It was on the other side of the planet this past summer when Trae Young unexpectedly revealed to teammates his one and only phobia. As the Oklahoma star freshman point guard was getting ready to climb the volcanic cone of Mount Eden, which overlooks Auckland, New Zealand, something specific spooked him.
"We were walking to get something to eat on this island, and we had to walk through the beach," Oklahoma sophomore Jordan Shepherd said. "He [Young] stayed very far from us. He was almost closer to the street than the beach."
OK. A brief freakout -- just Young acting a little weird. But then came the horror in Australia a few days later. The setting: gorgeous, horseshoe-shaped Sydney Harbor, with the city's world-famous Opera House in the not-so-far distance. Ferry boats moan while shops and restaurants bustle with tourists from around the globe. Oklahoma's team was taking a morning stroll on its way to a guided tour.
"Then Trae runs and hides behind [teammate] Hannes [Polla]," Sooners junior Jamuni McNeace said. "We're walking by the pier when a pigeon runs up on him."
The condition is known as ornithophobia. Trae Young is deathly afraid of birds.
"Then there's a group of [pigeons] at this point," McNeace said. "We ran to the birds to make them fly around. And he took off running in the other direction."
The team also visited an Australian rainforest near the city of Cairns. You get there by going up a glass-covered gondola. The ride allows people to experience the sites of Cairn resting against the wildlife of the elevated forest.
"Yeah, and when we went over to the rainforest, the little parrots were flying past us," McNeace said. "He was freaking out."
Young doesn't trust birds, doesn't know what he would do if his life flashed before his eyes by coming face-to-beak with a crow, cuckoo, sparrow, spoonbill, goose, grouse, turkey, toucan, flamingo or falcon.
"We were in New Zealand and would go to the beaches and all that stuff," Young said. "You know how birds would be friendly to people? I hate birds. All you see is the ocean, the sand and birds flying over you. The birds trying to eat the crabs in the sand and they're all next to you. I've seen a bird attack one of my friends at my high school in the parking lot. Yeah. It scared her. The bird was by her car, she tried to turn and get in her car but the bird was so scared it just attacked her."
Teammates suspect this Kevin Hart bit about ostriches has only reinforced Young's avifaunal neurosis. A couple months back, Shepherd, Young and teammate Chris Giles were getting ready to leave the gym. There's a stairwell out from the facility to the parking lot. A pigeon waited in the stairwell, taunting Young. He refused to leave with his teammates and took the long way out to another exit.
"Like, I don't understand what someone would do if a bird attacked them," Young said. "I don't know how a bird would attack a human, just by poking them with their faces? Or their feet on your face? I'm scared. Flapping their wings: what do you do? Do you grab it? ... And then the big ones, the roadrunners, they're deadly to me. Scary. I can't mess with them. I've had nightmares about birds."
Fortunately, Young's ornithophobia doesn't extend to the metaphorical. Against the Ball State Cardinals on Nov. 15, the Sooners freshman went for 22 points and a season-high 13 assists. He dropped a season-high 43 points on the Oregon Ducks 11 days later at the PK80. And while real roadrunners petrify Young, on Monday he scored 28 points vs. the UTSA meep-meeps, marking his fifth straight game with at least that many points.
Young's quirky fear of birds is not the only unusual thing about him. He leads the nation in scoring (28.7 ppg) and is third in assists (8.7 per game) ... as a freshman. The 6-foot-2 point guard is showing unusual adaptation skills to Division I. Even in an era where one-and-done types regularly step into college and become dominant forces from game one, players who do so are normally long wings, domineering forwards or unicorn-type big men. The emblems of evidence over the past decade include Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, Anthony Davis, Jabari Parker, Karl-Anthony Towns -- even Marvin Bagley III and DeAndre Ayton this season. All of those players are bigs and none truly flirted with averaging 30 points, or were responsible for more than 35 percent of their team's offense, the way Young is showcasing now.
Even former stud freshman point guards like Derrick Rose and John Wall didn't have near the shooting or distribution ability Young is already boasting. College basketball's regular season is already nearly 1/3 done and no player has proven to be more vital to his club than the 19-year-old hometown hero. Young's from Norman, Oklahoma, so lucky for Lon Kruger and his program that the long-bombing, dazzle-dishing Young opted out of going to Kentucky or Kansas and instead stayed local. It's a simple 11-minute drive from his house to the Lloyd Noble Center, Oklahoma's home arena. On some days, Trae has lunch with his mom, Candice.
