NORMAN, Okla. – Norman, Okla., is the type of place that would, and does, have a giant white water tower high above the majestic lacebark elm tree line that’s viewable for miles with the city’s name plastered across the front in Sooner Crimson, the lifeblood of the close-knit college town parked in the shadow of Oklahoma City, where Russell Westbrook hosts hostile hardwood takeovers on a regular basis.
Norman has its own “Westbrook” type in Trae Young, a 6-foot-2, 170-pound star point guard who embodies the Oklahoma City Thunder star’s “kill everything and everybody” mentality.
As one NBA scout put it, “Trae is potentially the type of player that can step in and help you the day you draft him.”
That would be preaching to the proverbial choir if you ask the coaches from the colleges that make up Young’s final six: Oklahoma State, Washington, Oklahoma, Kansas, Kentucky and Texas Tech.
That’s what makes the conversation on this unseasonably warm February afternoon vital.
In a swanky, two-story red brick house, Young and his parents Ray and Candice will meet to debate, jot notes, agree, disagree and agree to disagree in order to come up with a decision that will undoubtedly richen the fortunes of whichever school Trae picks.
Trae, who was recently named to the McDonald’s All American and Jordan Brand Classic Games, is ranked No. 14 overall among seniors in the ESPN 100 and averages 43 points, five rebounds and five assists a game for Norman North.
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“It’s a big decision,” Trae says. “A lot of pressure.”
No, not the normal, “We’d be good if we got him” pressure; it runs deeper.
“A local news outlet said that when it comes to important sports figures in the state it’s Russell Westbrook, Baker Mayfield and Trae Young,” Ray says.
That analysis sheds light on the star-struck treatment Trae receives on his brief walk from Ray’s SUV to Chesapeake Energy Arena on Feb. 9 to see Westbrook take on the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James.
“Aye, Trae Young! Yeah, that’s you! What’s up man? Where you going? You know you need to stay here and help them Sooners out. I’m sayin’, we need you.”
Trae takes five steps and another fan spots him.
“Trae Young! I’m a big fan.”
Trae takes 10 steps and an elderly couple calls from behind.
“Whoa! Traaae Young! Honey, that’s Trae Young; my wife and I are big fans. When are you deciding?”
Three more encounters, four random, “Yo! Trae Young!’ shouts and countless “That’s him!” glances and Trae plops down in he and his dad’s lower level seats.
“This stuff gets wild, huh,” Trae says with a smile. “It’s cool, but I’ll be happy when it’s all over and I don’t have to answer that question over and over.”
Ray walks over to the rectangular cherry wood dining table, hands Candice a pen and a few pieces of paper and sits in the cream upholstered chair facing her.
The house is straight out of HGTV; tan walls hold fine art and neatly fluffed pillows are efficiently sparse on plush couches and accent chairs.
It’s immaculate. Symmetric. Proportionately posh.
Candice has to have it that way.
“She’s a little OCD with that,” Ray says. “But I like it.”
Just then she asks Ray to turn the TV down in the adjoining den.
“Too loud,” she says.
Ray complies and Candice stares intently at the blank sheets of paper. It’s clear she’s aware of the magnitude of this discussion.
Trae walks in the front door.
Ray parks him between he and Candice at the head of the table.
He asks if Trae needs pen and paper; Trae shakes his head and points to his temple.
“Got it all right here,” he says.
Ray lists off the six schools and instructs them to list pros and cons for each.
First up is Washington.
The immediate consensus is that, by far, the greatest thing about the Huskies is that they’re bringing in Nathan Hale (Seattle) forward Michael Porter Jr.
Makes sense because Porter is the top-ranked player in the ESPN 100 and is one of Trae’s best friends.
The two dominated the prestigious Nike EYBL, culminating in winning Nike Peach Jam last July.
“We’d kill together,” Trae says. “That’s been proven.”
“Can’t stop that duo,” Ray concedes.
“That and Coach (Lorenzo) Romar gets his players to the league,” Trae says. “That’s big.”
Ray agrees, but adds that if Trae isn’t ready to go to the NBA after one year, he’d be there without Porter, a virtual lock for the 2018 NBA Draft lottery.
