Four hours with Trae Young ahead of NBA draft
It’s a whirlwind as former Oklahoma star does interviews, signs autographs and visits ‘The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon’
NEW YORK — It’s early Tuesday evening on the corner of 41st and Broadway. A digital billboard shows a picture of Utah Jazz star guard Donovan Mitchell that invites onlookers to come to a sporting goods store to meet him the next day. Suddenly, a black Chevrolet Suburban pulls up to the corner alongside a halal food cart and a shirtless man moving his hands up and down in a praying motion.
The door of the SUV opens, and out pops elite NBA draft prospect Trae Young sporting a black T-shirt that reads “One And Done.” The former University of Oklahoma sharpshooter is followed by his 8-year-old brother, Timothy, brand and marketing strategist Kate Foley, agent Omar Wilkes (son of Hall of Famer Jamaal Wilkes), a security guard and a film crew. While fans are patiently waiting inside Kids Foot Locker for the meet-and-greet with Young, the rest of the people are walking fast and paying little attention to this 6-foot-1 teenager who will join the NBA on Thursday.
“Not many people have this opportunity. It is definitely great. This is a blessed opportunity,” the 19-year-old Young said.
Young is expected to be a top-10 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. The former Sooners guard averaged national bests of 27.4 points and 8.7 assists per game as a true freshman last season. The 2018 consensus first-team All-American has drawn comparisons to Golden State Warriors star guard Stephen Curry because of his deep shooting range and hot-scoring ability. The Norman, Oklahoma, native is also an underrated passer who tied an NCAA record with 22 assists in a game.
Young’s lightning-in-a-bottle success brought love, hate and national attention.
“I never let it get to me. It was fun and I enjoyed it. Talking to my dad, talking to a lot of NBA players and [Sacramento Kings and ex-Oklahoma guard] Buddy Hield helped. Buddy got a lot of recognition and won the Wooden Award. They helped guide me and helped me get away from it,” Young said.
Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton and Collin Sexton got more hype entering their freshman seasons. But after scoring 43 points in a win over Oregon on Nov. 26, Young stole college basketball’s spotlight and believed he had the ability to make the NBA. Months later, Young is in New York making his projection come true.
“I dreamed of this and worked hard for this,” Young said. “When I got on campus, my family wanted me to be on a two-year plan. But in my mind it was make an impact right away and play right away. I knew probably after the Oregon game that I was ready for the NBA. After that game, I opened a lot of people’s eyes. My eyes always have been open.”
With Foley leading the way, Young landed endorsement deals with Adidas, Tissot, Express and Foot Locker. On Tuesday, Young had a media appearance with Tissot in the morning and Adidas in the afternoon before arriving at Kids Foot Locker.
Young is on six advertisements in Times Square, according to Foley. Tuesday night, he saw a giant digital image of him wearing a Sooner-colored suit and white shirt in an ad for Express on a billboard.
“That was crazy. When I played in the Jordan Brand Classic, they had all of us on the billboard here. But this was a little different,” Young said. “I took some video and some pictures of it. For sure.”
Young has made several trips to New York in his young life, including meeting with the New York Knicks recently.
The Knicks have the ninth pick in Thursday’s draft and already have three young point guards on their roster in Emmanuel Mudiay, Frank Ntilikina and Ron Baker. But for a Knicks franchise that was one pick shy of drafting Curry, having a hot-scoring guard like Young playing alongside Kristaps Porzingis could be fun to watch in Madison Square Garden. New York was insistent about working out Young.
Young said he has no clue where he will be drafted, but he is eager to find out and open-minded.
“I could see myself playing in New York. I can see myself in a big market, small market,” Young said. “I’m just ready for Thursday to come so I can figure out where I’m going.”
One longtime NBA scout scoffed at the Curry comparisons but liked what he saw in Young.
“He’s not Stephen Curry, but he’s a terrific passer who led the nation in assists. He’s little. He doesn’t defend well. But he shoots the ball extremely well with a quick release and can pass. All of that translates,” the scout said.
As soon as Young enters the Kids Foot Locker, he is whisked away to the basement downstairs, where thousands of boxes of sneakers are housed.
Young sits on an oversized basketball next to a kid about half his age for a fun Kids Foot Locker interview. His answers reveal such things as having a size 13 shoe, Hall of Famer Steve Nash being his favorite player, Martin being his favorite television show, rhythm and blues slow jams being his favorite music and a Maserati being his dream car.
Young is next asked several NBA-related questions, including how to spell the name of the best player in the league.
After hesitating, Young answers, “L-E-B-R-O-N.”
Young is also asked if he knows who the NBA commissioner is.
“Adam Silver. I have to know that one. I am getting drafted on Thursday,” Young said.
Nearby, Young’s little brother seems unfazed by it all as he is listening to rapper Kendrick Lamar and playing a baseball game on his iPad. The youngster smiles and points out that standing at 4 feet, 5 inches at age 8, he is much taller than his brother was at his age.
Once big brother completes his interview, the two take a seat and enjoy some New York-style pepperoni pizza and bottled water together.
“He is going to experience it again one day, and he will have a different viewpoint of it all,” Young said. “He sees what can happen if you work hard. All this is tiring, but at the end of the day, it’s still fun. Hopefully, he can take away the experience and enjoy it while also realizing if he works hard, he can have this. People can be talking about him.”
