Report: Trae Young is the top target of a sneaker company that hasn't made a basketball shoe in years

Yahoo Sports

After Tuesday’s 2018 NBA draft lottery, we’ll know which teams will be in line to pick in which spots come June’s 2018 NBA draft, and we’ll start projecting and prognosticating about which prospects would be the best fits for which NBA teams. As we teams conduct workouts and interviews, and as we engage in mock after mock after mock, there’ll be another set of sprints going on, as agents and brand representatives look to ink top prospects to the “footwear and apparel endorsement” deals in an increasingly competitive arms race that has produced some lucrative business opportunities over the years.

In most years, the most highly sought-after signee is the player considered most likely to go No. 1 overall, with top brands vying for the signatures of touted talents like Markelle Fultz, Ben Simmons, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving and John Wall. Things might unfold a little differently this year, though.

Trae Young led the NCAA in points and assists per game as a freshman at Oklahoma before declaring for the 2018 NBA draft. (Getty)
Trae Young led the NCAA in points and assists per game as a freshman at Oklahoma before declaring for the 2018 NBA draft. (Getty)

According to plugged-in sneaker reporter Nick DePaula of ESPN, “a handful of sneaker brands” view former Oklahoma guard Trae Young — a very likely lottery pick, but one most frequently slotted somewhere between the fifth and eighth overall selections in most mock drafts — as “the most marketable player in the NBA draft class of 2018” … to the point that one sneaker brand that’s been out of the hoops game for almost 20 years and is now looking to get back into the business wants Young to be its signature star.

Why Trae Young?

Well, for one thing, dudes who can do cool stuff generate attention, and Young — a 6-foot-2, 180-pound whisper of a thing with a ratchet and boundless confidence — can do cool stuff:

It’s not just that Young led the nation in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.7 dimes a night) as a freshman. It’s that he did it with a brand of audacity — pulling up from miles behind the 3-point line, using the threat of his jumper to dust opponents off the bounce, shaking defenders with his dribble, throwing stylish passes to cutting teammates in the half-court and in transition — that gets fans talking and gets them running back all those highlights. The more they do that, the more likely they are to notice what’s on his feet.

“There’s a magic to certain players. There’s an ‘it factor’ that’s hard to quantify, and I believe he has that,” Omar Wilkes, one of Young’s agents at Octagon Sports, told DePaula.

And while some might worry how the smaller, slighter Young will fare when tasked with creating against NBA defense and athleticism every night, it’s also possible that the skills that made him so tough to handle at Oklahoma will play up at the next level, only increasing his value as a generator of on-court offense and off-court interest.

“Get him in the open floor of an NBA game and he will excel in a way the restrictive nature of college never afforded him,” our Jordan Schultz wrote last month.

Context is everything

Several other members of the 2018 class have been considered higher-end on-court prospects than Young to this point in the draft evaluation cycle. But most of them are big men — centers Deandre Ayton, Mo Bamba and Wendell Carter, four/five combos Marvin Bagley III and Jaren Jackson Jr. — who rarely profile as major unit-movers in the sneaker game.

Potential No. 1 overall pick Luka Doncic has plenty of flash to his game, but he’s also a Slovenian point forward coming to the U.S. after playing professionally in Spain, so how marketable a commodity he’ll be to stateside audiences remains to be seen. Michael Porter Jr., last year’s top prep recruit and an exciting scoring prospect, barely played in college after back surgery scuttled nearly all of his lone season at Missouri, negatively impacting his visibility on the national stage.

Young, meanwhile, became one of the most buzzed-about players in the country. He hung 43 on both Oregon and TCU, nearly logged a triple-double against rival Oklahoma State and exploded for 44 against Baylor, leading the Sooners to a 14-2 start to the season and a spot as high as No. 4 in the rankings, before Oklahoma’s opponents began redoubling their efforts to contain Young and force his teammates to beat them, as OU dropped 11 of 15 down the stretch. All the while, he showcased the kind of highlight-producing, Steph-evoking game that helped make him a no-brainer early entrant into the draft pool … and now, reportedly, the most coveted endorsement candidate of the incoming freshman class.

All the big brands are in on Trae … and so is another one

According to DePaula, Young’s slated to sit down with prospective endorsers next week, after the lottery solidifies the order of June’s draft, with “Nike, Adidas, Under Armour and Puma […] all expected to present.”

Wait: Puma? Like, Puma Puma?

Yep! From DePaula:

When Trae Young and his family met with Roc Nation Sports during the process of vetting potential agents, there was an added twist to the presentation. A representative from sportswear company Puma was in the room as part of a big-picture pitch: The brand believes so strongly in Young’s star potential that it wants to make him the face of Puma basketball as the company looks to re-enter the basketball sneaker landscape for the first time in nearly two decades. […]

Puma, the wild card in the mix, plans to present Young with a prototype of its upcoming fall basketball sneaker this week in advance of its official pitch. Then the Puma team will showcase its marketing plans, future product concepts, growth strategy and an overview of how the brand plans to re-engage in basketball. […]

“This is their first real foray back into basketball since 1998 with Vince Carter,” Wilkes said. “The possibility to be the seminal piece to re-establish that category for Puma is what’s enticing.”

Things didn’t work out so hot for Puma in that last deal, which is why the brand’s been out of the basketball business for virtually the entire lifetime of the athlete they’re pushing to sign. But Puma has continued to remain viable away from the hardwood over the years, inking endorsement deals with high-profile athletes from other sports (legendary sprinter Usain Bolt, soccer stars Sergio Aguero, Antoine Griezmann and Mario Balotelli) and a slew of celebrities, including Rihanna, Jay-Z, Meek Mill, Big Sean, The Weeknd and Kylie Jenner.

The argument for Puma

Beyond the international presence and celebrity cachet, Puma can offer Young the chance to be not just one light in a galaxy of stars, but the sun in their sky. Maybe that, and the chance to get your own signature sneaker before you even play an NBA game — and to have it not be one your dad made — intrigues Young more than securing a spot with a brand that’s more established in the basketball world, but where he’d have to wait in line behind other, bigger names.

Which path Young chooses remains to be seen, but it appears he’ll have quite a few open to him. He might have to wait a little bit to hear his name called on draft night, but in one of the important games behind the game for incoming talent, it sounds like Trae Young’s a hot enough commodity to be the one calling his own shot.

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Dan Devine is a writer and editor for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@oath.com or follow him on Twitter!

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