KANSAS CITY — It was one of the most provocative questions I’ve ever been asked, and I was unprepared for the full scope of it.
“Do you think Oklahoma fans would even want Trae Young back next year?”
I didn’t know how to answer, and I’m sure whatever I said probably wasn’t adequate.
The question was asked by co-host Mike Steely during my 8:15 phone-in appearance on The Franchise Morning Show.
It sounds at first like an unfair question. Of course Oklahoma would want its national player of the year contender back for his sophomore season rather than send him packing to the NBA, where next hoops season he’ll more than likely be laboring 82 games a year for millions of dollars.
The 6-foot-2, 180-pound Young leads all of major college basketball in both scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.8), and when the season ends in a few weeks, he’ll officially be the first player ever to do that.
The kid is a phenomenon, simply put. We haven’t seen his kind before, someone who can shoot the ball with unlimited range, a 19-year-old who not only sees the floor like a 10-year NBA veteran, but can deliver pinpoint passes — the full-court kind, if needed.
Alas, Trae Young’s blindingly bright star eventually fell to earth. Once an easy choice for national player of the year honors, Young cooled off, perhaps burned out, and his glow dimmed.
During the Sooners’ first 16 games, Young averaged 30.1 points per game. During OU’s last 15 games, he averaged 24.4. The first half of the season, he averaged 10.0 assists. The second half, that dropped to 7.0. He opened by shooting 42.9 percent from the floor and 38.2 percent from 3-point range, but then closed by shooting 37.9 percent from the floor and 30.9 percent from the perimeter. He averaged 5.4 turnovers per game in the first 16 games, then 5.7 during the last 15.
The turning point was, of course, Big 12 Conference play. More specifically, it was the Sooners’ second league game, an 87-69 loss at Kansas State’s Bramlage Coliseum. After that game, Young searched for answers — Does he shoot too much? Does he not shoot enough? — and so did coach Lon Kruger.
And while Young plunged back to earth, so did the Sooners, losing six in a row at one point and 10 of their last 14 games, including Wednesday’s 71-60 loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournament.
Covering Young and the University of Oklahoma like we do in the Sooner State, Steely’s question actually begins to make sense. Reading the message boards and the tweets, taking the phone calls, even seeing OU fans’ lukewarm response to Young’s final appearance in the Lloyd Noble Center last week, it has become painfully clear that some in Sooner Nation have disconnected from the Trae Young Experience.
We see the decline of the product on the floor. We hear about the discord on the team. We read the body language, we read between the lines.
But the reality is that some of that, real or imagined, is that we watch every game, we attend every practice, we participate in every interview. We see the warts, we smell the bad breath, because we are so close.
So maybe we need a different perspective.
I wanted to get feel for how Trae Young and the Sooners are seen elsewhere in the Big 12 Conference. And rather than ask opposing coaches and players about him — you know, the guys tasked with stopping Young, or at least slowing him down; his competition — I sought input from veteran sportswriters who cover the league, impartial, experienced scribes who have borne witness to the Trae Young Train not from on board like those of us in Oklahoma, but rather as they watched it pass by their station.
Their answers, just like the question I got this morning, were provocative:
Kellis Robinett, Kansas State beat writer, Kansas City Star/Wichita Eagle:
“I was surprised that Oklahoma dipped the way they did. They came into Bramlage with the hype and everything, they were No. 4, and K-State beat ‘em. I figured when K-State beat ‘em and they kind of showed everybody the diagram — you know, double-team Trae and make his teammates beat you — then he wouldn’t have quite the success he had. But I never figured he’d drop off the way he did.
“I still think he was arguably the league’s best player, but I think Lon probably didn’t do the best job with him. It was a weird dynamic, I think, when you’ve got a guy who has the ball so much and gets so much attention and people just naturally think he’s a ball hog and maybe he’s not.
“I love Lon. He’s a great coach. He is a good coach. But I don’t think he did the best job with (Young) this year. Once somebody figured out how to slow him down, all of a sudden everybody could do it.
“You could tell late, they didn’t really know what they wanted to do. Even this last game that they lost here, the first two possessions, Trae didn’t really touch the ball. They wanted to go a different route. But then he got kind of restless and started jacking up shots.
“I don’t know if it’s just feast or famine with him where if shots go in, he’s gonna have a huge game and if they don’t, he’s not. He still led the country in points and assists.
“I think there was some Peyton Manning effect to him (Charles Woodson won the Heisman Trophy in 1997 partly as a backlash against Manning mania), where he was so far ahead of the class that everybody else started looking for reasons to hate on him.
“ESPN didn’t do him any favors, either, featuring him so much. I mean, KU would be playing K-State and they’d be talking about Trae Young and showing Trae Young graphics on TV. It was crazy.
“Early, it seemed like going to OU was the best thing for him because they gave him free reign. But I really wonder if he’d gone to KU or anywhere else he had considered if he would have been coached to play another style. He probably wouldn’t have gotten the Steph treatment (comparisons to Steph Curry). But it’s an interesting question.