“Then you’d be in a Ben Simmons-Antonio Blakeney situation at LSU,” Ray says. “That wouldn’t be ideal. These are the things you have to think about.”
“True,” Trae says.
Ray sits up in his chair, smiles and shuffles his papers together.
“Alright now,” he says. “Make me happy here Trae.”
Ray starred in Lubbock from 1996-2000, before playing in the NBA, ABA and Europe from 2001-07.
“So for this I only want one con!” Ray says with a smile. “They had the best visit!”
Candice and Trae laugh.
“You’re saying that because they showed that little tribute to you on the big screen,” Trae says. “You know you liked that.”
“Well, the pro would be that he’d be able to beat all of your records,” Candice jokes.
“I think it’d be cool to be the first five-star recruit they’ve ever had,” Trae says. “That’s appealing to me, but, to be honest… Umm…”
Trae hesitates. It’s clear he’s trying to spare his dad’s feelings, but Ray presses him.
“It’s just us in here, man,” Ray says. “Come on now.”
“I just think they need more talent,” Trae says. “Sorry, I’m just being honest. I just want to win.”
“It’s all good,” Ray says. “The problem for me is their system. I don’t think they run enough. You need to get up and down. I just don’t know if they do that enough for you.”
Trae starts in with how much he loves “what they’re doing with Jawun (Evans).”
The sophomore guard is posting 18 points, 5.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds a game this season for the Cowboys.
“Coach (Brad) Underwood really lets him play,” Trae says. “They’re winning and they’re one of the best teams in the Big 12 this year. I really like them.”
“Yeah me, too,” adds Ray. “I loved their fans; they were really supportive and they knew all about you. I think Coach Lamont (Evans) has done a great job with you, too! What about cons?”
“You’ve gotta come back to me on that,” Trae says. “Well, actually Coach Underwood got in a little late after they fired Coach (Travis) Ford, and they also don’t play Jawun as much as the other starting point guards in the Big 12.”
“You’re talking about how they take him out in crunch time?” Ray says with a laugh. “Yeah, I could see that.”
“I like that they’re changing things in the right direction and I love the fan base,” Candice says. “But I don’t know if they’re changing fast enough. Things had dropped off so much with Travis Ford; I just don’t know how quickly they’ll get back to where it was.”
As soon as Ray says, “Alright, let’s talk about Kentucky,” Trae and Candice burst into laughter.
“What?” Ray says with a cunning grin. “Hey, I like Kentucky.”
“Oh, yeah, you’ll probably need another page for all these pros you’re about to list,” Trae says while laughing.
“Well, you already know how I feel,” Ray says. “If it was up to me this would be my pick. Coach (John) Cal, man! Coach Cal!”
Ray talks in-depth about the importance of playing the percentages when the goal is making it to the NBA. Since he took over in Lexington in 2009, Calipari has sent 28 players to the NBA.
Still, Candice is quick to point out that the knock there is the one-and-done players he gets credit for “would be one-and-done players wherever they went.”
“The track record is second to none to me,” Ray says. “Then you’ve got K.P. (Kenny Payne), we really liked him. Honestly, the best thing about that visit was seeing Coach Cal outside of the basketball arena and spending time with he and his wife. I love how Kentucky prepares you to be a pro because that’s all it is in Lexington – Kentucky basketball.”
“I really like Coach Cal and K.P. and their workouts were crazy,” Trae says. “I definitely like that I was the first point guard that they were on. They made me a priority. That was big, especially with it being Kentucky.”
When the conversation turns to cons, Ray peers over at Candice, smiles, and then motions for her to reel off her list.
“Keep it real,” he says. “I know you’ve got ‘em.”
“I’ve actually got more pros,” she says matter of factly. “But the housing… They’ve got the worst dorms out of all the schools.”
“Yeah they did,” Trae says with a laugh. “But to Coach Cal’s point, you don’t pick a school based on the housing.”
“Yeah, but you’ve gotta live there for nine months,” Candice replies. “I mean come on now it was one room, the sink was in the bedroom; definitely traditional old school dorm room.”
