As he relaxed in front of the TV in his Shanghai apartment this past winter, Jimmer Fredette occasionally stumbled across a basketball game featuring Oklahoma phenom Trae Young.
For Fredette, it was like watching a younger version of himself.
Seven years after Fredette’s YouTube-worthy scoring exploits elevated him into a folk hero at BYU and a phenomenon across the country, Young also rocketed to national prominence while authoring one of the finest offensive seasons in recent college basketball history. Part of what made both captivating was how they reduced defenders to dust with just a crossover dribble and a flick of the wrist. Part of it was that they did it with everyman physical tools rather than the imposing size or explosive quickness of a prototypical NBA prospect.
They both possessed the confidence to pull up from the edge of the mid-court logo and the range to snap the net from that distance. They both used the threat of sinking an impossibly deep 3-pointer to open up opportunities to attack off the dribble. And they both were burdened with the responsibility of generating such a high percentage of their teams’ scoring chances that defense became an afterthought, a time to recuperate while gearing up for the next possession.
“He definitely reminded me of myself because of how he played and the phenomenon that he became,” Fredette told Yahoo Sports from Atlanta, where his team won a pair of games in The Basketball Tournament over the weekend to move within two victories of claiming the event’s $2 million prize. “He’s such a hard worker and he can really shoot the ball and pass the ball. Watching him play was really fun.”
Young and Fredette aren’t identical players by any means, but there are enough similarities in their gunslinging style of play and the spectacle that surrounds them to raise an obvious question: Will their careers continue to follow a similar arc? Can Young validate the Atlanta Hawks’ controversial decision to trade down to select him fifth overall in last month’s NBA draft? Or will Young’s star fizzle like Fredette’s did over the course of five seasons on the fringes of the NBA?
Count Fredette among those optimistic that Young will flourish, an opinion that stems in part from the favorable impression the 19-year-old left the only time they met in person. Inside a near-empty church gym in Colorado one day last summer, Fredette and Young worked out together and engaged in a spirited shooting competition worthy of a bigger stage.
How Fredette, Young briefly became work-out partners
The workout was a result of their mutual relationship with player development coach Nick Graham, who trains Fredette each offseason and connected with Young through the point guard’s father. When Rayford Young sent his son to train with Graham in Colorado for a week in June 2017, Graham thought it would be helpful for Trae to meet Fredette and observe the former BYU star’s work ethic and competitive drive up close.
“Trae was a little bit in awe,” Graham said. “He was like, ‘Man, I’m working with Jimmer Fredette. I better take advantage of it.’ He’d watch his approach and ask questions, but at the same time when they were playing 1-on-1, he was going at Jimmer. Jimmer got the best of Trae as you’d expect, but at the end of the day you could tell that these were two pretty gifted players.”
— Nick Graham (@cultureordie) June 21, 2018
What often struck Graham throughout Young’s time in Colorado was how similarly he and Fredette carried themselves, from their spirituality, to their competitive streaks, to their drive to be great. Young and Fredette are both laid-back and easygoing away from basketball, but heaven help anyone nearby when either one shoots poorly in a drill in practice or endures a rare off night during a game.
“Let Jimmer miss 3 shots out of 10 and I already know what’s coming,” Graham said. “He’s about to throw the ball. He’s about to get pissed off. It’s the same way with Trae. They both have a fiery commitment to being great. They’re really nice, good people, raised the right way, but if you spend any time watching them go about their business, they’re just built different. They’re two of the most driven people I’ve ever met.”
The parallels continued when Young arrived at Oklahoma and blossomed into the face of the 2017-18 college basketball season while leading the nation in scoring and assists. By midseason, Young had attained the sort of celebrity status typically only reserved for the most hallowed Sooners football heroes.
A throng of fans seeking selfies or autographs often surrounded Young whenever he visited the mall or attended an Oklahoma City Thunder game. NBA luminaries such as LeBron James and Steph Curry praised him after big games. TV personalities breathlessly hyped him as he led Oklahoma to a 14-2 start only to tear him down as the burden of carrying a flawed team became too heavy and the Sooners crashed back to earth.
If any recent college basketball star could understand how abruptly Young’s life had changed, it was probably Fredette, the player none other than Kevin Durant once referred to as the “best scorer in the world.” At the height of Jimmermania, Fredette didn’t dare venture out in public anywhere in the state of Utah.
He resorted to enrolling in online courses for his final semester after weeks of getting mobbed on campus and showing up to classes an hour late. He ordered most meals via delivery to avoid constantly being interrupted mid-bite by a swarm of autograph requests. He checked into hotels using an alias and left BYU’s home arena undercover after games to avoid being spotted.
