Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger and his associate head coach Chris Crutchfield can’t be blamed for not being able to pinpoint the exact moment, even the exact game, of their favorite assist handed out by record-setting freshman guard Trae Young this season. There were so many of them (279), a multitude of the spectacular, how-the-heck-did-he-do-that variety, that they began to boggle the mind, even distort reality.
Crutchfield thinks his favorite came against Northwestern State or Northwestern. That’s confusing enough considering the Sooners played them in consecutive games in late December. Add in the fact Young racked up 36 assists in those two games, including an NCAA-record tying 22 against Northwestern State, and it becomes even more difficult. But here’s Crutchfield’s recollection:
“We inbound to Trae,” Crutchfield says. “Khadeem Lattin [Oklahoma’s senior post man] was at the rim already. Trae takes the ball, doesn’t even look and zips a one-handed pass between Khadeem and the [opposing team’s] post guy, who isn’t looking back. The ball might have even grazed his ear. Khadeem catches it and dunks it — a 55-foot pass, one-handed and dead on line.”
Kruger laughs when told that story. That’s because it was typical Young. The 6-2, 180-pound magician dropped so many daring dimes like that one, it’s hard to remember them all.
“I don’t know that I remember one more than another,” Kruger says. “But like Crutch said, one of Trey’s best abilities was to move the ball ahead out of the backcourt. He would anticipate someone coming open early and deliver the ball actually before the cut.”
Little wonder that Young drew comparisons to Steph Curry while accomplishing things the former Davidson star and future two-time NBA MVP didn’t even do in college. Young, who has deep range on his jump shot and the same quick-release, hairpin trigger as Curry, became the first player in NCAA Division I history to lead the country in scoring (27.4 ppg) and assists (8.7).
As a freshman, Curry had that same unique ability to always be looking ahead, to see the floor and visualize, like a giant chess board, his next move. Or his teammates’ next move. They had to be constantly on the lookout or risk getting a pass bounced off their skulls. And if Curry had to take matters into his own hands, just like Young, he could bury teams with deep 3-pointers. In his sophomore season in 2007-08, Curry made an NCAA record 162 3s in 369 attempts as he led the Wildcats to within a game of the Final Four.
Basketball observers of a certain age were reminded when watching Young of another of the game’s greats. There have been a number of great point guards in the college game in the last 40 years, prolific passers and playmakers who went on to great NBA careers. But some of the plays Young made, based on sheer imagination, daring and court awareness, looked an awful lot like Pete Maravich.
Young was asked about that during the NCAA Tournament, his inquisitor wondering if Young had even heard of the Pistol. He had.
“That’s unbelievable,” Young said, “to even be mentioned in the same category or even the same breath with some like Pistol Pete Maravich. That’s a legend right there … the things he [was] able to do on the court without a 3-point line was unbelievable."
Young was clearly more impressed with the 3,667 points Maravich scored in just three seasons — an NCAA record established well before the 3-point goal was adopted into the game — than his passing ability. Young, who scored 876 points as a freshman, wouldn’t have caught the Pistol with three more seasons like that. But Young’s ability to take over a game with the jump shot or the pass made him special.
Like Maravich, who played for his father, Press, at LSU, Young had a brighter shade of green light to shoot or try a seemingly impossible pass.
“We gave him a lot of freedom,” Crutchfield says. “That’s [Kruger’s] style with all his players. But he gave Trae a lot more because he could do so many things. With freedom, you get confidence, and Trae was like, ‘I’ll try this, and I’ll try that.’ Sometimes it didn’t work out for him. A lot of times it did. But he wasn’t looking over his shoulder, worried about coming out if he made a mistake.”
Because Young played in Oklahoma’s backyard at Norman North High School, the Sooner coaching staff had the opportunity to watch him early in his career. Crutchfield remembers being impressed by Young’s eighth grade season.
