NORMAN, Okla. — Trae Young heard the familiar shouts as he tried to focus during his pregame warmup routine.
About a half hour before Oklahoma tipped off its comeback win over Kansas in late January, a small group of children gathered near the court and yelled his name, hoping the hometown hero would notice.
The dynamic freshman did more than just hear. He stopped his routine and walked over to pose for photos and shake hands with the kids before going back to shooting.
"I remember me being that kid growing up," said Young, who was a ball boy for the Sooners. "Me being the kid that grew up going to games and being a ball boy and wanting a high five from Blake Griffin or the other players. I don't forget where I came from, so I like doing it because those kids look up to me like I used to look up to other people."
Young was born in Lubbock, Texas, but he grew up in Norman, Oklahoma as a Sooners fan. He spent his childhood dreaming of being like Griffin, yet seemingly in the blink of an eye, he might already have played his last game at the Lloyd Noble Center. He scored 15 points in Oklahoma's regular-season finale, an 81-60 win over Iowa State on Friday night. He's projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick if he leaves school, though the slender 6-foot-2 guard hasn't made a decision about his future.
"It's crazy," he said Thursday. "It all went by so fast."Kentucky and Kansas were in the running to sign Young, but he chose to stay in Norman with hopes of bringing his beloved Sooners back to glory after a down year. He has exceeded expectations and posted one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history, leading the nation with averages of 27.5 points and 8.9 assists per game. But the Sooners also suffered through a six-game losing streak, and Young has at times been criticized for shooting too much and committing too many turnovers. The Sooners have gone from a No. 4 ranking to an unranked team fighting for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
Through the ups and downs, Young continues to cherish all that has come with going through it in Norman. He's enjoyed taking those who have invested in him over the years along for the ride.
"It appears he's handled it exceptionally well," Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. "From an outside perspective, one of the most satisfying things is to see all the family and all the friends, extended family, be able to share in just an outstanding season that Trae has had."
Last game of February. Time to build some momentum heading into the madness of March.— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) February 28, 2018
Let’s set the scene. pic.twitter.com/qvxP65RJsr
Young first began honing his skills at the Cleveland County Family YMCA in Norman. After that, he started his youth basketball career with the Junior Jammers, a league the City of Norman Parks and Recreation department runs. He remained loyal to Norman in high school, too. Instead of going to a prep school for his senior year, he finished out his career at Norman North High. He averaged 42.6 points, 4.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds as a senior and was a McDonald's All American.
He maintained his local loyalty with his college decision. His choice to attend Oklahoma has given him a special experience with his father, former Texas Tech guard Rayford Young."I can't tell you how exciting it's been having him right down the road," Rayford said. "It's 10 minutes down the street from me, and he comes home a lot, or he will meet my wife for lunch or we will meet somewhere in Norman just to talk. At the same time, he has been able to experience college and be a kid and be on campus and just do college things. It's been great."
But Trae hasn't been just any college kid — he's been one of the most visible and successful players in college basketball. He got onto the nation's radar when he scored 43 points against Oregon on Nov. 26. He gained more attention when he tied the NCAA record with 22 assists against Northwestern State on Dec. 19. He later unleashed three games of at least 40 points in a six-game span. Along the way, a who's who of NBA stars, including LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul became fans.
Trae hears the bad with the good, though. He's keenly aware of his critics, sometimes mentioning slights he's heard or read during postgame interview sessions.
Dad hears it all, too.
.@thetraeyoung averages 10.4 more points than the Big 12's second-leading scorer.— Oklahoma Basketball (@OU_MBBall) February 25, 2018
He is on pace to become the first major conference player in at least 20 years to end the regular season averaging 10+ points more than every other player in a league. pic.twitter.com/bVPpodTgsr
"Quite frankly, he has had some naysayers here locally, which I never thought would be the case," Rayford said. "I mean, it's just part of it. As a dad, it is my job to make sure I teach him the lessons of this game and just keep reminding him that things aren't going to be always rosy. Him staying here has been great. It's been the best decision of his life to go to Oklahoma rather than other schools, but at the same time, it's been tough."
Even with the doubters mixed in, he remains accessible to the locals, his 620,000 Instagram followers and his 118,000 Twitter followers. He often uses the live feature on Instagram to allow fans a closer look into his life. After the Iowa State game, he returned to the courtside area after changing out of his uniform and signed autographs and posed for photos with fans for about five minutes.
Dewitt Zepu, associate student pastor at Victory Family Church in Norman, said Young has been that way for years. He said Young gets swarmed when he comes to church and always handles it gracefully.
"Every time I see him before games, on social media, all that — he's interacting with people because he knows the importance of when you touch somebody or inspire somebody, they're going to remember that when they get older, and they are going to grow with that," Zepu said. "He's always loving on people and interacting with people — especially children who aspire to be like him someday."
Soon, though, he might leave town for good.
"I know pretty soon he will have to step out and be on his own and dad won't always be there, but I think this was a critical time for both of us to be together and go through this process," Rayford said. "College is a big step from high school, but he was able to make that adjustment as a freshman, which is just amazing. It's really been a blessing."