Lost Pressure: How Oklahoma freshman phenom Trae Young ignores expectations and will get the Sooners back on track

Oklahoma Athletics
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KANSAS CITY — Trae Young knew he had slipped up as soon as he said it.

Surrounded by reporters, the five-star freshman uttered a word he loathes, going so far as to refuse its very existence, when asked the pros and cons of staying in his hometown to be Oklahoma University’s star point guard.

“I know it’s a lot of pressure,” he said, wanting to reel the word back in as soon as it entered the atmosphere inside the Sprint Center at Big 12 media day Tuesday.

“I don’t know why I said pressure,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t use the word pressure. It’s just a lot on my plate, is what I say.”

“I don’t use that word. I’m going to hit myself later for saying that.”

Whatever word you want to use to describe it, the spotlight will be on Young this season as the centerpiece of the Sooners’ hoped bounce-back season following last year’s 11-20 record coming off a Final Four the previous season.

“He’s done a really good job of making it about his teammates and making it about others, the program,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said, “and he’s a guy that could go off individually and hasn’t done that. He’s very — he’s smart with regard to the value of doing things as a group and he knows, too, that he needs his teammates to play well and he’s doing everything he can to help encourage them and motivate them to do everything they can and certainly his teammates appreciate what he can do.”

The whole of Oklahoma knows what Young can do after he averaged 42.6 points per game as a senior at Norman North High School, which is all of 4 miles north of the Sooners’ Lloyd Noble Center home. He joins legends Blake Griffin, Wayman Tisdale and Jeff Webster as Oklahomans who stayed home with the Sooners after being a McDonald’s All-American.

That makes walking campus something of an event for Young.

“I’m the type of guy, I like to interact with a lot of people, like meeting new people,” he said. “To be able to see all the people on campus, to see what it’s like to be a college student, it’s been fun.

“Sometimes I’m late to class just because I’m getting stopped, but it’s fun. I love it.”

Young had plenty of opportunity to bolt from the familiarity of home to one of the country’s basketball factories that takes in highly-rated recruits and churns out highly-drafted prospects every single year.  He sought counsel from a pair of his peers in the same situation.

“People like Mohammed (Bamba),” Young said of the potential No. 1 draft pick now at Texas. “Me and him are really close. Him and my best friend (Missouri freshman) Michael Porter. We talk almost every day. Us three are really close.”

That allowed them to compare notes.

Lon Kruger (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

“We were both recruited by Kentucky and Kansas,” Bamba said, “and we just kind of picked each other’s brains over what we thought.

“It was just good to have someone you could relate to.”

In the end, though, Young’s decision centered on one simple truth.

“He wanted,” Bamba said, “to be home.”

Young now straddles something between savior and servant. The Sooners, of course, hardly need saving just 18 months removed from a Final Four, but an 11-20 season doesn’t exactly create endearing memories for anyone. Young has the talent to make an instant impact, but not just with his prodigious talent and prolific scoring.

“His ability to lead and bring in a group of people,” Bamba said. “The fact he was able to do it at these different camps where people don’t necessarily care about each other. The fact he was able to do it at camp, shows he’ll be able to do it anywhere.

“He was big on making sure he wouldn’t try to make a home run play. He’ll try to do different things to set it up, get the best shot possible. Which is what a point guard should do.”

The crazy-hyped freshman phenom who also happens to be the hometown hero operates in a somewhat delicate space when first arriving in a locker room. An ability to spread the love on the court goes a long way.

“Trae has outstanding skill,” Kruger said. “Anytime you’ve got a player like that, he’s got an opportunity to make players around him better by attracting attention, by driving and attracting help defender and kicking.”

Which is exactly what Young says he’s looking to do.

“I feel like I’m very prepared to come in, do what coach Kruger says, push the pace and do what he tells me to do,” Young said. “Me and him, we watch film all the time. Almost every day. That helps coming in and knowing what he wants.”

Young may have the most potential of any Sooner recruit since Blake Griffin stepped on campus a decade ago, but it’s a Sooner who was lightly regarded as a recruit and grew into a lottery pick that begs comparison. Buddy Hield came to Oklahoma with few believing his NBA prospects, but became one of the best in school history through a legendary work ethic. That drive is something that their mutual coach believes his newest star shares.

“I think that they’re both equally motivated,” Kruger said. “That’s the key. Whatever makes you love getting up and working to be better every day. I think both are kind of equal in that way, kind of from a different starting point. Both are very competitive, and both want to do really great things.”

A lofty comparison for a player who’s yet to take a competitive dribble. It’s one that a freshman, playing in his hometown, with the weight of massive expectation and a boundless professional future might shrink from.

Trae Young, though?

“There’s no such thing,” he said, “as pressure.”