“Yeah, the rooms couldn’t compete with Kansas, Oklahoma State and those other schools,” Trae says. “It’s not up to date.”
“That’s why you’re gonna be in the gym!” Ray says.
“Well, it forces you to,” Trae says. “The other con is that, going there, if you’re not a one-and-done you’re looked at differently. Like you weren’t built for Kentucky or something like that. I didn’t like that.”
Ray conceded that point.
He said to be successful in the NBA it’s more about going when you’re ready and less about being one-and-done.
“I think you can go there and get drafted, no doubt,” Ray says. “But it’s not about that. Look at Tyler Ulis, I love him and he got drafted, which is great, but is he gonna use his whole rookie contract on the bench? You want to be a top 15 guy playing right away or do you want to be a career backup?”
Ray is unabashed in his lean toward college basketball’s famed “blue blood” schools – Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and Kansas – but makes a strong point about where those schools’ point guards stand when it comes to the NBA’s top 10.
“Only two of the top 10 are from blue bloods,” he says. “Think about what Chris Paul told you. He could’ve went to a blue blood, but he went to Wake Forest, stayed two years and look at his career. See, when you talk Kentucky, you’ve gotta dig deeper. That said, I love Kentucky.”
If Ray was the full-blown cheerleader for Big Blue Nation, Candice is, at the very least, holding the pom-poms for the Sooners.
“Coach (Lon) Kruger has been there from Day One,” Candice says. “He saw his potential from Day One and …”
“Wait,” Ray interrupts with a laugh. “He lives here (in Norman), so of course …”
“No, no that’s true, but I’m sorry it just is what it is,” Candice continues. “He can’t help where he lives. There is absolutely a comfort in knowing that he saw his potential for so long and he’s stayed with him and watched him realize that potential. If we lived in Kansas, I’d say the same about Bill Self, but we live here. That’s how I feel.”
“OK, it’s a fair point,” Ray says.
Candice goes on to talk about the close proximity being a positive and negative to Trae’s development as an adult.
“It’s good because you’ll be around your family and we’ll be able to see you every game,” she says. “But it’s bad because it may hinder you being able to grow up the way you need to when you’re in college stepping out on your own.”
Ray sarcastically raises his hand and smiles.
“Can I talk?” he says.
“No!” Candice says as she and Trae share a chuckle.
“OK, you have good points, but, again, let’s talk about the percentages,” Ray says. “I love Coach (Kruger), but how many one-and-done or two-and-done players has he put in the league?”
Trae agrees with Ray and points to the fact that Sooners freshman guard Kameron McGusty is the highest ranked recruit Kruger has ever had.
McGusty was a four-star recruit who finished high school ranked No. 46 overall in the ESPN 100. This season he’s averaging 10.5 points and two rebounds a game.
“That’s scary because he may not know how to coach a guy like you,” Ray says.
“He developed Buddy Hield!” Trae says. “He averaged three points a game as a freshman. If he would’ve averaged 17 points his freshman year I guarantee it wouldn’t have taken him four years to leave.”
Trae goes on about how he’s built a relationship with Kruger since the eighth grade, how the up-and-down style fits his strengths and then there was Kruger’s wow factor of a pitch.
“He said he’d turn over the keys to the program to me not when the season started,” Trae says. “But on June 1. I liked that.”
“OK, let’s be honest,” Ray says, obviously less impressed. “Coach Kruger has been on Trae since the eighth grade; from then until Trae did what he did in the EYBL and everything like that, how many times did he talk about Trae going to the league? That scares me; I think Kruger can do it, it just scares me.”
“I’m not worried about developing under him,” Trae counters. “I look at what he’s done with other players and developing isn’t a con for me.”
Ray has another perspective: the proverbial microscope.
If being a five-star is a gift, then Ray’s concerned about the inevitable curse of it all.
“You’ll be asked to carry yourself different just because of everything you’re coming in with,” Ray says. “Everything will be dissected. You’re ‘that dude’ and everyone is watching you. You can’t be a freshman. You can’t just be a teenager. Fair or not, you have to always be on point.
