.

Sports agents hoping to sign his son, old coaches looking for tickets, Trae alerting him to a live appearance on SportsCenter later that evening, reporters seeking interviews like the one he’s conducting now, in the kitchen of his red-brick, four-bedroom home. 

“It never ends,” Rayford Young, Trae’s father, says as his phone buzzes again. “But I guess that’s a good thing.”

In some ways, Rayford and Trae were prepared for the fuss.

Long before he achieved college stardom at Oklahoma, Trae got a taste of the spotlight just down the road at Norman North, where he earned McDonald’s All-American honors and was ranked as the 23rd-best player in the nation by ESPN.com.

“For the last few years,” Rayford says, “the three biggest sports names in this city were Russell Westbrook, Baker Mayfield and Trae Young.” 

Before he earned the local fame, Young had to put in the work. He studied film on the family laptop in his living room and reported to the nearby YMCA at 6 a.m. for shooting drills, with a return trip in the evenings—often after Trae’s high school practice—to focus on his passing and footwork.

Ray is certainly qualified to advise his son—and not just because he’s Trae’s father. In the late 1990s, he was regarded as one of the top guards in the Big 12, when he averaged 14.1 points at Texas Tech. As a junior in 1999, he scored 41 points in a victory over Kansas.

Still, undersized at 5’11”, Ray never achieved his NBA dream and instead enjoyed a fruitful career overseas. Years later, as Trae’s natural gifts became more evident, Ray vowed to do everything he could to ensure that Trae overcame the same shortcomings that had limited him as a player. 

“The main thing I told him was that if you’re going to be a 6’1” or 6’2” shooting guard, you’re not probably going to be able to play Division I basketball,” Ray said.

So instead of solely working on his shooting form during those YMCA sessions, Ray put Trae through numerous passing and ball-handling drills. He reached out to his friends in the NBA—assistant coaches and video coordinators—and had them send edited tapes of stars such as Chris Paul and Tony Parker that broke down individual aspects of their games. Father and son watched them almost every night.

"For the last few years, the three biggest sports names in this city were Russell Westbrook, Baker Mayfield and Trae Young."

— Rayford Young, Trae's Father

They worked on Trae’s speed and agility, and often during long car rides back from AAU tournaments, Ray would talk to his son about leadership, about running a team—all the intangibles that are imperative for a point guard.

With his father’s encouragement, Trae made a pivotal decision the summer before his sophomore year to leave his Dallas-based AAU team to join MoKan Elite in Kansas City. The club counts current NBAers such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Alec Burks and Semi Ojeleye among its alumni.

“MoKan changed his life,” Ray says.

But it came with a dizzying and exhausting schedule.

Each Friday during the spring of his sophomore and junior years, Trae left school early and caught a flight from Oklahoma City to Kansas City. On most trips, assistant coach Dave Milliren would pick Young up from the airport, make a quick stop at McDonald’s for a 20-piece order of chicken nuggets and then head to the first of five weekend workouts.

After a morning workout on Sunday, Young—who slept on a recliner in Milliren’s basement—flew back to Oklahoma City.

Taxing as the schedule often was, Young relished the opportunity to play alongside star forward and current Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr.—a projected lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft—and for respected coach Rodney Perry, who is now an assistant at Oral Roberts.

“If you listen to me and let me build on what your dad has taught you,” Perry told Young, “I’ll make you the No. 1 guard in the country.”

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Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

With Young and Porter Jr. leading the way, MoKan won the prestigious Peach Jam tournament in the summer of 2016—a huge accomplishment for a Midwest team in an event usually dominated by big-city squads from New York, Washington, D.C., Oakland and the like. 

As much as they admired his talent, Young’s coaches were even more impressed with his mental approach to the game. 

“Trae is very hard on himself,” MoKan Elite founder Matt Suther said. “He’s able to look in the mirror and fix things he’s not good at. Time after time following a game, even when I thought he played great, he was pointing out things he could’ve done better.” 

By the time the Peach Jam concluded, Young held offers from almost every major program in the country. Although Kentucky made his shortlist, Young whittled his choices down to Oklahoma and Kansas. 

