How Atlanta Hawks rookie Trae Young created his own avatar for ‘NBA 2K19’
The Steph Curry comparisons keep coming, but the shooting sensation has his own moves
PETALUMA, California — At 11:15 a.m. on the dot, an UberBLACK pulls up to a building tucked deep in a collection of industrial offices. Back on the main road, a mile marker sign reads “SONOMA 9 NAPA 20” — the building is near the heart of California’s wine country. The Uber’s lone passenger, however, didn’t come to tour a vineyard for a tasting. At 19, he can’t even legally drink.
Instead, Trae Young, the rookie point guard of the Atlanta Hawks, came to hoop, and get the moves that helped him reach the NBA digitally scanned into a video game. He’s fresh in from Las Vegas, where he was working out after playing in the NBA’s summer league.
The motion capture (mocap) facility is operated by 2K Games, the publisher of NBA 2K, the megapopular game series that debuted on Sega Dreamcast in 1999. In two decades, the franchise has sold more than 80 million units, and last year’s edition, NBA 2K18, sold a record 10 million units. When Young swings open the door, it’s about a month before both the Sept. 7 release of the 20th anniversary edition of NBA 2K19, featuring LeBron James on the cover, and the Sept. 11 release of the game’s standard edition, covered by Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Gamers who preordered the anniversary edition for $99.99 got early access to play 2K19, as well as exclusive physical and digital items with their purchase — from a poster and wristband to five James-themed murals for the MyCourt mode, and James’ collection of Nike LeBron apparel and footwear to be worn virtually in the game.)
Young gets acquainted with essentially every employee in the building before Mike Wang, NBA 2K’s gameplay director, introduces himself. It’s the job of Wang and gameplay producer Jesse Bean to be on court with Young and lead the session. Wang informs the phenom that to ensure every move he makes is authentically translated into the video game, they’ll have to guard him.
“We play some really sticky defense out here, but we’ll try not to bust your ass too hard,” Wang jokes with Young. “But anything you want to do … anything you want to see on your guy in the game, let us know.”
Inside a locker, the motion capture suit awaits Young. It’s a Velcro jacket, stirrups and beanie that fit him like a second skin. The suit features 60 rubber balls, called markers, located at all major joints of the body. They’re covered with reflective tape that allows cameras to capture movement.
“This really feels comfy,” Young says after suiting up. A few moments pass, and he’s all, “I feel really weird now … like I don’t even feel the outfit. … Man, I don’t know about this anymore.” Outside the dressing room is a huge wall of markered sneakers in all sizes and models. But Young, Adidas’ biggest rookie signing heading into June’s NBA draft, brought his own kicks: a pair of “Chalk Coral” Harden Vol. 1s. Additional rubber balls have to be added on them before he steps into the facility’s basketball studio, which the folks at 2K refer to as “The Volume.”
It’s a half court with only one hoop and no perimeter seating. The space is set up with 140 cameras and is overlooked by a capture station that serves as an eye in the sky. Up there, at a table of computers, a small group of stage technicians can take the skeleton of an athlete participating in the capture session, apply it to a character model and see how movements will look in the actual game. The area was elevated at the request of Spike Lee when he wrote and directed NBA 2K16’s MyCareer story mode.
On the court, 2K assistant director Alex Grant takes her place under the basket, with a microphone and earbuds that connect her to upstairs. Bean preps the drills and moves he has in mind for Young. And Wang delivers some advice before the cameras start rolling.
“The harder you go,” he tells the NBA and mocap rookie, “the better.”
The day before the 2018 NBA draft, when the Dallas Mavericks selected Young fifth overall before trading him and a future pick to the Hawks in exchange for Slovenian star Luka Doncic, 2K partnered with the one-and-done product of the University of Oklahoma for a mini-documentary. In They Will Know Your Name, the two-minute short named after 2K19’s tagline, Young wanted to set the record straight. The opening lines of the doc hit hard, like one of his deep 3s at the end of the shot clock: “I don’t wanna be known for anybody else,” he says. “I don’t wanna be the next Steph Curry.”
— NBA 2K19 (@NBA2K) June 20, 2018
For Young, the comparisons to the two-time NBA MVP and three-time Finals champion of the Golden State Warriors are unavoidable. Curry is 6-feet-3 and Young is 6-feet-2, and each weighs less than 200 pounds. Both players are light-skinned point guards who keep the rock on a string and possess the ability to sink jump shots from spots on the court farther than James Naismith could ever have imagined when he invented the game of basketball.
“He’s Steph Curry, and he’s Steph Curry for a reason,” Young says. “I’m Trae Young, and I’m not gonna pride myself in being him. … Obviously, I wanna achieve the things that he’s achieved, but that doesn’t make me wanna be him. I wanna be my own person.”
Young first got called the second coming of Curry during his senior year of high school, when he averaged 42.6 points, 4.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. A five-star recruit ranked by ESPN as the nation’s fourth-best point guard in the 2017 class, Young decided to stay local and play college ball at Oklahoma, which is also in Norman, about a 10-minute drive from his alma mater, Norman North High School.
What came next for Young is history. Not even Curry’s 2006-07 freshman season at Davidson College in North Carolina compares to what Young did in his first year for the Sooners. With averages of 27.4 points and 8.7 assists a game, Young — remember, as a freshman — became the first player in NCAA history to lead the country in scoring and assists.