In picking Oklahoma, Young has changed the trajectory of the program. Two years after the Sooners rode Buddy Hield's hot hand and player of the year campaign to the Final Four, Young is leading Oklahoma's resurgence to national relevance. Though the 2017-18 season's still in its adolescence, Young is already trending toward becoming a Sooners legend, joining the ranks of Wayman Tisdale, Stacey King, Blake Griffin and Hield.
Let's address the Steph thing. Comparisons to Stephen Curry were occasional when Young played his way to five-star status on the recruiting circuit, but they've become a media analysis prerequisite in light of Young doing this sort of stuff on an every-game basis.
(Video via Sam Vecenie/The Fieldhouse)
Because Young is a scoring point guard with a green light to accommodate his multi-zip-code range, "the next Steph Curry" chatter and clickbait is unavoidable. Ask Young about it, and he's honored -- but Curry is not even his favorite NBA player; Steve Nash is. Young's father, Ray, was a star at Texas Tech in the 1990s who had a cup of coffee in the NBA before playing in the ABA (pre D-League era) then spent almost a decade playing in Europe. Ray would get edited DVDs of NBA players sent to him. Trae, who's played basketball since he was 5 and been an obsessive since the fifth grade, would study tape on everyone from Nash to Jamal Crawford to Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Tony Parker and yes, of course, Curry.
"I'm a big Steve Nash fan because he was a smaller point guard -- wasn't the most athletic, could really shoot, very cerebral," Young said. "A lot of his intangibles really fit my game, like his touch."
The Steph comparisons don't so much bother him, but he's quick to point out that he wants to incorporate features from a lot of players in order to have his game standalone on its own merits.
"I feel I resemble a few players," Young said. "I grew up watching Steph, but I also watched film on Tony Parker, the way he finishes around the rim. Steve Nash, the way he has touch with a floater game. Kyrie Irving, the way he can get by a defender. I feel like I resemble a lot of Damian Lillard with a lot of his aggressiveness and his ability to get to the rim. I feel like I have a little bit of Steph in my game when it comes to range, but it's not just Steph."
Nevertheless, as Young moved through high school the family's DVR memory would fill to near capacity. Ray Young couldn't record the things he wanted to record -- because Trae had saved up so many Golden State Warriors games.
"I'm honored to be compared to a guy like Stephen Curry," Young said. "I want to be the best version of myself. I want to be labeled as the best Trae Young. I want to be the best point guard in college basketball."
The Curry comp is easy to see. What's interesting is how Young's game is not like Buddy Hield's at all. That speaks to Lon Kruger's coaching and pro-style system. The Sooners are a load on offense when they've got a guard who can pour it on. Kruger played Hield off the ball, using screens and finding ways to beat teams with creative offensive tweaks and an avalanche of 3-point attempts. With Young, he's been given the keys and is wreaking havoc by dictating tempo and making decisions on his own. No freshman point guard this season has been afforded the slack and authority like Young. Despite what highlights will stick, it's not all 3-pointers from 23-26 feet either. He has a great stop-and-go acceleration in addition to a distributor's mindset buoyed with a shooter's killer instinct. For Oklahoma not to utilize his skills as much as it has would be foolish. This is found money.
It's also astonishing to see a player given this much responsibility and to immediately thrive the way Young has.
The deep shot's always been there. It Young's gift. Even if his form isn't perfect at this point, Young's a natural shooter and that artistry will translate to the next level. But watch him play now, see how he peels and curls around a defense -- you'd be surprised to learn Young was scared of playing the point until he got to high school. He didn't want to dribble, didn't want the ball in his hands, opting instead to sit on the wing and be a catch-and-shoot one-dimensional option.
"I told him when he was a freshman, or maybe in the eighth grade, 'Trae, if you're just going to be a 6-1, 6-2 kid that can shoot, you're probably going to be going to a D-II school,'" Ray Young said.