Every school that recruited Young knew it’d be tough to steer him away from Norman. He’d grown up around the Sooners program and even served as a ball boy during the Blake Griffin years. Two of his best friends—and his high school teammates—were the sons of OU assistant Chris Crutchfield, whom Young said he viewed as an uncle. Still, Young said one person close to him—a very influential person—was playing “devil’s advocate.”

His father.

As well as things went for him individually, Rayford Young’s career at Texas Tech never included a trip to the NCAA tournament. With Oklahoma coming off a 11-20 season in 2016-17, Rayford feared Trae may experience the same disappointment, even though the Buddy Hield-led Sooners had advanced to the Final Four one year earlier.

“I knew his dad had some concerns,” Crutchfield said. “I told him: ‘Ray, do you think we’re bums? You don’t think OU is good enough for Trae? Walk into the gym and look at the banners. It’s not like we’re going to the tournament every five years.’ Plus, it was obvious how comfortable Trae felt here. This was home. This was family.”

Deep down, Rayford realized as much. And although he and his wife, Candice, liked Jayhawks coach Bill Self, they realized he wouldn’t be given the type of freedom at Kansas that he would at Oklahoma, where Lon Kruger had promised Young that the offense would be catered to him.

“I was like, ‘Bill, you know you’re not going to let him play like that,’” Rayford said of his meeting with Self, an Oklahoma native. “Eventually he was like, ‘I guess you’re right, but promise me one thing: If he doesn’t come to Kansas, make sure he goes to OU. It will be good for the state. It will be good for the league.’”

A few weeks later, a month after his senior season, Young signed with the Sooners.

Nearly one year later, Self may be regretting giving that advice. The Jayhawks have won 13 straight Big 12 titles, but that streak is now in jeopardy thanks to the player he missed out on.

“I didn’t want to be a part of a team that extended the streak,” Young said. “I wanted to be on the team that broke it.”

A few days after Christmas, Trae Young arrived at Penn Square Mall in Oklahoma City hoping to get his iPhone fixed at the Apple store.

If only it were that easy.

“I couldn’t walk 30 feet,” Young says, “without being stopped and asked for a picture. It was crazy.”

By the end of January, interview requests for Young were increasing by the day. Oklahoma games are drawing sellout crowds for the first time in two years. After a home win against Oklahoma State on Jan. 3, fans waited outside in the bitter cold to get Young’s autograph as he left Lloyd Noble Center. 

“He’s the superstar around here,” OU guard Kameron McGusty says. “He gets a lot of love, but he deserves it. This is his city. He sacrificed all those big-time offers to come here and play with us. I’m sure he enjoys the love. He embraces it. We all do.”

In his free time, Young does his best to live the life of a normal college student. He loves listening to music, opting for ’90s R&B groups like New Edition and Boyz II Men over today’s hip-hop. If he’s not making the 11-minute drive home in his blue Dodge Charger to eat lunch with his mother, he’s grabbing a burrito from Qdoba or chicken fingers from Raising Cane’s.

“He tries to play me in NBA 2K,” McGusty laughs, “but don’t let him tell you he’s any good. I beat him every time. That’s one thing I’m better than him at.”

Mostly, though, Young’s world revolves around basketball.

For Kruger, the most notable thing about the attention Young is receiving is the way he is handling it. Even as competition has stiffened in conference play, Young’s numbers haven’t dipped; he is averaging 32.4 points per game against Big 12 opponents (compared with 29.6 points overall).

“Sometimes, when a player is having that level of success, he can start getting full of himself and start thinking everything is just going to come easy,” Kruger says. “But every game, he shows up with new focus, new beginnings. That’s hard for any player to do, even at the highest level. So you’d think it’d be human nature for a freshman to have a game or two where wasn’t as locked in. But Trae has come out for every single game very focused.”

For Oklahoma to succeed, Young doesn’t have any other choice.

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Just as Kruger promised during the recruitment period, Young has been given control of the Sooners offense to a level that’s almost unprecedented for a major-conference team.

According to KemPom.com, Young ranks No. 1 in the country in usage rate at 40.5 percent. That means nearly 41 percent of OU’s possessions end with Young either shooting, assisting or turning the ball over. That figure is the highest in statistic guru Ken Pomeroy’s entire database, which dates back more than 15 years.

