NORMAN, Okla. — Nervous and timid, Timothy Young whispered the chorus of his favorite song as his brother steered their car through the stillness of a Sunday afternoon in Oklahoma.
“Candy girl, you are my world,” he mumbled in a soft tone, repeating the lyrics of “Candy Girl,” the 1983 hit by New Edition.
The 7-year-old usually rides shotgun with his big brother, Oklahoma basketball star Trae Young, to the family’s after-church lunch spot in Norman. But that morning, after the previous night’s loss against rival Oklahoma State, he got stuck in the back seat because a cameraman and a reporter rode with them on the 10-minute drive to Louie’s restaurant.
After Trae Young encouraged him and ad-libbed while he sang, Timothy Young raised his voice and finished the chorus in falsetto.
“You look so sweet! You’re a special treat!”
Young adjusted his mirror to watch his little brother croon with more confidence.
“I’m experiencing all the places he’s going,” Timothy Young said, “so it’s really cool because he’s my brother and he’s really good at basketball.”
It wasn’t like this three months ago.
They used to ride through Norman together. No strangers. No cameras. No hesitation.
And then, Young scored 43 points against Oregon in the fifth-place game of the PK80 tournament in Portland, Oregon, over Thanksgiving weekend. It was the start of a tremendous season for the nation’s leader in scoring (29.6 PPG) and assists (9.6 APG). He has also connected on 40 percent of his shots beyond the arc.
After his performance in Portland, NBA scouts and execs began to gush about having possibly found a potential first-round NBA draft gem, a five-star prospect lost in the preseason buzz that instead followed Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr.
Trae Young had also became the hot topic among NBA stars. Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell promised to attend a game. Chris Paul contacted Young via FaceTime. LeBron James said the Oklahoma freshman would immediately help a pro team if he enters the NBA draft this summer.
The admiration from pros he emulates has highlighted the rapid growth of Young’s national profile and his NBA draft stock.
“I think my game is more like Steph’s but my mindset is more like Russ’ when it comes to I don’t care about anybody on the floor besides my teammates and the basketball,” Young said while he stood on the Lloyd Noble Center court last week. “Like, I don’t have any friends, whether I know you or anything like that. Just my mentality when I step on the court, I think it’s a Westbrook mentality.”
But just as the Trae Young buzz turned into a movement, the scrutiny, mostly over his turnovers, started.
He entered the week with 105 turnovers in his freshman season. In all, he has committed a turnover on nearly one-quarter of his possessions in Big 12 play. Eight ACC teams had committed fewer than 105 turnovers in conference play through Saturday’s games.
Critics on social media torch him every time he slips.
He frequently tweets this:
Another Day, Another Opportunity💯
— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) January 29, 2018
Last week, one commenter responded:
“Another day to work on quit turning the ball over so much.”
“It’s definitely different,” Young said about the recent backlash. “It’s definitely something I haven’t seen all year. But it’s basketball.”
“I think my game is more like Steph’s, but my mindset is more like Russ’ when it comes to I don’t care about anybody on the floor besides my teammates and the basketball. Like, I don’t have any friends, whether I know you or anything like that. Just my mentality when I step on the court, I think it’s a Westbrook mentality.”
Young pondered these fluctuations on the ride to lunch just as a station wagon darted into the intersection near his car.
He slowed down and awaited the vehicle’s next move before he felt safe enough to slide past it. And that’s a metaphor for the life of a 19-year-old who has endured sharp turns and instant fame over the past three months.
On and off the court, he’s trying to figure out how fast he should go.
JUST AFTER 10 a.m. on the Sunday following Oklahoma’s loss at Oklahoma State, Young’s family approached Victory Family Church, a megachurch in Norman with five services each weekend, including one for Spanish speakers.
Before the family could reach the front door of the church that serves white chocolate mochas to members and boasts a pulsating sound system that would make any rock band proud, Pastor Adam Starling extended his arms and hugged the Oklahoma standout.
“Man,” Starling said to Young, “you took some of those 3s from NBA range.”
Young just smiled.
He was greeted by patrons before, during and after the service.
If Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield is the king of Norman, then Young is the prince of this college town.
His father, Ray Young, was a junior guard at Texas Tech when he learned his girlfriend, now wife, Candice Young, was pregnant. They worked together to raise Trae while Ray Young pursued his basketball dreams. When Ray scored 41 points in Texas Tech’s upset win over Kansas in the 1998-99 season, Candice joined the fans storming the court while a relative held Trae. Ray Young averaged 17.8 PPG for Texas Tech during his senior season.
Undrafted after his career at Texas Tech ended in 2000, he signed with the Houston Rockets but didn’t last long enough to record a full year of service. He then played for FC Porto in Portugal during the 2001-02 season. He played for a handful of other teams in Europe after that stint, too.
But he also had a family. When then-Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson offered him a position as a graduate assistant with the Sooners, Ray Young ended his pro career and moved the family to Oklahoma, where his wife was raised. That’s where Trae Young became a ball boy for the Sooners and befriended Blake Griffin and other Oklahoma stars.
