Oklahoma basketball was better for knowing Trae Young.
Now, the Sooners can grow without him.
Young brought his prodigious skills to OU for just five short months, but on Tuesday, as he declared for the NBA Draft, he told ESPN that he would be a “Sooner for life.”
“I will regret that I didn’t help the Sooners win a national championship,” Young said. “I have always wanted to honor the legacies of Wayman Tisdale, Blake Griffin and Buddy Hield, OU legends who led the program to Elite Eights and Final Fours. I wanted to take the Sooners the distance — all the way to a national championship.
“When I chose OU, I imagined I’d have more than one chance at the NCAA Tournament, but things changed and this season became my only opportunity.”
Sooner Nation also seems pained with regret: a lingering ache from too much Trae Young, like pushing away from a buffet too late. And that’s understandable. The last few plates didn’t taste nearly as good as the first few.
But Lon Kruger and the Sooners wouldn’t have achieved as much as they did this season without Trae Young. A high school phenom joined an 11-20 team and led them back to the NCAA Tournament with an 18-14 record. That doesn’t happen without Young. Without Young, these Sooners would have been much the same as last year’s team.
In his goodbye, of course, Young offered support to his teammates.
“My teammates at OU were incredible,” he said. “Sometimes, they absorbed criticism that was beyond unfair. … The basketball world was studying every move I made, and I am proud of how all of us — my coaches, my teammates and myself — handled it.”
Young indirectly addressed any perception of rift on the team by taking the high road and praising his teammates and how everyone handled things. Just like a long 3 or half-court alley-oop, it was unexpected and impressive.
Young also confronted the elephant in the gym: his readiness for the NBA. In truth, as his shooting percentages dwindled and his turnovers mounted and his frustration grew and OU’s losses piled up, it became fair to ask if Trae Young was ready for the Big 12, let alone the NBA.
But his answer was, again, unexpected and pretty spectacular.
“I know there will be doubts again as I prepare for the draft,” he said. “I don’t pretend to be ready to play in the NBA today, but I am determined to do what I’ve always done: invest in the work to prepare for the league and the incredible challenges it presents.
“I’m going to start training immediately for the draft, building up strength throughout my body, sharpening my skills and studying the best of the best.”
Young didn’t build a true legacy at OU because he didn’t stick around long enough. The legacies of Tisdale, Griffin and Hield will endure in Lloyd Noble Center because they chose to sustain their careers. Tisdale left a year early in an era when superstars playing four years was the norm. Griffin came back when he easily could have left. And Hield became an OU legend by returning for his senior year.
For Kruger and the Sooners, Young’s sudden but wholly expected departure is an opportunity to build and grow.
Landing Trae Young out of nearby Norman North and allowing him to become the first player in major college basketball history — in history! — to lead the nation in both scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.7 per game) and become an NBA lottery pick shows other top prospects that they can come to Norman and live their dreams — exceed them, even.
That’s a pretty strong brick in the foundation that wouldn’t be there if Young had gone to Kansas or Kentucky.
But now that his star point guard is gone, Kruger can get back to his own DNA, coaching the type of system he knows with the type of players he prefers.
Trae Young’s meteoric flash through the skies in Norman was like a bolt of lightning: loud as heck and spectacular to watch.
But some lightning strikes leave a lasting impact. Some are captured forever in videos and photographs and continue to wow us years later. Some lightning strikes knock down mighty oaks. And some lightning strikes start raging fires that scorch the landscape.
It’s those fires that scare us and leave us aching for all the beauty that came before the blaze.
But the hard truth is that new growth inevitably comes from beneath the ashes. The lightning and its fire leaves the new forest stronger, not weaker.
Trae Young is off to the NBA. But he leaves Oklahoma basketball stronger than it was before.
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.