Trae Young paused during a media session at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago last month when he was asked who most influenced him. Obviously, his family was crucial. His father, Rayford, was a top collegiate guard at Texas Tech and longtime pro in Europe. Other than family? One person, Young said.
"Rod Strickland has been influential," said Young, who has a workout scheduled Thursday with the Bulls in the Advocate Center. "He gives me a lot of advice, good and bad games; he is someone I really look up to a lot."
Strickland is the onetime DePaul star who still ranks among the all-time university basketball leaders in points, assists and steals before a 17-year NBA career. He was one of the most gifted and cerebral penetrating NBA guards in a career in which he was an all-league player when he led the NBA in assists with the Washington Wizards. Strickland later went on to be an assistant coach under John Calipari at Memphis and Kentucky and an assistant at South Florida. He's seen and experienced a lot of basketball, and sees big time stardom for Young.
"His instincts are incredible," says Strickland. "He can shoot the ball, has range, but doesn't always have to be on the ball with the way the game is now with the spacing. He's going to space the court, has a quick release, can shoot off ball screens, spot up and shoot it, big time range. The court opens up after you leave college and I think he has the talent and skill level."
Strickland believes the pro game will enhance Young's skills even after Young led the nation in scoring. Young shot just 36 percent on threes his one season at the U. of Oklahoma, though Strickland believes Young was forced into so many questionable shots because he was required to be the team's offense.
"I remember sitting on the bench at Kentucky and watching Bradley Beal," Strickland recalled. "He hadn't shot it well (34 percent on threes his one season at Florida). I'm watching him warm up and saying, ‘I love his shot. But in games he hasn't shot it well.' But you could see he was a great shooter. He gets to the league and it's lights out. That's how I look at Trae Young. When he's open he'll be taking quality shots and making quality shots."
Strickland knows the knock on Young will be his defense because of his slight build and size around 6-1. Strickland wasn't much bigger, and oh does he say he wished he could have shot just a bit like Young. "Would have been the end," he said with a laugh.
"The other side of the ball, defensively, he's going to have to pick it up, get stronger," Strickland acknowledged. "But there's been a lot of guys you say can't play defense. But often your other strengths compensate for some of your weaknesses. Everybody can't have it all, but I believe you can get better defensively. We've talked about Steph (Curry) defensively for awhile and when James Harden tried to embarrass him (in the conference finals), Steph picked it up. He's still not the greatest, but he picked it up and in the Cleveland series, too. You can get better and stronger. But the way the game is played now, the open space and with his skill level, he'll put the ball in the hole; and he really sees the court. It's an unappreciated part of his game."
Sure, there's the shooting and the passing, and that's crucial. But Strickland says that wasn't nearly the most impressive aspect to Young. Strickland also is a veteran of the AAU circuit, his son, Tai, going to Wisconsin next fall. So Rod got to know Rayford on the trail. But it was Trae who sough out the longtime NBA veteran, always curious, always inquisitive.
When Trae had games against tough defensive guards, he'd seek out Rod for advice. What did he see? What would he do? What could he change? Trae was becoming a superstar of the collegiate game, but his hunger for knowledge, for improvement, seemed insatiable.
"The advice I was giving him was to be himself and don't put too much pressure on himself every night," Strickland related in a telephone interview this week. "In college, he started off so well. Points wise, he's exceptional. His court vision and feel for the game is up there, but he had gotten into scoring so much the expectation continued. I wanted him to relieve himself of that. He is so skilled. I've seen him make passes and play the ball screens and make plays everyone is not making. Also, I didn't think he was one of those guys who had to be a scorer. Obviously, he can shoot the ball, but I didn't want his game to be defined by scoring because his feel for the game is unbelievable.
"This is the thing about Trae Young," said Strickland. "He reached out and asked me about the game and what I thought about it, what could he do to improve. To me that is so big. We have a lot of youngsters out here who get that mojo and they get so much early they think they are above that. But for him to humble himself, have the humility to do that, I felt it was big time and says a lot about him as a basketball player and student of the game. That carries over when you become a pro and try to keep developing in this game, that he can take in so many things and seek out more; that's major. I was more impressed with him than he was impressed with me and that's why I'm a fan of his.
"I've been in the NBA and college and know sometimes humility is hard, but it also helps you succeed," Strickland added. "What I love about him is he tries to learn and understand and get input. I've been on all sides, done the good, the bad, the great, the stupid, done it all. We sometimes forget a major part with being on that court also is listening to people and taking it in, knowing the history, respecting the older guys, but also having that inner confidence. I think there is nothing but big things ahead for him."