“The thing that really stood out were his instincts,” Crutchfield says. “He always ran through passes, stole the ball and got so many layups because he was so quick, so fast. But this was in Norman, Okla., against normal eighth graders, none of whom would go on to play Division I ball probably.”
I remember when Kemba [Walker, the Connecticut point guard] went off, Steph [Curry] went off in the tournament. I don't picture myself just doing what they're doing. I want to be a better version of me.
But Young, whose father, Rayford, played point guard at Texas Tech and once scored 41 points against Kansas, began to develop a complete game. Ball handling was high atop his priority list. Like Curry, it became a weapon to create separation. Young’s shooting improved to the point where, during his first two years of high school and AAU competition, he primarily played two guard.
“But I remember,” Crutchfield said, “his dad telling me that he said to Trae, ‘you’re not going to be much taller than 6-1. There aren’t many 6-1 two guards out there. You’re going to have to turn yourself into more of a lead guard.’ ”
Clearly Young inherited some ability and court awareness from his father, but he went to work on his point guard skills, absorbing all the knowledge he could from his coaches and camp instructors and watching tapes of great point guards.
“I think to a certain degree you’re born with the ability [to be a point guard],” Crutchfield said. “Trae’s dad being a point guard, he had it in him. He just wasn’t in position where he had to show it until later on. You don’t all of a sudden go from a two guard to a point guard who’s zipping balls through windows.”
Kruger knew the weapon he had before the season began, but he couldn’t have expected the kind of year Young put together. He became the first power conference player in NCAA history to score more than 800 points and pass for more than 250 assists in the same season. He was just the second Sooner in history to win the United States Basketball Writers Association’s Wayman Tisdale Award, given to the nation’s top freshman. Appropriately enough, Tisdale was the first, well before the trophy was named in his honor. Young was also a consensus first-team All-American.
Young’s season had some low points, too. The Sooners lost six games in a row during the Big 12 season and finished with an 8-10 conference record. Some pundits criticized their selection to the NCAA Tournament, but the selection committee obviously gave considerable credit to the first third of Oklahoma’s season, during which Young was doing his best Curry impersonation. As the losses mounted, Young began pressing more, seemingly trying to take the game into his own hands. He wound up launching 328 3-pointers. He committed 167 turnovers, an average of 5.2 per game.
Through it all, Kruger remained as patient as he could.
“There was a line there,” he says. “We probably crossed it at times. Probably later rather than earlier. Earlier, we kept it in the positive column [assists to turnovers] by a lot. Then we got into conference play. We never could get it quite back in the bottle.”
The Big 12 is filled with tough, physical guards, and that’s how teams began to play the spindly Young. And the harder they defended him, the more Young wanted to prove he was up to the task. The Sooners’ offense might have revolved too much around Young at times. But Kruger wouldn’t change a whole lot if he was given the chance to go back in time. The Trae Young Show was fun to watch, even magical at times.
Young learned a lot during his only college season, from experience and his incessant film study.
“I'm continuously watching film, watching film, a lot of guys, a lot of point guards,” Young said during the NCAA Tournament. “I watch a lot of film, a lot of old March Madness, and the old tournament games. I remember when Kemba [Walker, the Connecticut point guard] went off, Steph [Curry] went off in the tournament. I don't picture myself just doing what they're doing. I want to be a better version of me. I don't get too involved in that. I just want to be ready to play from the first game.”
Young’s Oklahoma coaches don’t doubt he’s headed for an NBA career not unlike Curry’s, depending upon where he lands in the NBA Draft. Curry was fortunate enough to be taken by a team with astute management and coaching that put together the right blend of players to help pioneer an era of position-less basketball.
“I think he’ll be an outstanding pro,” says Kruger, who has been a head coach at six Division I schools and also coached the Atlanta Hawks. “You never know exactly … no one expected him to explode on the college scene like he did. What he did had never been done before.
“A lot depends on the team that he goes to, and who’s coaching him, and what freedom he’s got there, too. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he’ll become a really good pro sooner than people expect.”
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