PITTSBURGH — The perspiration had dried on Trae Young’s crimson Oklahoma jersey Thursday afternoon, and as he stood in a back hallway at PPG Paints Arena, perspective was setting in.
“I learned a lot,” he said, after a season of wild swings of fortune and a star turn that was unforeseen back in early November.
The education of Trae Young now reaches a new stage. A decision stage. The prevailing wisdom has the 19-year-old Young turning in that Oklahoma jersey for a shot at the NBA, effective very soon. He’s a top-10 pick in many mock drafts, which renders virtually every one of these stay-or-go deliberations quite predictable.
Which made the comment from Young’s father, Rayford, minutes after the end of the Sooners’ season here Thursday rather interesting.
“I would love for him to think about coming back and maybe being national player of the year next year,” Rayford Young said, sitting in the front row of the arena after Rhode Island beat Oklahoma 83-78 in overtime. “But it’s his career, his life.”
That adds an element of uncertainty and drama to the upcoming Young family deliberations. And it was nice to hear.
At a time when it’s never been more clear how many young star basketball players are considered commodities by agents, coaches, sneaker execs and even some parents, here was a father thinking of something far different than how soon his son can become rich. He was thinking about a second year of college for his kid.
What a concept.
Trae said he will indeed think about it, just not right now. Family discussions probably will begin in earnest in the coming days. Young noted several times that he was part of a young team this season, and that the future is bright at Oklahoma. He also chose his words very carefully when it came to whether he was included himself in that future.
“This team’s going to be – this team is young,” said Young. “I mean, this is a good experience from last year, only winning 11 games [in 2016-17] to coming to the NCAA tournament is a big jump. So I can’t wait to see the jump from now to next year.”
Problem is, this Oklahoma team’s jump ended with a dive. After an overachieving 14-2 start that elevated Young to national leading man status, reality caught up with the Sooners and their slender young star. They lost 11 of their last 15 games and slid perilously close to NCAA tourney bubble territory.
As it turned out, Oklahoma was in the field with some degree of comfort as a No. 10 seed. That made little sense to a lot of people, who suspected that the Sooners were given preferential treatment by the NCAA selection committee in order to get the nation’s leader in both scoring and assists into the field and on TV. They are, after all, in the business of putting on a three-week TV show, and Trae Young has been compelling TV all season.
True or not, it ratcheted up the pressure all the more on Young and the Sooners for this game against No. 7 seed Rhode Island. If Oklahoma flopped, as it had done in losing five of its last seven games all by double digits, the criticism would flow in torrents.
Young’s game against Rhode Island was pretty much par for the latter half of his season: he had a lot of points (28) and assists (seven), but also took some cringe-worthy shots and had six turnovers. As usual, there were stretches of time when his teammates looked like they weren’t sure whether to throw everything on Young’s slender shoulders or to bypass him and find other ways to score.
That might be the ultimate epitaph for the 32-game Trae Young Era, if it is now over at Oklahoma: he elevated the program, but his singular dominance also capped the program’s growth.
But Oklahoma didn’t flop Thursday. It didn’t leave itself subject to derision, at least not from rational critics. It simply lost to a better team, in overtime, in an exciting game that opened the Thursday buffet of first-round games.
“This team fought hard,” Young said. “I’m proud of the way we handled ourselves in this roller coaster year.”
Young should be proud of the way he handled himself, too. He was served up to a system that cannibalizes young stars and survived with his dignity intact.
The kid was not expected to be the biggest star in college basketball when the season started. But then he had his first 30-point scoring outing in his fourth college game, and a 40-pointer in his fifth, and 22-assist performance in his 10th. By then, ESPN had latched on with all the subtlety of a swarm of piranha, putting a Trae Young stat tracker graphic on all of Oklahoma’s games and building programming around him.
It quickly became too much for a guy who still had a lot of learning to do, and a supporting cast that wasn’t terribly talented. On Jan. 20, Young launched 39 shots in an overtime loss to Oklahoma State and was buried for it. Three days later he took nine shots, an internal overreaction to the external overreaction.
Four days after that, Young was held to 17 points in a loss at Alabama and the Sooner Schooner started to wobble in earnest. It never would regain a semblance of cohesive momentum.
“I had to learn how to take the good with the bad,” said Young, who had some notably emotional reactions as a high schooler after defeats. Forced to become more familiar with the bad as this season went along, Young grew up and toughened up.
“This is all the process,” Young said. “This is all – this is a chapter in my book. This season, that chapter is closed now. They got to move on to, I mean, whatever’s next. Whatever’s next for me.”
What’s next is a decision about his basketball future. Turning pro would seem to be a no-brainer, but maybe not. Whether difficult or easy, it isn’t something Rayford Young envisioned for his son as recently as six months ago.
“We’re just so proud,” he said, “that we have a conversation ahead of us.”
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