Now he's a ball-on-a-string maestro and an advanced student in pick-and-roll. Young's efficiency is a marvel through almost a month's worth of the season. He's responsible for Oklahoma's scoring on 37 percent of its possessions (fourth highest in Division I) and has an offensive rating of 125.9 at KenPom.com. Those numbers are inflammatory. No one in college basketball is close to that amount of productivity. On 47 percent of Oklahoma's possessions when Young's on the floor, the assist is coming from him. That's incredibly effective. It's why he's proven to be Duke phenom Marvin Bagley III, who is a logical Player of the Year frontrunner as we turn to Christmastime.than
How ridiculous has Young's first month been? As Rob Dauster at NBC Sports wrote recently, he's got a shot at being the first player in 27 seasons to average 28 points and eight assists. (Terrell Lowery, Loyola Marymount.) He also could become the first player in the KenPom era (dating back to 2003-04) to have a usage rate 35.0 or above and an ORtg clocking in at 125-plus. Though the season's still young, Young's a beautiful example of where the visual superiority of a player gets reinforced by the statistics to tell an atypical story.
From a team perspective, here's how Young's skill set has mutated Oklahoma's team performance.
- The Sooners' average possession on offense lasts 13 seconds (fourth-fastest in the country).
- The Sooners are averaging 94.4 points, second in the nation.
- At 61.7 percent from 2-point range, the Sooners rank fourth overall.
- Their 77.4 possessions per game makes OU the sixth-fastest team in college basketball.
Much of this is Young's doing. For comparison, the Hield-led Sooners from 2015-16 didn't play fast and weren't as good down low. Young's 3-point shooting is a threat but isn't yet automatic. That's what's really intriguing. He's almost certainly going to get better.
"We'd be silly not to think there are certain aspects to his game that can continue to elevate," Sooners assistant Carlin Hartman said. "Honestly, we know we have this special talent. We're trying to get all parties and all cylinders going. We're allowing it to happen. We know what it's like to have a guy in the last five minutes of the game with the ball in his hands, what he can do for us, like in the Oregon game."
Teams are already trying to limit Oklahoma's possessions and bicker Young out of having the ball. Some have taken to full-court press, others have schemed ways to get the ball out of his hands early in possessions. In prep for this, Oklahoma's staff is throwing junk defenses and every kind of complex look at him in practice to get him prepared for a brutally deep Big 12. The rest of the team is working on how to instinctively move and space in 4-on-3 situations because of it.
"He can do so many different things it can ruin practice because he's so good," Hartman said.
Oklahoma's athletic department has had a really good 2017. With quarterback Baker Mayfield considered a lock to win the Heisman Trophy, the Sooners football team is headed to the College Football Playoff as the No. 2 seed. Oklahoma's a football school in a football town in a football state in a football region.
The basketball team doesn't usually bring out strong crowds in non-conference play, not during football season. But Young has changed that. He's moved ticket sales and merchandize. His name is more emphasized in pre-game intros (and announced last). He always gets the loudest cheer. It's been a full-circle journey. The reason the Young family lives in Norman is because of Candice Young, Trae's mother and Ray's high school sweetheart. Originally from Shawnee, Oklahoma, Candice made the call after Ray's retirement from basketball to pick Norman over Lubbock, Texas (where Ray is from and played in college). It wound up being a good move for Ray because he already knew then-Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson because Sampson recruited him.
Ray's relationships with people at OU led to a great gig for a young boy looking to soak up as much basketball as he could. In the late aughts, when Blake Griffin became a national college superstar, a scrawny, eager gradeschooler could be spotted shagging balls for the guys on scholarship. Trae Young wanted to wipe the floor during game stoppages as well, but they said he was too young and small to do so.
It's a surreal thing for some in the community to see Trae starring on that Noble Center crimson-colored floor. Trae's been going to Oklahoma games since he was 7 or 8 years old, even before he idolized Griffin. They're very thankful for him down there in Norman -- and they remind him every day. Young's lived the life of local celebrity for a few years. His recruitment was a suspenseful one, something eagerly tracked as much as almost any football recruit. He easily could have opted to do what most five-star prospects who grow up near a school that's not known first and foremost for basketball: pick a different school, a bigger basketball school.
He almost did.
