How Slumping Trae Young Can Rediscover His Superhuman Self

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 23, 2018

NORMAN, OK - FEBRUARY 17: Trae Young #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners takes to the court before the game against the Texas Longhorns at Lloyd Noble Center on February 24, 2018 in Norman, Oklahoma. The Longhorns defeated the Sooners 77-66. (Photo by Brett Deering/Getty Images)
Brett Deering/Getty Images

LAWRENCE, Kan. — At 10:30 p.m. on Monday outside the visiting locker room at Allen Fieldhouse, Oklahoma star freshman Trae Young, dressed in a black and gold Jordan track suit, took pictures with and signed autographs for Oklahoma and Kansas fans who had waited for college basketball's transcendent talent to emerge. After, he visited with his father, Rayford, who once poured in 41 points against the Jayhawks and dreams even bigger for his son.

This scene looked like many others amid the Trae Young experience this season. His fame is on such a level that the likes of LeBron James and Steph Curry have praised his talents. But the joy Young brought all of us for three months has come to a halt.

His canvas was once blank, filled with basketball beauty only he dared to attempt—three-point bombs from the logos, running floaters from the free-throw line and no-look, crosscourt passes that left defenders helpless.

Young is slumping now and overthinking—one reason he's shooting an uncharacteristic 19.6 percent from deep over the last six games. And the start-up Sooners, once 14-2 and frolicking toward the NCAA tournament, have lost six straight games, currently in jeopardy of missing the tournament altogether.

What happened? And what's it going to take for Young to regain his wizardry?


Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Rayford has had a plan in place, one he's been keeping in his back pocket. With Young's scoring just 11 points on Monday at Kansas and his team having been run off the floor, 104-74, the time arrived to deploy that plan.

Rayford has been filling his DVR this season with his son's games, which means he can show OU's point guard everything that made America fall in love with him.

During Young's visit to his family's home in Norman this week, Rayford was set to cue up several games: Young's 43 points against Oregon, his 29 points and nine assists at the Staples Center against USC, his 29 points and 10 assists against Wichita State, his 31 points and 12 assists against Northwestern, the two TCU games (he combined for 82 points and 21 assists against the Horned Frogs) and his 44 points and nine assists against Baylor.

"We'll go back and watch what he was doing and how he was being aggressive to get to that point," Rayford said.

Those are once-in-a-lifetime performances. Young made them happen on a nightly basis.

But on Jan. 20 at Oklahoma State, Rayford believes the voices—of basketball observers and commentators—entered his son's psyche. On that day, the Sooners lost 83-81 in overtime, and Young scored 48 points on 39 shots.

"It was like, 'oh my gosh, he took 39 shots!'" Rayford says. "I think it may have played a factor in 'is he shooting too much?'"

The next game, against Kansas, Young played well, but he only took nine shots, being much more judicious in his shot selection. Two games later, he'd score 44 points against Baylor. But once the Sooners started losing—the Jan. 30 game against the Bears was their last win—Rayford believes his son started second-guessing his instincts.

"He's just got to go back to square one," Rayford says. "Go back to playing the way you played and not counting how many shots you're taking in your head and just play."

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Young looks like a shell of himself lately. He's still shooting, and he's maintained his assist numbers, but sometimes he looks like he's going through the motions. The flair with which he once played is just not there in the way he attacks. 

It's not surprising, considering the noise that surrounds him. Young and the Sooners have their critics, and some of the critiques make sense. He's dominated the ball unlike any college player in the modern era. His usage rate (39.3 percent)—meaning the percentage of possessions he ends when he's on the floor—is higher than any player's in college basketball dating back to at least 2004, per KenPom.com.

It's difficult for other players to find their rhythm and step up when he's in a slump, because he's dominated the ball so much this season. When Young is off the floor, OU's offensive efficiency drops 16.9 points per 100 possessions, according to lineup data from HoopLens.com

But Oklahoma's offense is hardly the problem. The Sooners still have the fourth-most efficient offense in Big 12 play, scoring 107.1 points per 100 possessions. Their big issue is on the defensive end, where they rank 110th in adjusted defensive efficiency nationally and allow 112 points per 100 possessions in conference play.

The Sooners would benefit from getting a stop every once in a while, but the more realistic fix would be for Young to rediscover his game.

That's a game that does not follow the guidelines most coaches lay out for their players. Young has an imagination that runs wild, and Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger has given him the freedom to shoot from anywhere and throw passes that look to be nearly impossible.

"We want him to make good basketball plays," Kruger said after Monday's loss. "That’s been the case all along."

LUBBOCK, TX - FEBRUARY 13: Head coach Lon Kruger and Trae Young #11 of the Oklahoma Sooners discuss strategy at a time out during the game against the Texas Tech Red Raiders on February 13, 2018 at United Supermarket Arena in Lubbock, Texas. Texas Tech de
John Weast/Getty Images

Now, that's not entirely true. Because "good basketball plays" are what are universally accepted by the guardians of the game. What Young was doing was something entirely different—yet still effective and efficient.

Kruger allowed it. He lived with the misses and the turnovers because the rewards were enough to outweigh the risks.

Is the solution to pull Young back in and make him into just your ordinary college point guard?

Those of us who have spent years studying the game would probably suggest a happy medium.

But for three months, Young showed us that his "good basketball plays" were whatever he wanted to do, basketball purists be damned.

It's a lot to ask of a 19-year-old kid who is constantly under the microscope. He says all the right things and handles himself with class.

His belief is that he just needs to see some shots go down. "A lot of them have been going in and out, either short or long, and I've just got to focus," he says. "Usually when stretches go on like this, there's always that one game or that moment where it clicks on. Hopefully that moment is coming up."

One basketball truth that applies to Young just like everyone else is that if you take a shot and aren't sure if you should take that shot, then you're probably going to miss it.

Young needs to ignore what everyone else thinks. "I've got to be myself," he says. "I've got to help my teammates out."

To do that he needs to paint the canvas with the kind of reckless enthusiasm that allowed him to put up numbers only he and his pops could dream up.

Make the rest of us shut up and enjoy the magic.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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