“That’s the difference in going to Oklahoma over a place like Kansas or Kentucky; there you’ll have three or four other dudes that are just like you and y’all can help each other.”
Silence. Deafening silence.
It’s clear that Ray’s point hit home.
If this conversation were being seen on the big screen, this is the part where the music would’ve been queued up; chills subsequently following suit.
Trae’s breaks from his trance and slowly shakes his head.
“That true,” he says. “That’s true.”
Trae lets it be known that when it comes to head coaches he likes, Self is top dog; an observation that Ray is quick to cosign.
“Ya know I love Bill Self now,” Ray says with a smile.
Candice and Trae smile and shake their heads.
“This man loves everybody!” Trae jokes. “You’re just saying that because he showed that video.”
As a surprise to Ray, Self pulled old video footage of Ray’s 41-point game in an upset win against Kansas in 1999.
“That was well played!” Candice says. “Well, for me, the whole Kansas staff is my favorite staff. Phog Allen is awesome!”
Trae reminiscences about “how live” the atmosphere was during his visit and how much he loved the fans and how the style of play would pair nicely with his abilities.
Then the cons came.
“What are they?” Ray asks.
“Well, how many point guards has Coach Self gotten to the NBA?” Trae asks, seemingly rhetorically.
“Mario Chalmers,” Ray says. “And Deron Williams, too.”
“Besides them,” Trae says. “He always talks about Sherron Collins, but I’m not sure what he does. But he was a five-star from a blue blood school … Then Josh Selby … I just feel like Coach Self’s thing is developing people.”
Ray disagrees, but manages to list a few cons of his own.
He points to the potential of Devonte’ Graham’s return and the likelihood that he’ll need to run the point to show NBA teams what he’s capable of. He has the same concern with Mississippi State transfer Malik Newman.
“Yeah, he was supposed to be a lock to be a one-and-done,” Trae says. “So I know he’s gonna have a lot to prove. I’m not worried about competition, it’s just something I have to think about.”
“I feel you, it’s a little scary because you want people’s roles to be clear and, more importantly, for them to accept them,” Ray adds. “But I go back to what Coach Self told you, he said, ‘What else do I need to tell you, Trae? You’re gonna be the starting point guard for Kansas University. You’re gonna be Frank Mason.’”
It’s an appealing sell for Trae.
Mason is the Jayhawks’ best player and near the top of most experts’ shortlist for National Player of the Year, averaging 20.1 points, 4.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game.
“Yeah, Frank is ballin’!” Trae says. “Coach Self asked me, ‘How is this a hard decision?’ You can’t not be attracted to that situation. That’s, like, impossible.’”
And Then There Were Three
Ray surveys Trae and Candice to see if they’ve said all they need to say about each school, good and bad.
When they nod, he asks if they think they’re ready to name a top three.
“I think I can,” Trae says.
Ray begins to write.
“Well, for me, I say Kentucky …” Ray says.
“Kentucky! Kentucky!’ Trae says with a laugh. “That’s definitely your top three.”
Candice lists Oklahoma, Kansas and Oklahoma State.
“That’s what I was gonna say, too,” Trae says.
“So I have to take Kentucky out?” Ray says.
Reluctantly he complies, but asks if Trae is listing the local schools out of some sort of obligation.
“You don’t owe anything to anybody now,” Ray says.
“It’s not that,” Trae says. “It’s the situations; I feel like these three schools are the best situations for me now that we’ve listed everything. I feel good about these three.”
Ray marks through Kentucky, but not before adding the ole “as much as I’d like it to be Kentucky” for good measure.
“I agree with these three,” Ray says. “All things considered and looking at these pros and cons, they seem to make the most sense.”
There’s a pause. Trae looks at Ray then Candice then back to Ray, who has a strong opinion on where Trae should go.
“Well, in my opinion, Kansas is the school you need to go to,” Ray says. “You’ve got the best of both worlds: Blue blood and close proximity so we can come see you play. You’ll have Billy Preston, Devonte’ Graham, Udoka Azubuike, Malik Newman, Lagerald Vick… You’ll be playing deep in March.”
No smile. No laugh.
He’s listening. Intently listening and Ray knows it.
