Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook were curious. The former Oklahoma City Thunder teammates had a rare off night at home, and there was a college game nearby between Davidson and Oklahoma. Durant and Westbrook knew they needed to be there. They had to see Stephen Curry.
It was November 2008, only a few months after Davidson’s electric and improbable NCAA tournament run, and anyone who cared about basketball was mesmerized by Curry. Among the many people under Curry’s magical spell was a 10-year-old boy named Trae Young. He lived near Oklahoma’s campus, and there was no way he was going to miss the Davidson game. He arrived early to watch Curry shoot in warmups. He was as captivated by Curry scoring a career-high 44 points as the NBA stars in the front row. He can still recite every detail.
“I remember exactly where I was sitting,” he said.
Young is familiar with the location because he now plays in that same arena as Oklahoma’s freshman point guard. And he’s the most dazzling player in college basketball himself.
Young leads the country in scoring with 29.6 points per game. He also leads the country in assists with 10.7 per game. His other numbers are no less mind-boggling. There has never been a player in a major conference who takes, and makes, as many 3-pointers, and there has never been a player with combination of volume and efficiency in the time since volume and efficiency have existed as metrics in college basketball.
“What he’s doing is statistically off the charts,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said.
But Young is also captivating in a way that statistics can’t explain. To watch him is to experience the thrill of having absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next.
The only college player in the last two decades who put together a season anything like Young’s was Curry. The only NBA player with a game anything like Young’s is Curry. It’s only natural to compare them: Young plays like Curry incarnate.
But he’s not the next Curry. He’s the first player of the Curry generation.
Young was in his formative years as Curry was redefining his favorite sport. He was exactly the right age to be profoundly influenced by the most transformational player of his lifetime. “He was changing the game,” Young said, “and the way I played fit perfectly.”
Curry is more responsible than anyone for the fundamental shift in basketball strategy that’s now apparent at every level of the sport, and the first wave of kids who followed his example is about to invade college basketball and the NBA. Young is one of those kids. He barely experienced a basketball world that hadn’t been turned upside down by Curry. The conventional wisdom by the time he was in high school was counterintuitive when he was born.
“Shooting threes,” Young said, “is not such a bad thing.”
And so he shoots threes. He shoots threes off the dribble. He shoots threes from the half-court logo and from places so far behind the line that he makes the floor look miniature. He shoots threes even when it seems like he can’t and won’t. But he also sucks defenders into his orbit, and exploits the attention he commands to finish at the rim or create easy scoring opportunities for his teammates.
Young plays like someone who grew up studying Curry because that’s exactly what he did.
“I would record every game,” he said. “I’d watch before I went to bed or the next day. I watched how he played, how the Warriors moved without the ball and how Steph got everyone involved and still created for himself. I loved watching Steph’s game.”
Steph’s game wasn’t always Young’s game. When he was in middle school, so recently that Curry was already in the NBA, Young wasn’t a point guard. He was used as a wing because he was bigger than his teammates, and he was stuck in the corner waiting for shots instead of making them for himself. By eighth grade, he was tired of waiting. He became a point guard.
Curry wasn’t the only player he used as inspiration. Young taught himself how to improve his ball-handling by tapping into the well of basketball wisdom known as YouTube. He stole tricks from Steve Nash, Chris Paul and Tony Parker, and he speaks fondly of a Kyrie Irving routine that includes wrapping the ball in plastic and dribbling inside a garage with the lights out.
“I really wouldn’t look at highlights or mix tapes,” he said. “I would look at drills.”
He came into his own as a point guard right around the time Golden State was beginning to unleash Curry. The Warriors had come to realize that Curry would be at his most effective only if he were allowed and encouraged to do things that nobody had ever done. Young’s game might be entirely different if they hadn’t. His father Rayford was a guard at Texas Tech in the late 1990s—Trae Young makes you feel old—and when Trae watches those games now he feels like he might as well be watching rhythmic gymnastics. It was a different sport altogether. It hadn’t been revolutionized by Curry.
“Nobody has ever tilted the floor like Steph does at such a deep range and with such incredible ball-handling skills,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s crazy what he does to the defense.”
One of the fascinating things about Young being part of this generation is the sheer amount of data that already exists about him. Young’s high-school and summer teams had the raw footage of their games turned into advanced box scores and detailed shooting charts by a company called Krossover.
Every one of his 2,090 shots between April 2015 and April 2017 was entered into Krossover’s database. They show that Young really did stretch the court. He took 43.8% of his shots from more than a foot behind the high-school 3-point line.
More on the Curry Effect
- The Warriors Have Revolutionized Basketball
- The Warriors Have Revolutionized Pickup Basketball
- The Team That Never Takes a Bad Shot
- There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Shot for Stephen Curry
- The Stephen Curry Approach to Youth Sports
- The NBA Dynasty Built Around Stephen Curry
- Stephen Curry’s Science of Sweet Shooting
He’s only become more audacious in his first college season. There are some coaches who would rather eat worms than entrust their teams to a freshman point guard, but Kruger saw Young play enough at Norman North High School, only 15 minutes from his office, that he figured he could handle the responsibility. Oklahoma is now shooting more 3-pointers and pushing the tempo more than any team in Kruger’s long career.
The other team has no choice but to guard him far away from the basket after they’ve seen his high-arcing shots drop. Young has the green light to shoot from intergalactic distances because the extra space only makes it easier for him to score around the basket (he shoots 55.8% at the rim) or pass to a teammate for an equally high-percentage look (he assists on 58.4% of the Sooners’ baskets—by far the nation’s highest assist rate).
Young benefited from coming after Curry. He has an intuitive understanding of the most intelligent, most effective way to play basketball today.
“I feel like it’s you shoot a 3 or you get all the way to the rim,” he said. “The game has shifted in the direction that I play.”
Write to Ben Cohen at firstname.lastname@example.org