The Youngs had three more children — Caitlyn, 17; Camryn, 15; and Timothy, 7 — and raised them all in Norman.
Through his position on Sampson’s staff, Ray Young completed his degree, left coaching and began his career in medical equipment sales. His garage in Norman is stacked with boxes of the stents local doctors insert into patients who’ve had heart aneurysms.
“That’s why I avoid stress, man,” Ray Young said as he drove through his neighborhood in a massive SUV that comfortably holds his family of six.
Ray Young’s oldest boy had opportunities to leave Norman before he signed a national letter of intent to play at Oklahoma. Multiple prep schools pursued him after his junior year at Norman North High School. He released a letter explaining his decision to stay home. Then, in his senior season, he went out and averaged 42.6 PPG.
This recent trip to lunch with the family highlighted Young’s comfort with his hometown and those who backed him long before the national media attention and his social media popularity increased.
“Everywhere I go out in public, I represent Team Young,” he said. “That’s what I represent and I try to represent as best that I can. At the end of the day, my family are the only people that’s gonna always be there for me.”
At Louie’s restaurant, less than 24 hours after the Oklahoma State road loss — Young scored 48 points on 39 shots in that game — he sat at a long table with his parents and siblings.
There, Ray Young clarified his preference on his name.
“I prefer Ray,” he said. “But my wife prefers Rayford.”
“Or big head,” Caitlyn said.
They all chuckled.
They’re tight-knit and modest. Caitlyn, a standout volleyball player at Norman North, mentioned her team’s back-to-back state titles only after her father’s suggestion. She’s also taking a pair of college courses at Oklahoma while finishing her final year of high school.
Camryn Young and her big brother are inseparable. And Timothy Young will tell you he’s already scorching elementary school courts around town.
For Trae Young, his family is his sounding board and his landing pad amid the chaos.
“We’re lucky he doesn’t let it get to his head,” Caitlyn Young said. “He’s still sitting at the table, not listening to us, like he did before. Everything is the same.”
Added Camryn Young: “He still makes the same corny jokes.”
Young rejected the powerhouses — Kansas and Kentucky among them — to preserve these lighthearted moments with his family.
After Trae Young’s 48-point performance against Oklahoma State on Saturday, ESPN spent the next two days with Young and his family before Oklahoma hosts Kansas. Trae’s father Rayford scored 41 points against the Jayhawks for Texas Tech in 1999.
Over pepperoni pizza, the Youngs talked about this surge in popularity for a player who now communicates on Twitter to 96,000 followers. He had 7,000 followers at the start of his senior season in high school.
He’s enamored of the praise and disappointed by the criticism. Holding his phone in the air as he looked at a scathing tweet, Young shook his head.
“Yo, I hate that,” he said. “They said that about yesterday’s game. If you read about [the Oklahoma State] game, I made it a point in the first half to try to get everyone involved. I was trying my best to keep my turnovers down. I wasn’t trying to force anything.”
He’s always endured naysayers who question whether he is a “point guard” because he recorded more than 40 points per game in high school. He averaged more than seven assists per game too, but most focused on his scoring.
When his offensive gifts made Oklahoma relevant again, he was commended. Now, there seem to be concerns.
At the time of his family lunch, he’d committed 19 turnovers during back-to-back road losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
“I ain’t gonna lie,” Young said then. “It’s hard to bite my tongue. People make me mad. People think they know how the team is feeling. I’m not about to say nothing.”
His father rebuked the doubters.
“That’s why you can’t really let it bother you,” Ray Young said. “You have to use it as motivation.”
Candice Young is the stabilizing force through this journey. The daughter of a preacher, she feels blessed by it all. Years ago, she was a young mother in Lubbock, Texas, with a baby, a boyfriend and an uncertain future. Now she’s the mother of a gifted clan that lives in a pristine home with a brick façade and an HGTV vibe.
The Sunday lunches are part of her plan to keep her family steeped in faith.
She sends text messages on Saturday evening to remind her children that service starts at 10 a.m. the following day.
And Young knows he’ll get a message every Saturday night even if he’s playing for the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers next season.
“It’s important to me,” Candice Young said. “If you’re at home, you’re gonna get up. It’s not an option. I feel like that’s the grounding they get at the beginning of the week. It starts you off right.”
Amid the frenzy around them, it also serves as the family’s base.
Young’s sisters said strangers ask them about their brother’s career and future. New faces want a piece of this Young phenomenon. At 15 and 17, Camryn and Caitlyn Young have had to sort through the genuine and fake folks around them.
“My daughters will tell you,” Ray Young said. “People are trying to DM them on social media. It’s nuts.”
It all happened so fast, Young’s rise to projected lottery pick and favorite to win the Wooden Award.
That’s what you realize when you sit with Young and his family off-camera, away from it all. Their Sunday lunches now serve as a rare escape, a time when Trae Young can take his time and be himself.
