NORMAN, Okla. — A wiry Trae Young would cut to the front of the warmup lines, and Norman North forward Payton Prince would pull him back.
Those spots were reserved for seniors or key contributors, which, at that time, included the 6-3, 235-pound Prince. Usually stern words from such a larger figure would be enough for a freshman to find his place. Yet, the next day, after being shoved to the back, Young was at it again.
He believed he was one of the best among his peers. He is now, leading college basketball in scoring (29.9) and assists (9.3) at Oklahoma. He had that confidence as a little kid when he played for his father, Ray, and was mad he wasn't starting.
“Trae had the little-man syndrome, because he played with the older kids,” Ray said. “He'd say, 'Dad I'm the best player on the team. Why am I not starting?' I was like, 'Son, these guys are better than you right now.' But he's always had that confidence about him.”
Still, it grew when he defied even his father's expectations. Ray was concerned his son wouldn't make the varsity team as a freshman. By the end of the year, Young was starting. That's when “things started to change for him” according to Ray.
Four years later, his confidence has to be sky-high to play such a unique role for the Sooners. Young either scores or assists on most of OU's field goals, rarely leaves the court and touts a 38.6 usage rate, the highest in the country.
“He never feels down on himself,” one of his closest friends, former North teammate Josh Crutchfield said. “It's insane. I've never seen it before, a guy who could be 4 for 20 [shooting] and never lose confidence in himself.”
Norman North coach Bryan Merritt compared him to former NFL quarterback Brett Farve. In his analogy, even if Farve threw an interception on the previous play, he'd still believe he'd be able to fit a pass into a near-impossible window on the next one.
“He knows when he doesn't play well, and he'll tell you,” Merritt said. “But there's no way you could possibly tell him that the next time he wasn't going to turn it around and play fantastic. No way.”
What separates Young, is that he hears almost every criticism, even digests it. A stray fan makes fun of his hair, his defense or a missed 3-pointer? He hears it. He will hear his coach shouting instructions to him, his teammates calling for the ball, Ray's encouragement and yet, want to prove that fan wrong all in the same moment.
“He's got more stuff going on in his head why he's trying to play a game than anybody I've ever seen,” Merritt said. “I have no idea how he does that. He can come over and not only tell you all those things, he can tell you real close to his stat line.”
He'll often talk about his stats in the postgame press conference, too. When turnovers or missed shots will draw his attention as much as 30-plus points or 10-plus assists. He makes sure to point out his missteps every time.
“He just wants to make sure he does everything right,” Ray said. “Nothing's perfect, but he just wants to be as close to perfect as possible.”
Ray blames it partly on himself. That's their dynamic. Young's sister, Caitlyn, laughs when asked if her father ever took it easy on him.
“No, never,” she said. “There was really not a lot my dad would praise him for. Because of that, he developed his confidence from getting better each game. So he realized, 'I didn't do that right, but I did this right.'”
Countless hours in the gym also helped, when Ray would help work on those critiques. This is where Young says his confidence emanates. That much preparation makes it hard to not be confident.
Maybe, that's why all of the outside noise doesn't affect him. Or as Crutchfield says, “It's not exhausting to him. He's just used it to it.'” Crutchfield's father, Chris, is an assistant coach at OU. He spent plenty of hours recruiting Young and believes this to be a unique strength.
“It's just his mental maturity,” Chris said. “He is 19, and I think certain things do bother him. Some things make him feel good based on what he sees, but it takes a level of security, a level of humbleness to deal with both sides of it, hot or cold.
“His face is on TV everyday. Somebody is talking about him everyday. I think your ability to stay in the lane that you're in, not get too high or too low, he's been able to do that.”
McKelvey writes for The Norman Transcript, a CNHI News Service publication.