“My now-wife, at the time my girlfriend, had to drive her car to a secret entrance so that I could leave because there were so many people waiting outside,” Fredette said. “They would bang on the windows as we left. It got pretty crazy for awhile.”
Why Fredette’s NBA career fizzled and Young’s may flourish
When the Sacramento Kings made a trade to nab Fredette 10th overall in the 2011 NBA draft, the former BYU star wasn’t naive enough to believe he’d receive the same freedom to launch threes and dominate the ball that he had in college. Fredette instead expected to gradually earn the trust of the coaches just like he had at previous levels, but his transition to the NBA proved to be rockier than he anticipated.
With no summer-league games or training camp to acclimate himself to the NBA before the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, Fredette instead dove headlong into a dysfunctional Kings team long on volume shooters but lacking leadership or distributors. Sacramento didn’t believe Fredette was a capable enough passer to serve as point guard, so Fredette played off ball for the first time in his career, a difficult adjustment for a player accustomed to creating his own shots almost exclusively off the dribble instead of via catch-and-shoot looks.
“I had some opportunities to create, but I was definitely playing off the ball more,” Fredette said. “That was something I hadn’t done a ton in my life, so I had to try to get used to it. I worked as hard as I could to work on catch-and-shoot things and moving without the basketball. That’s something I’ve gotten a lot better at as my career has gone on.”
While Fredette lacked sufficient lateral quickness defensively and struggled to find the appropriate balance between hijacking possessions and waiting for open shots to find him, the instability around him in Sacramento certainly didn’t help. Not only was ownership exploring potential moves to Seattle or Anaheim, the Kings also fired coach Paul Westphal only seven games into the 2011-12 season, an ill-timed move for Fredette since replacement coach Keith Smart never appeared to be as invested in the former BYU star.
Fredette logged sporadic minutes in Sacramento and never averaged more than 7.6 points before the Kings cut him midway through his third season. The Chicago Bulls, New Orleans Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs each gave Fredette chances, but he never received the freedom to try to recapture his college magic, nor did he display enough improvement as a catch-and-shoot specialist or playmaking point guard to compensate for his revolving-door defense.
“I wish I could have handled things a little better and played a little better when I got in there, and there’s really no one else to blame for that except for myself,” Fredette said. “At the same time, a lot of it is trying to find the right situation as well. I’m not sure I ever had that.”
Fredette expects Young to make a smoother transition to the NBA than he did in part because he landed with a franchise that believes in him. Atlanta general manager Travis Schlenk bet big on stardom for Young, passing on the chance to select Slovenian phenom Luka Doncic at No. 3 in order to trade back and nab the skilled Oklahoma point guard a few spots earlier than most mock drafts suggested he’d be taken.
“The NBA is about being the right fit at the right time with a coaching staff and players that believe in you and your skill set.” Fredette said. “He’ll have an opportunity to play a lot of minutes right away for that Atlanta team, which is going to help him. He’s going to go through some growing pains as well, but he’s also going to have an opportunity to work through it and to do what he does. He has their full support. He has a great opportunity to succeed.”
What should also help Young is that his role won’t change as dramatically as Fredette’s did. He certainly won’t take 39 shots in a single game for Atlanta the way he once did at Oklahoma, but Young’s elite passing ability and court vision will undoubtedly allow him to remain a point guard for the entirety of his NBA career. If anything, his job on offense should be easier in the NBA because he won’t be constantly trapped and double teamed, he’ll have a more talented supporting cast and he won’t have to shoulder so great a load.
Perhaps that will help Young conserve energy to expend on defense, a weakness throughout his freshman season at Oklahoma. Too often he lost concentration, failed to stay in front of his man or chose not to fight through a screen, mistakes that will not be tolerated at the next level.
In today’s mismatch-oriented NBA, a player as slight of stature and disinterested on defense as Young will turn out to be a magnet for switches. Opponents will use ball screens to force Young to guard their best perimeter scorer until the former Oklahoma star proves he can string together stops or the Hawks pull him off the floor.
When Young begins his rookie season for the Hawks next fall, Fredette will likely be watching from his apartment in Shanghai once again. He has averaged 32.8 points in four victories at The Basketball Tournament this month, but the 29-year-old has yet to receive a nibble of interest from an NBA franchise.
Asked what advice he’d have for Young before his NBA debut, Fredette said, “I would tell him to control the things you can control.”
Added Fredette, “You can control your attitude, your work ethic and if you’re happy or not. If you can control those things, you’re going to be as successful as you can be.”
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