Still, he had to leave. Practice would start at 2 p.m.
So he hustled down the steps of the restaurant, jumped into his car and zoomed to practice, where he’d do his best to slow down.
BEFORE THE SUNDAY PRACTICE that followed his team’s loss to Oklahoma State, Young had attempted 10.9 3-pointers per game.
During this practice, it was clear the vibe had changed.The ambitious athlete who put up 39 shots against the Cowboys did not shoot a 3-pointer that afternoon. Coach Lon Kruger spent the two-hour session urging his guards to feed his big men in the post. Young seemed frustrated.
But Kruger, one of two coaches — Tubby Smith is the other — to lead five separate programs to the NCAA tournament, understands talent.
He coached Mitch Richmond during his stint at Kansas State. He helped Stephon Marbury and Allan Houston when he was an assistant with the New York Knicks in the mid-1990s. He led the Buddy Hield craze that ended with a Final Four run for the Sooners and a top-10 slot in 2016’s NBA draft for Hield.
Kruger doesn’t hold his horses; he lets his stars play.
In the practice that followed the OSU loss, however, he made Young pause.
They had meetings in his office and watched film together. On the court, before last week’s win over Kansas, they talked often between drills.
And, it was clear, he’d asked Young to emphasize ball movement to create shots for both himself and his teammates. The 48-points-on-39-shots Trae Young had been retired.
“Better efficiency, fewer turnovers, of course,” Kruger said before his team’s win over Kansas last week. “Trae knows all that.”
Based on Oklahoma’s practices before the Kansas game, Kruger intended to produce those results with more inside-outside flow, using Young as a distributor first, scorer second.
A perturbed Young chose to digest the shift after practice instead of taking additional shots, his normal routine. He wasn’t mad about the directive. He was discouraged by the perception.
He leads the nation in assists. He’s definitely passing the ball. And while he is squandering opportunities with turnovers, he’s also the leader of a squad that won 11 games last season and is now chasing a solid seed in the NCAA tournament.
Per ESPN Stats & Information, Oklahoma shoots nearly 10 percent better when Young helps create offense with a shot or a pass. The team makes 56 percent of its shots inside the arc and collects 1.17 points per possession when he’s on the floor, per hooplens.com.
Yes, he committed seven turnovers against Oklahoma State, but he also helped his squad recover from a 25-6 deficit. Had Young nailed his last-second overtime heave to win the game at Oklahoma State — and scored 51 points — the postgame narrative might have changed.
“It’s gonna look different,” Young said about the tweaks he intended to make after those practices leading into the Kansas game. “Watch.”
Against Kansas, he took nine shots in a 26-point effort — zero 3-point attempts in the first half — and Oklahoma secured an 85-80 victory. The four other starters recorded a 15-for-31 clip that day. A more measured style and pace by Young helped Oklahoma win.
“He was very under control and seemed to make the vast majority of right plays for his team,” Kansas coach Bill Self said after that game.
Against Alabama on Saturday, however, he finished 6-for-17 and committed five turnovers as Oklahoma lost for the fourth time in its past seven games.
“If you win the game, nobody talks about the turnovers,” Ray Young said during the family lunch.
Trae Young will never escape the spotlight in what could be his one season in college basketball. But he’ll try.
He was late for his usual father-son pregame shootaround the night before the Kansas game last week.
“Trae, man,” his father said about his son’s tardiness after checking his text messages. “He went to get a pedicure.”
Yes, Trae Young is a 19-year-old college kid.
Coaches don’t even bother asking him if he wants extra fried chicken from Raising Cane’s at team meals. They just order more for the freshman point guard who plays NBA 2K with the kid brother who idolizes him.
He sends daily texts to Camryn and endures Caitlyn’s wisecracks. He gets pedicures and massages on off-days. He heeds his mother’s Saturday night church alerts. And he carves out time each week to shoot buckets with his father. All of this while the world around him screams, “Slow down, Trae Young!” in tough times and “Keep going, Trae Young!” when his team wins.
Through subsequent challenges, he’ll rely on those lunches at Louie’s and those revitalizing church services to help him remember who’s behind him.
He’s supported by a family that’s trying to help him hold on to something this turbulent ride often steals from the game’s phenoms: his youth.
After they’d finished shooting the night before the Kansas game, Young and his father walked slowly through a corridor at the Lloyd Noble Center.
One day, perhaps soon, they’ll make that trip toward the parking lot for the last time as Young moves on to the NBA.
In the meantime, Young will keep searching for the optimal speed in basketball and life, a 19-year-old driving through the spotlight.
“I know how I can play,” Young said. “I haven’t been playing that great lately. But I feel like it’s tough for me. I get scrutinized for anything I do. I feel like the microscope is so far on me now. It’s just tough. I can’t have a bad game without people saying something. But that just comes with it. I’m OK with it. But I’ve gotta get better.”