"He was going to Kentucky or Kansas," Ray Young said. "It wasn't even that big of a debate for a while. Once he got the offer from Kentucky, it's like, 'Dad, Coach (John) Calipari just left our house.' I would never say it was a done deal because we really liked Coach (Bill) Self a lot, and being around the coaches at Oklahoma and Coach Kruger, but there was no way he was not going to go to Kentucky, for about six or eight months. That's the thing people don't understand. He really wanted to go there but things didn't work out."
Why not? Young actually might have been too good for his own good as far as Kentucky was concerned. Young averaged a ridiculous 42.6 points his senior season of high school. He's always been a volume scorer. It's key to remember, though, that Young didn't even crack the top 20 of his recruiting class. He was a promising player but someone seen as perhaps a bit too thin, a bit too much of a ball-controlling player and not good enough yet defensively to be that universal gotta-have-him recruit.
"I feel like I've always been overlooked, even in high school," Young said. "I feel like I'm a lot stronger than I look. If I was that small I wouldn't be able to take hits like I do and get to the rim if I was that small. I have deceptive strength. I actually laugh when I hear those comments."
Calipari and his famous no-nonsense recruiting pitch, could make no promises for Young. For much of his recruitment, Young was hoping to play in college with one of his two best friends: Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. or Kentucky's Jarred Vanderbilt.
"Michael Porter was never going to Kentucky," Ray Young said. "For the longest time Trae and Mike wanted to play together. When Michael Porter Sr. got the job at Washington, we strongly considered Kentucky. Things changed, we started watching both teams (Kentucky and Kansas) and looking at things a bit differently."
Trae decided he didn't want to get into a situation where he felt out of place. He wanted to be the guy right away because -- as has been proven now -- he was capable of running an offense immediately. He is a program-changing player, but maybe it depends on the program.
"When you go to the next level you want to feel comfortable," Young said. "If going to Kentucky was best for me, I would've done that."
Oklahoma (6-1) is now blooming into an offensive juggernaut and could have a bigger turnaround than any major-conference program this season; the Sooners won just 11 games in 2016-17. Next up is two huge games: Friday night vs. No. 25 USC, then No. 6 Wichita State on the road on Dec. 16. Young will go up against a tremendous senior point guard in USC's Jordan McLaughlin, then face a talented likely future pro point guard in Wichita State's Landry Shamet.
If he thrives against those guys, Young will continue to quickly credit his teammates, just as he's done since gam one. He makes unnamed references to point guards who are score-first, score-second, score-third, pass-fourth, and he rejects any notion that he's that kind of player. Watch the tape, check his numbers. He wants to average double-digit assists. He's proving to be a great inventor of O for OU.
"It's a lot easier for me to be a leader when I have guys like Khadeem, who are leaders as well," he said of senior Khadeem Lattin, who, by the way, is almost averaging a double-double (11.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg). "I love getting my teammates involved."
The season's still in development, so his averages could well dip, but they're unlikely to drastically drop. Young's skills are so innate and undeniable -- he is so purely enjoyable to watch -- he could become one of the most famous players in the sport by the time we get to February. This could be his time of innocence, before he becomes a widespread basketball celebrity. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how things change for him on a national level. He's already lived with the attention close by for years. Will the next phase come naturally?
"He's been in a situation where he's been kind of a celebrity in Norman for the last four years," Hartman said. "The way he's handled that celebrity has been remarkable for a kid that is kind of scrutinized on a daily basis every time he walks out of his dorm room. He's very humble. He really, truly is a basketball fan. Studies it, loves it. Knows where he is in time and place. He knows the history of Oklahoma basketball. He knows of Wayman Tisdale, he knows Buddy Hield, he knows Jeff Webster, Stacey King, guys that have come before him and had the success. He knows it, appreciates it and is willing to be the one to step forward to try to take on the mantle to take on the mantle of being the next great Oklahoma Sooner."
Amazingly, he's already on the precipice of that. A few more 40-point games and he'll be more than on his way to legendary local status. A student of the game's history. A film junkie. A son -- and pupil -- of a former pro. A Sooners fan since he was 4 feet small. Oklahoma is allowing Trae to be Trae. Not Steph, not anyone else. Just Trae. He's the unorthodox player who took the alternative route by picking the neighborhood path to national recognition.