A consensus first-team All-American, he finished more games with 40-plus points (four) than he had with 15 or fewer points (two). He tied the NCAA single-game assists record with 22 and dropped a season-high 48 in the “Bedlam” rivalry matchup with Oklahoma State. Against Texas Christian University in January, Young hit a season-high 10 3-pointers, although he says he’s tallied 12 in a game before — a mark one shy of the NBA’s single-game 3-point record, held by none other than Curry. “I would like to break it,” Young says confidently. “I definitely feel like I’m capable of breaking it. But that’s a lot of 3s in a game. I ain’t gonna lie.”
Young’s freshman year on the court at Oklahoma was so prolific that in the middle of the season a YouTuber uploaded a tutorial video of how to create him in NBA 2K18. “That’s crazy,” he says. “The fact that people took the time to do that … is pretty cool. I didn’t know nothing about that. Maybe I would’ve updated and put me in the game.”
Less than a year later, here he is — inside 2K’s mocap studio, getting ready to officially be put into the game. Grant, the director, takes Young through a sequence of simple motions: an A pose, a T pose, a backward arms-out pose, a triple threat stance on both the left and right sides, a lunge, a squat, a shooting motion, a front arms extension, a roll of the head and roll of the wrists. Finally, Young catches a basketball thrown his way and commences to employ a combination of crossovers as he looks off to the right side of a court, where one television stands. On screen is an avatar paired to Young. When he moves, it moves.
“Hold on, hold on, hold on … that’s me?” Young says in awe. “Bruh! That’s so clean. … You gotta make him light-skin, though. … He looks like a zombie.”
Young hits the Nae Nae and Milly Rock while singing, “Ice Trae the gang … Ice Trae the gang … Ice Trae the gang” — his personalized remix of the Quavo and Lil Yachty track “Ice Tray.” Quavo, the Migos frontman and Atlanta sports superfan, was one of the first people to tweet at Young on draft night, welcoming him to the city and the Hawks. They frequently text and FaceTime.
The initial excitement wears off, and it’s time to get serious. “Try to do your best to create a game situation,” Wang says before Young goes toe-to-toe with Bean for some one-on-one. “Mocap ready? Action!”
Young breaks out his most intricate moves — first a between-the-legs double crossover into a floater, then a left-handed in-and-out dribble into a Jelly Fam layup. Four televisions play back each shot from different angles. It takes a little while for Young to get adjusted to going full speed in the suit. He loses the ball a couple of times and misses a few shots. Frustration mounts.
“It’s all about the motion,” Wang guarantees. “Don’t worry.” At the top of the key, Wang suggests something specific for Young to try: a crossover dribble from left to right that transforms smoothly into a behind-the-back wrap dribble back to the left hand. “You know … how Steph does,” Wang says of Curry’s trademark handle. “I don’t want mine to look exactly like Steph’s,” Young retorts. “I wanna mix it up a bit.”
Young has another move in mind — one he brought to his game back in high school, that was actually inspired by a one-on-one play he once saw from Curry. Young takes a swift dribble to the right, wraps the ball around his back at waist level, steps back to the left and fires from deep. In early 2017, the complex combo became a viral craze known as the #TraeYoungChallenge.
“I wanted to make sure that was in the game this year,” Young says. And he wanted it to be perfect. After misses on his first couple of attempts, he lets a beauty fly. “There it is!” Wang exclaims. The fourth time’s the charm too. A swish from well beyond the 3-point arc over Bean’s extended arm. Facial.
“Off-the-bus range,” Young says of his ability to hit 3s. Growing up, he didn’t even play point guard — he played the 2 guard. So, as long as he can remember, he’s had a jumper. “Whenever you step off the bus, you can shoot it. That’s what I would say is my range. I shot a few from the logo in summer league … pretty deep. I work on it, I practice it. Everywhere I shoot, I’ve worked on it before.”
After about an hour, and 42 different shots captured, Young’s workout comes to an end. NBA 2K made Young the first and only rookie in the 2018 draft class to experience motion capture and receive the opportunity to have his likeness, skill and swag a part of the game.
Each season, the publisher usually invites one first-year player to take part in mocap. It was Donovan Mitchell in 2017 and Marquese Chriss the year before. In reality, most of the avatars featured in the game, including those belonging to some of the league’s biggest stars, are the product of animation taken from sessions completed by ex-college hoopers or guys who’ve played overseas. Wang says 2K producer Zach Timmerman has built up an extensive network of non-NBA talent to help out with the process. There’s actually only a small fraternity of NBA players who have done mocap for 2K.
A few weeks before Young’s visit, Ben Simmons, the reigning Rookie of the Year, came in. In 2016, a few months after their epic showdown in the Slam Dunk Contest during All-Star Weekend in Toronto, Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon went at it again with suits on and markers attached to their bodies. And in 2015, less than two weeks after winning his first NBA title, Curry made the short trip to the facility, 50 miles northwest of Oracle Arena, where the Warriors play.
“Trae had a very similar shoot to Steph’s in terms of some of the separation they got on their jumpers … their speed … and their ability to handle the ball. They were more similar than I thought they’d be,” Wang says. “I wanted to tell Trae he hit more shots than Steph did, but I didn’t want to pump him up too much.”
Not long before another black car pulls up to pick up Young and take him back to the airport, he receives his first rating for NBA 2K19, a respectable 77, prompting one of the producers to give his prediction for next year’s game.
“I’m gonna be a 98 going into 2K20,” he proclaims. Even Curry isn’t that high in NBA 2K19, with a rating of 95. But he’s Trae Young, so he’s confident.
“One of my dreams is to be on the cover of 2K,” he says. “If I continue to play well, hopefully one day I can be.”