“And what’s even more impressive,” Fraschilla says, “is that he’s doing it efficiently, because he ranks No. 1 in that category, as well. So people can talk about him being a volume shooter and taking crazy shots all they want, but he’s the most efficient player in the country.”

A 30-foot hoist would likely earn most players a seat on the bench, but for Young, such shots are encouraged. 

Associated Press/Sue Ogrocki

Kruger wants Young to play loose and with swagger. That explains why he didn’t discipline Young or remove him from the game when he received a technical for talking trash to Oklahoma State’s Tavarius Shine after swishing a three-pointer in his face. And it’s why he doesn’t flinch when Young uncorks the occasional heave from 35 feet. Kruger knows that scolding or yanking him for an occasional bad play would be counterproductive.

“If you’re promoting confidence and you’re promoting freedom, you’ve got to live with a bad shot here and there,” Kruger says. “He makes a high rate of good plays. As long as the results are good—and they’ve been great for him—it’s not a hard decision to keep doing it.”

Young’s teammates certainly don’t have a problem with his high volume of shots. How could they when he’s also averaging nearly 10 assists per game?

“People keep asking me if I feel pressure,” says Young, who attempted 39 shots in a loss at Oklahoma State. “But I don’t feel pressure. I realize there’s a lot on my plate, a lot of expectations for me to come in and win and do certain things. But I’m just playing the way I always have. I mean, I’ve gotten better. But my game actually hasn’t changed much since high school. It’s just a bigger stage.”

And Young has flourished on it thus far, at least individually.

For him to truly leave his mark, he knows that his own statistics are secondary to the Sooners’ success as a team. Still, deep down, there’s a part of Young that must feel vindicated by what he’s done thus far.

Even though he was a McDonald’s All-American who received offers from Top 25 programs, Young knows there are those who questioned his potential for Division I stardom, either because he was undersized or because of a perceived lack of athleticism that Kruger calls “silly.”

“People that say that … I mean, really … what are they watching?” Kruger chuckles.

Young was ranked No. 23 but believed he should’ve been top-10. He also failed to receive an invite to the Nike Hoop Summit, a snub that still irks him. Much like Curry, who also drew his share of skepticism during his time at Davidson College, Young is fueled by his slights.

“That’s what I love about him,” Fraschilla says. “He uses any opportunity where people have doubted him to fuel his fire. His skill level was always obvious, but it wasn’t until he stepped onto a Division I court that people could truly see how bright the competitive fire in him burns.”

It’s certainly evident now, as Young continues to reel in more fans. Each flick of the wrist teases hope for something special; each behind-the-back pass or spinning layup brings potential for something new.

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Photo by Associated Press/Richard W. Rodriguez

College basketball is on notice. And the NBA is, too–particularly Chris Paul, the pro player with whom Young talks the most often. 

“It’s fun to watch him play,” Paul says. “He looks like he’s having fun. That’s the biggest advice I give him right now: Just be a college kid and have fun.”

There was one more piece of wisdom from Paul that continues to stick with Young, words that keep him grounded amid all of the hype and fanfare:

“If you’re going to play in this league,” Paul told him, “you’ve got to learn not to be a fan. For these guys, it’s a job, it’s a business. These same people that are tweeting at you now … pretty soon they’re going to be coming at your neck.”

And you can bet Young will be ready for them. 

#TheComeUp – The Future of Basketball Issue

PART ONE: Trae Young Is Your Favorite Player's Favorite Player 💦

PART TWO: Meet the NBA's Next Unicorn 🦄

PART THREE: Asia Durr 'Can Be One of the Greatest...Ever' 🐐

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As the 2017-18 season—likely his only one at Oklahoma—nears its end, he’s learned what it’s like to be the hunted. Both on the court (where coaches have game-planned just to stop him) and off it, where a trip to the mall or a Thunder game is no longer a leisurely outing, but a chore.

Not that Young is complaining.

“I’m actually enjoying attention,” he says. “Who wouldn’t? I’m glad people get excited watching me play. Hopefully I show them something new each time I step on the court.”

Something, Young says, they’ve never seen before. ■

Jason King, a former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, is a senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR

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