Trae Young Poised For Return To Oklahoma

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Story by KL Chouinard
Twitter: @KLChouinard

ATLANTA -- Trae Young returns to Oklahoma this weekend when the Hawks travel to Tulsa for a preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday. When he gets there, the rookie point guard will find dozens of friends and family members ready to welcome him home. And he'll return to a place that was an important incubator of his budding pro basketball career.

Trae Young's basketball journey began in Portugal as a 4-year-old.

His father, Rayford, played collegiately at Texas Tech and once scored 41 points in a win over Kansas. After college and a couple of attempts at trying to catch on with an NBA team, Rayford headed overseas to play in Europe, most notably with FC Porto. As an American playing in Portugal, Rayford was the hired gun of the team, the star. And it afforded him certain privileges, including having his son in the gym with him, happily bouncing a basketball. 

"He was at every practice. He was actually in the way a lot during practices," Rayford said with a laugh.

Given that he was as young as he was, Trae's memory is fuzzier on the subject. But he has relived those times through other means.

"I have a lot of videos that I've seen: going to beaches, going to games and his shootarounds," Trae said.  "I don't remember too much since I was 4 or 5 years old."

Just before Trae Young was about to turn 6 years old and start kindergarten, the Youngs moved back to Norman, Okla. to be closer to the family of Trae's mother, Candice. In the next few years, Trae was going to find himself in an ideal basketball environment, one into which he could plunge wholeheartedly.

Less than a year after the Young family relocated back to Norman, the New Orleans Hornets made a temporary move to nearby Oklahoma City in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. For a kid obsessed with basketball, it was a huge development: having an NBA team with a phenom rookie point guard dropped in your backyard.

"That was a big deal," Trae said. "I love Chris Paul's game. And just having an NBA team in our city was big for me, just so I could go to NBA games. We didn't have anything at that time, so being able to go to those games was really fun."

Fun, yes, but in a less obvious way, it was a learning experience too.

When Trae Young arrived in Atlanta, head coach Lloyd Pierce gave him a book as a gift: "Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell.

"There's so much time that we spend throughout an NBA season where you're on the road, or your'e on the bus, or you're in your hotel room," Pierce said. "The whole goal was to, as young men, find ways to occupy your time. How do you get better? It's not just by being in the gym all the time. How do you get better as a person? How do you get educated about other things?"

In the book, Gladwell discussed the backstories of some of the world's most famous prodigies, looking for the factors that led to their success. Of course, innate talent was a huge factor. But Gladwell argued that two other factors figured even more prominently.

The first was an inordinate amount of practice.

"The idea that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice surfaces again and again in studies of expertise," Gladwell wrote. "In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours."

But Gladwell also suggested that reaching the highest pinnacles of success required more than just crossing the threshold of the 10,000-hour rule. Opportunity was a key ingredient as well. 

Take, for instance, Microsoft founder and personal computer pioneer Bill Gates. Gates was a sharp kid, a math whiz. But Gladwell reasoned that he was afforded a number of opportunities that fostered his love of computer programming, starting with his school acquiring a state-of-the-art computer system in 1968 when he was in eighth grade (in an era when virtually no other schools had such elaborate setups). Over his high school years, Gates kept finding ways to gain precious computer programming time at the University of Washington even when such time was extremely rare. 

Did Gates have immense talent and the drive to pursue his passion hour after hour, day after day for many years? Absolutely, he did. On the other hand, he wouldn't have had the means to pursue that goal without a few instances of good fortune.

"Lucky breaks don't seem like the exception with software billionaires and rock bands and start athletes," Gladwell argued. "They seem like the rule."

Trae continued to hone his skills as a grade-schooler. Wherever he went, he had a basketball with him. The first thing he mastered was a jump shot. 

"I started thinking, 'Oh my gosh. Is this real?' And it wasn't anything forced," Rayford said. "He wasn't forcing it or launching it. It was just a regular shooting motion."

While Trae grew obsessed with the game, the game kept coming back to him. He had the good fortune of having a father who was also his coach and a former pro. Rayford knew how to guide Trae in acquiring basketball skills, whether it involved work on the court or watching games together and learning the tactics that made other players successful. 

Trae also got to be a ball boy for the University of Oklahoma, another illuminating basketball experience. And when the Hornets moved back home to New Orleans in 2007, they were quickly replaced by another NBA team: the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder's 2008 arrival left an indelible impression on Trae.

"For the last ten years, me and my family have had tickets. While I was growing up, I went to as many Thunder games as I could."

Suddenly, Trae was watching NBA games from close up and a home team that featured three future MVPs: Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kevin Durant. He was also able to see his favorite player, Steve Nash, when Phoenix visited Oklahoma City for road games. 

Trae's infatuation with basketball kicked into overdrive. Suddenly, being a great shooter wasn't enough. He wanted to be a great ballhandler and a great passer, too. Rayford said that Trae would go into the garage and work on various drills designed to improve his speed. He would jump rope to the point of exhaustion. He also came up with a clever trick to develop his ballhandling.

"I would go in the garage in the dark, turn off all the lights and just dribble in the dark in the garage with my ball," Trae said.

As Harden, Westbrook and Durant grew the Thunder into a championship contender, Trae's love of the game grew along with it. He saw the best version of basketball laid out before his eyes and he figured out how to play that way, too.

Pierce said that Trae's immersion into the game helped take him to where he is now. It was a work of devotion fueled by talent, hard work and opportunity.

"There are a lot of things that you can say are coincidence and you can say are by chance, or you can say, 'No, it was designed to be that way,' " Pierce said. "Whether it was Bill Gates and going down to UW and having access to a computer lab right when that was a big deal, or Trae, who has been surrounded by basketball in a variety of ways in an area that really didn't have have professional basketball but it was brought to him right in the midst of his development as a player. There's a reason why the little guy loves basketball and became exceptional and special."

Pierce, who played with Nash at Santa Clara, saw an analogous situation to Trae's in his former teammate. Nash, born the son of a pro soccer player in South Africa, later moved to hockey-loving Canada with his family when he was a child. 

"The beauty of what Nash did is that he was able to parlay soccer and hockey into basketball with footwork and hand-eye coordination," Pierce said. "One of the most unbelievable passers and facilitators that we've ever seen has a hand-eye coordination that he acquired from two other sports. That's not by chance."

Pierce cited an example of a pass that Young made in the first preseason game, where Young assisted on an interior pass in traffic by bouncing it off the floor.

"The passes he makes, the nuances he makes in the game — that doesn't just accidentally happen. Those are things that people have taught you and you've seen," Pierce said.

Perhaps the best news of all for Hawks fans is that Young, who had a total of 8 assists in the preseason opener, plays a generous, unselfish brand of basketball that emphasizes making decisions that yield the best possible shots. He attributes his style of play to what he has witnessed firsthand.

"It just comes from being around the game of basketball and being around guys like Chris Paul and guys like LeBron and KD and Russ," Trae said. "Just their unselfishness and knowing that when you have team success, individual success will follow along with it. My first and foremost goal is my team and making sure that my team is OK and that we're winning."