After doing a couple of interviews, Young heads back upstairs with Wilkes’ arm around him en route to sign interviews for fans. New York City’s own DJ Fat Fingers is spinning and announces Young’s arrival by belting out, “New York City, make some noise for Trae Young right now!” “Win” by Jay Rock is playing in the background.
With little bro calmly sitting next to him, Young signed so many autographs that they run out of cards. Luckily, Foley has some extras in her purse.
“He’s signed hundreds of autographs today. And he hasn’t complained once,” Wilkes said.
After the signing session ends, Young takes a photo with the Foot Locker staff and behind the booth with DJ Fat Fingers. Young is next rushed to the basement, where he has to change into a sport coat, dress shirt and pants for taping of a skit on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.
Young and his entourage are whisked away to the SUV while most of the pedestrians are paying attention to street performers. A short drive is taken to the NBC Studios, where executives of The Tonight Show are anxiously waiting his arrival. As Young departs the SUV, one security guy says, “We really have to get upstairs. They are waiting for you.”
Young and fellow top NBA draft prospects Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Sexton, Miles Bridges, Mohamed Bamba and Wendell Carter Jr. are taking part in a taping of a skit that will air on the show Thursday night after the draft. Young heads to a green room, where he quickly changes into his old Sooners basketball uniform. He is taken to a room where Fallon is sitting on a couch and all of Young’s draft buddies are dressed in their college basketball uniforms showing their youth with excited grins and laughter.
During the taping, the ballplayers douse Fallon with a bucket of orange sports energy drink while he is sitting on the couch watching television. There were two practice runs before doing the real dumping.
“We got to redo that,” Ayton joked.
Wearing a Sooners cooking apron, Young also tapes a segment with Bridges in which he brings a cooked basketball out of the oven for the former Michigan State star to eat. Watching Young nearby is his father, Rayford, mother, Candice, 18-year-old sister Caitlyn, 15-year-old sister Camryn and, of course, Timothy. Young wanted to make NBA draft week about his family. So the 2018 Big 12 Freshman of the Year found something special for each of his siblings to enjoy.
Young’s little brother loves baseball, so they went to the Yankees’ batting practice on Wednesday. Timothy met Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. Young bought tickets for Camryn and his mother to see Hamilton on Wednesday afternoon. And Young got his family tickets for the taping of Fallon’s show because Caitlyn has a crush on the host.
“I love Jimmy Fallon. Yes, Trae is a good brother. I wanted a picture with Jimmy so bad,” said Caitlyn Young, who got to shake Fallon’s hand.
Did something for all of my Siblings during draft week and for my brother I took him to experience a Yankees Baseball game!! Seeing his face once I surprised him was priceless!! Love you bro❤️💯 #FamilyFirst #DraftWeek pic.twitter.com/pbn9PJsclu
— Trae Young (@TheTraeYoung) June 20, 2018
Asked about her son making his draft week special for his family, Candice Young said: “That is just who he is. They fight like brothers and sisters do. But at the end of the day, he loves them and he is going to be able to do so much to help them now.
“The people in your home will always have your back. People outside the home come and go. But this circle of six will always have your back.”
The Youngs rented a seven-bedroom, four-bathroom Airbnb home for family members to stay in Brooklyn for the draft. There was a dinner for family and close friends on Wednesday night at Tony’s Di Napoli Italian restaurant in Manhattan set up by Rayford Young. The father is admittedly nervous about the draft and plans to get an apartment in his son’s future NBA town to check in on him as a rookie.
Rayford Young was reflective as draft day approached, thinking about all the AAU tournaments and basketball camps of which his son had been a part. Young recalled playing with his father in his early teens in an adult basketball league.
“I am taking all in stride. Excited. I’m trying to keep all the nervousness to me,” said Rayford Young, a former Texas Tech and overseas pro basketball player. “I want everyone else to have fun and enjoy the process. My son understands with my situation that it can be gone in a drop of a hat. Injuries can take it all away. Just take it day by day and know that you’re blessed too. Not everybody is in this situation. Keep working hard. Keep God first.
“You’re getting to the finish line and you don’t know what is going to happen. This is the first time you can’t control what happens. You can pick what school you are going to go to, but nothing is in our control right now.”
After departing from the taping of The Tonight Show, the Young family heads to the National Basketball Players Association offices. There are more autographs to be signed, and Young has a couple of interviews set up.
Young bumps into his friendly Big 12 rival Bamba, who starred at the University of Texas last season. Timothy Young and Bamba exchange pleasantries and then make a cool handshake that ends with a dab. As Young signs basketball cards, Bamba walks into the room smiling with a Texas jersey hanging over his shoulder and loudly says, “Ahem.”
Young fires back, “That’s OK. I’m signing over you.”
And sure enough, Young was signing basketball cards that showed him going up for a layup against Bamba last season. The room, Bamba included, erupts in laughter.
“And I made the reverse layup too,” Young said.
Once Young finally finishes signing and answering media questions, he and the family walk into a basketball gym at the Players Association and put up some shots. There was a family steak dinner at STK afterward.
Life is about to change for the Young family. But in that moment, they were back where it all started: in the basketball gym.