“What you have to ask yourself with Oklahoma is can you be the next T.J. Ford of the Big 12?” Ray continues.
In 2003, Ford became the first male from the University of Texas to win the Naismith Player of the Year award, averaging 15 points, 7.7 assists and 3.9 rebounds a game for the Longhorns.
“I don’t have a question about that,” Trae says. “I think they have talent.”
“I do, too,” Candice says. “They’ve got good young talent, too.”
Trae brings it back to Oklahoma State and reiterates how enticed he is by the way the Cowboys use Evans then switches back to Kansas and talks about how much he loves the wide array of weapons the Jayhawks will have to offer.
Ray and Candice just listen.
They know he’s processing.
After a long pause Ray looks at Candice and interjects.
“Remember when he was coming up and all we wanted was for our son to like basketball and have a chance to play in college?” Ray asks.
“Mmm hmm,” Candice replies.
“Then he started getting taller and better and better and, all of a sudden, he’s one of the best players in the country,” Ray continues. “Now you’re in a position to make it to the NBA. When you have this chance you have to make the right decision. You have to. It can’t be based on just relationships, how much you love people or how long you’ve known them. Your mother and I are gonna be happy with whatever school you pick because we believe in your talent. But this has to be a business decision.”
Ray has a knack for nailing these introspective moments.
Trae leans back, grabs both of his chair’s armrests and lets out a deep sigh.
“You’re right,” he says. “I agree with everything you said. I just need to think more. This was good, but it’s got me thinking. I’m gonna take some time. I’ll tell y’all what I decide in a few days.”
“Gotta Make It”
The pale moonlight offers the perfect backdrop for the brilliant Oklahoma City skyline as Trae walks down the ghost town that is Reno Avenue to meet his sister, Caitlyn and Ray at the SUV.
The Thunder have just knocked off the Cavs 118-109, but even more exciting, at least in Trae’s eyes, was that he got to link with his favorite player, Kyrie Irving, after the game.
Ray is good friends with Cavs coach Tyronn Lue from their Big 12 battles when Lue starred at Nebraska.
And, yeah, even Lue has an opinion on the best option for Trae as he leads the family to the team bus after the game.
“Coach Self lets his guards rock,” Lue says. “He let’s ’em go. I’m telling you!”
Trae and Caitlyn laugh.
Ray smirks and widens his eyes as if to say, “That’s what I said, too” as Lue hops inside the bus and tells Irving that Trae is outside.
Irving is visibly annoyed at the loss, but he’s clearly happy to see Trae.
The two have met multiple times in the past at camps and games. Trae’s even closer to Durant after spending time with him while he played with the Thunder and playing for Durant’s AAU team Mokan Elite. He’s also close to Westbrook and Chris Paul.
“What’s up Trae!” Irving says with a smile.
They slap fives and chop it up briefly before snapping a pic together.
“Keep doing your thing, man,” Irving says before getting back onto the bus.
The following night, Trae “did his thing” in a big way, dropping a career high 65 points in a 103-67 win over Edmond Memorial (Edmond, Okla.).
The question is: Where will he do his thing next season?
That will be answered Thursday at 1 p.m. EST, when Young reveals his choice at a press conference at his school.
“People have no idea how tough these decisions are,” Trae says. “It’s not an easy thing to do. This decision kinda shapes your life.”
That fact never seemed more real than on this February night on Reno Avenue.
Blame it on his chat with Irving. Blame it on seeing Cavs guard Deandre Liggins walk to the team bus toting two red Gucci bags. Blame it on Trae being a prisoner of the moment after being exposed to the NBA life just now or seeing LeBron go all “LeBron” on the Thunder. But as he approaches Ray’s SUV, Young stops suddenly and has an epiphany.
Then he reels off the biggest two-letter word in the English language: If.
“If I don’t make it, maaaaan,” Trae says. “I’ve gotta make it! I’ve been exposed to this life for too long through my relationships with KD, Chris, Russ… I can’t not make it to this level. I just… I just can’t. That’d be… I’ve just gotta make it. Got to.”
Step one to commence Thursday.
Follow Jason Jordan on Twitter: @JayJayUSATODAY