“I know the coaches were kind of anti-Young later in the year, like, Bruce (Weber, K-State’s head coach) was saying you can’t really consider him for Big 12 player of the year because they didn’t win, he turns the ball over too much, he’s just a stat hero. It was very odd.”
Kirk Bohls, columnist, Austin American-Statesman:
“I think they absolutely want him back. For all his poor shots and maybe questionable shot selection, he’s still a dynamic player, and I can’t think of one of the 351 teams that would not want him back. And I’d include Oklahoma in there.
“He’d have to be so much better as a sophomore. He has to grow. I think he hit the freshman wall midseason. And to do it in this league, I think the wall fell on him.
“I think he’ll be a lot better. I love his court awareness. He’s not like Johnny Manziel or something like that. He’s not an idiot. I know what you’re saying, though. He looked like a one-man team, and they watched him too much and rely on him too much. That’s never really a good recipe for success. But at the end of the day, I think he’s still a dynamic player. They just have to build around him better.
“They don’t draft on NBA readiness. They draft on NBA potential. Unless you’re a Kobe or LeBron or somebody like that.”
Blair Kerkhoff, college basketball reporter, Kansas City Star:
“Is it, ‘Would Oklahoma be better off without him next year?’ I don’t know if I see it that way. When you get — I don’t want to call him a generational talent, but for three-quarters of the year, he was the best college basketball talent in America. He was the national player of the year (front-runner). And for a variety of reasons — I don’t know, the ‘freshman wall,’ in the Big 12 you play everybody a second time and they figure you out a little bit, I don’t know if the team coalesced around him in the right way. I don’t put this season entirely on his shoulders. I think they could have been a better coached team.
“Lon didn’t coach Blake Griffin. He did coach Buddy (Hield), who really blossomed as a junior and especially as a senior.
“Maybe it’s because I’m away from it and not with it every day and I have a different sense about it, but from 350 miles away, I think he’s a fabulous player. They had a better-than-expected season, mostly because of him. I don’t think I thought OU was a tournament team before the year, and they’re gonna end up in the tournament. He was an exciting, dynamic player for really the whole year and really better than anybody in the country for three-quarters of the year. What program wouldn’t take that?
“It’s interesting to hear, but I guess I can understand it.
“A separate (graphic) for his points and assists (in the on-screen scoreboard during OU games)? I mean, come on. That doesn’t need to happen.
“I think the sum total of Oklahoma is they were better with him and for him than without him. He could have gone to Kansas or Kentucky, and he went to Oklahoma and turned a team that didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament last year into one that’s going to play in the tournament this year.
“He didn’t come to Kansas because it was gonna be Devonte Graham’s team, but he wasn’t gonna go to Kentucky because Kentucky wanted him to commit early and he wouldn’t do it. That, to me, is fascinating: how would he have been coached differently by (Bill) Self or (John) Calipari? I suspect he would have been coached differently. He might not have led the nation in scoring. But I think anybody would have taken a 22 and 8 guy.
“I was a big fan of his all year. He’s not gonna be national player of the year now, I would suspect — he’s not gonna win the Naismith or the Wooden — but I’m a Trae guy. Looking forward to seeing him in the NBA. I don’t know if he is (ready). Steph Curry was a junior, I think, when he came out. So he’s the next Steph Curry, right? The way he played early on? But Steph didn’t become Steph until he was 20 or 21 years old.”
Dennis Dodd, senior writer, CBSSports.com:
“I think he and the Sooners got worn down. Fantastic kid, fantastic family. But with that body, I wonder how it’ll play in the NBA. I think he’ll have to play a different way. I don’t see his frame suddenly bulking up and getting big shoulders.
“I was fascinated by the whole thing. I just think he was part of a team that just wore down for whatever reason in the second half.
“He’s not coming back, is he? I don’t think he could have played at Duke or Kansas the way he played at Oklahoma — for better or worse.”
Chuck Carlton, Big 12 beat writer, Dallas Morning News:
“When I saw him play in December and early January, I was thinking, ‘This kid’s legit.’ He’s going and lining up Dana Altman and Oregon on the road, Wichita State, I mean, those are hard places to play. And yes, I figured Big 12 coaches, especially the second time around, would find a way to play to corral him and do something.
“I think the template came from K-State in a game early. I think Oklahoma State did that by being physical with him. And then even in the Big 12/SEC Challenge, (Alabama coach) Avery Johnson said he threw seven different defensive looks at him, and six of those worked.
“We’re not talking about a kid who’s 6-8, 235. We’re talking about a kid who, it just looked to me like he just got worn down. When you see him effortlessly knock down 32-footers, that’s just not natural. I know we’ve gotten used to it, but that’s just not natural.
“And I think also the shot selection — people were giving him that shot early, giving him the space to get that off, and then when they started taking away the space, he was still taking them. Shooting a contested 32-footer is a lot different.
“I still think the kid handled it well. His family handled it well. He took a whole lot of abuse.
“Lon Kruger is a heck of a coach, but I don’t think he ever adjusted to what teams were doing. And when he did, it didn’t work. And other players didn’t step up. To me, this was one of the more baffling turnarounds we’ve ever seen.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.