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'It's That Little-Man Syndrome': How Trae Young Became the NBA's Newest Villain

Jason DumasContributor IMay 26, 2021

Atlanta Hawks' Trae Young gestures during the second half of Game 1 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the New York Knicks, Sunday, May 23, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)
Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Ray Young's phone rang around 11 a.m. on Tuesday morning in New York City. It was his son, Trae. "Dad, did you see this?"

Trae was referring to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's proclamation that Trae should stop hunting for fouls and "play the game the right way." It was the latest example of vitriol Trae had received since he lit up the Knicks for 32 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds in his playoff debut in a vintage MSG atmosphere. 

"Man, bust these dudes' ass," Ray told Trae, reminding him he's been groomed for this: proving people wrong. For being public enemy No. 1.  

Indeed, he's been doing it his whole basketball career, going all the way back to his AAU days. 

"It's who he is and how he was raised. I can't express enough what it is like when you've been the smallest guy on the court your whole life," Ray told Bleacher Report on Tuesday. 

Everyone was quick to call Trae a villain on Sunday, but what is a villain? What are we really talking about? For Trae Young, it's the confidence that comes with being great no matter what outsiders think or say or chant.

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When Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans Hornets to relocate to Oklahoma City, Trae and his father became regulars at the Ford Center, now known as Chesapeake Energy Arena. He became obsessed with another undersized point guard's game. 

"My son's first real taste of watching a real live NBA point guard play was Chris Paul," Ray recalled. "I can't thank CP enough for showing my son that you don't have to be the tallest guy or this super-duper freak athlete to play this game at a high level."

Trae understood that what he lacked in height, he had in heart. And the chip on his shoulder began to grow. 

"It's in his bloodlines. Me and his grandfather," Ray said. "I played at Texas Tech and am 5'11" on a good day."

Ray had a great career at Texas Tech from 1996 to 2000. Over his career, he averaged 14.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game. But he never got the attention or hype of rival prospects such as Mike Bibby, Andre Miller and Baron Davis.

"Trae and I have had many talks over the years just sitting down on the couch watching playoff games, watching Michael Jordan, watching Kobe, watching LeBron play and telling him, ‘That can be you, it doesn't matter how big or tall you are if you believe it.'" 

In high school, Trae earned the attention of national recruiting services but was never regarded as the top point guard in his class because of his size. In fact, he wasn't even viewed as the top prospect on his AAU team. "He was second fiddle to Michael Porter Jr.," said Ray.

His AAU coach, Rodney Perry, remembers how Trae resented not being considered the top point guard in his class. He made it a point to outplay all of his peers.

"We went to CP3 camp, and it was just a few weeks before the NIKE EYBL Peach Jam tournament. All the top high school and college guards were there. And he told all the high school guards, ‘You're about to see in a few weeks, I'm the best point guard here and I have the best team in the country,'" Perry said to B/R, grinning ear-to-ear.

A few weeks later, Trae and his Mokan Elite squad won Peach Jam. The tournament also featured other highly touted guards such as Collin Sexton, Hamidou Diallo, Tremont Waters and Matt Coleman.

Yet still, Young finished his high school career as the fourth-ranked point guard in his class by both 247 and ESPN, behind Sexton, Trevon Duval and Jaylen Hands. He took note and used it as motivation.

When Trae decided to stay home and play his college ball at Oklahoma, spurning Kansas and his father's alma mater, Texas Tech, many wondered whether it was the right decision. And the opposing fans tested him everywhere he went.

"He was the main target any time we went on the road. Fans would get on him and sometimes it would get out of hand. But he buckles down even more when that opportunity comes," said Lon Kruger, who coached Trae at Oklahoma.

After choosing Oklahoma over other rival schools in the midwest, Trae Young would regularly hear the disrespect from opposing crowds.
After choosing Oklahoma over other rival schools in the midwest, Trae Young would regularly hear the disrespect from opposing crowds.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

"Overrated" chants were routine in Lubbock for games against Texas Tech. At Oklahoma State, he'd see pictures of giant birds, an admitted phobia.

He proved that it didn't matter where he played. He was the most dominant guard in the conference. He finished the season leading the country in both points and assists per game. He broke the Big 12 freshman scoring record held by Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley.

Scouts originally pegged Trae as a late first- or early second-round pick, and he spent his freshman year leapfrogging prospects who outranked him in high school. But as the NBA draft approached, there still were question marks. 

During the draft process, Kruger said he was littered with questions from NBA scouts and executives about Trae's athleticism, size and strength. Many wondered if he could withstand the physicality of the pros.

"Every time he's been confronted with those questions, he's responded at the highest of levels," said Kruger.

By the time Trae entered the league, the chip on his shoulder had become a boulder. To this day, three years into his career, he remains very aware of what is said about him and who is considered "better." After making the NBA's All-Rookie team and being voted an All-Star starter in year two, his All-Star snub this year was "noted."

It has all culminated in a perfect storm this postseason. New York City and Madison Square Garden—the world's most famous arena—are finally getting a taste of playoff basketball for the first time since 2013. Fifteen thousand fans were in the Garden on Sunday, the highest-attended NBA game since the pandemic started.  

And a skinny, 6'2" guard did the thing he's been told his whole career he wouldn't be able to do. Then his favorite song starts playing, one he's loved his whole life: the sound of the boos and the heckles. Spike Lee screaming courtside. 

Then comes the smirk. 

"It's that little-man syndrome. He's in the Big Apple. He don't care one bit. He's just a kid from Oklahoma.

"He's an Oklahoma kid in New York City. People there probably think he grew up around cows, horses and trailers," says a laughing Ray.

Supervillain mode, activated.

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