NORMAN, Okla. — To highlight its new “Sooner Magic” motto, Oklahoma hired illusionist Sonu to entertain the team during its official preseason photo shoot in September.
Sonu, who grew up in Texas, dazzled coach Lon Kruger’s team with card tricks at its practice facility in conjunction with the school’s marketing push to make “Sooner Magic” a prominent theme this season.
But Trae Young, one of the mellow, baby-faced teenagers Sonu tried to awe with his act, might be the only magic Oklahoma needs to relive the Buddy Hield years.
The arrival of Young, the flashy five-star point guard who picked a school just 10 minutes from his childhood home in Norman, has elevated projections about Oklahoma, which is now a reasonable pick as a Big 12 sleeper.
“It’s different, for sure,” Young told ESPN.com about his choice. “Not a lot of people take advantage of that opportunity of being different. A lot of kids that are highly touted coming out of high school like doing the traditional thing and going to the blue bloods and all that, but I was always different growing up. I thought it would be best for me and my family to stay here and do something special here. Be different.”
His father initially pushed him to leave, though.
Throughout the recruitment process, Ray Young encouraged his eldest son to join a powerhouse, a move he often wishes he had made after high school.
At Texas Tech, Ray Young finished his career with two all-Big 12 second-team selections. The 5-foot-11 guard averaged 14.1 points per game and 3.8 assists per game in a four-year career with the Red Raiders.
In conference play, he battled future NBA standouts such as former Nebraska star Tyronn Lue and former Colorado star Chauncey Billups.
But Ray Young never reached the NCAA tournament. So he “selfishly” pleaded with his son to pick Duke, Kentucky or Kansas, schools he assumed would never leave the five-star prospect with the annual disappointment Ray endured in Lubbock.
“I played at Texas Tech and had a great career individually,” Ray Young said. “I did all that stuff, but my team didn’t win. Every year in March, I’m getting ready for spring break while I’m watching Kansas and Duke get ready for the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight. But Trae is different dude.”
Ray also wondered about the local scrutiny and its impact on his son. He watched Oklahoma City Thunder fans turn on James Harden and Kevin Durant. He’s fearful the same could happen to his son if he struggles.
“I just hope that doesn’t happen to him,” Ray Young said. “Being in high school, everyone loved him. That’s a little bit of my worry: What’s going to happen when he has that bad game?”
Yet he’s supportive of his son’s choice, even though staying home is a rare decision for players who had Trae Young’s options.
In the one-and-done era, five-star kids only occasionally play within their respective home states, a complicated concept with so many kids bouncing around the country to various high schools and prep schools before they ever sign letters of intent to attend college.
But the romanticized idea of a talented prospect deciding to save his local college program has lost steam.
Once players realized joining forces on rosters stacked with incoming stars could boost their collective exposure and chances of turning pro after a season, location became largely insignificant.
“I wanted to become my own man, become my own person,” said Arizona’s Rawle Alkins, a former five-star recruit from New York City who picked the Wildcats over his hometown school, St. John’s. “I didn’t want to stay home. There are a lot of distractions at home. … I wanted to leave and just focus on basketball.”
No five-star prospect in Duke’s top-rated freshman class hails from the state of North Carolina. Mohamed Bamba left Harlem, New York, to enhance Shaka Smart’s Texas squad. Billy Preston, a Los Angeles native, rejected USC’s offer and instead went to Kansas to play for Bill Self.
Of ESPN.com’s 30 five-star prospects in the 2017 class, only four — Young, Jaylen Hands (UCLA), DeAndre Ayton (Arizona) and John Petty (Alabama) — will play in the same state of their listed hometown. The bulk of their peers left their respective regions to attend powerhouse programs. Oklahoma had Young early, though.
He worked as a ball boy for former OU coach Jeff Capel’s Oklahoma squads. With that bond, Capel, now Duke’s associate head coach, tried to lure Young to the Blue Devils.
Young also considered Washington, where AAU teammate and bestie Michael Porter Jr. signed to play before the school fired Lorenzo Romar. And Self thought he’d locked up Young at Kansas, the school that finished second to Oklahoma in the race for the point guard’s services.
But Young attended Oklahoma games as a kid and idolized Blake Griffin, who led the Sooners to the Elite Eight before he became an NBA star. And Young stays in touch with Hield, the former OU star and Wooden Award winner in 2016.
“We’re really close,” said Young, who averaged 41.0 PPG as a senior at Norman High School.
Plus, Young can eat dinner with his family each night in Norman. He attends church with his parents and siblings every Sunday, too.
And he watches his sisters play volleyball and attends his little brother’s flag football games.
That’s why Oklahoma felt like the right choice.
But the Sooners also presented another opportunity, one he would have lost if he had selected Kansas.
“I want to break Kansas’ [Big 12 title] streak,” Young said. “It’s not going to be easy, by any means, but that’s something that I’m going to be hard on all year. If I would have went to Kansas, I would have been a little bit different, but I wanted to break that streak. That’s my goal. We’re gonna do it. I have all faith in God that that’s what his plan is.”
Young, ranked 23rd in the 2017 class by ESPN.com, also preferred the luxuries granted to hometown heroes. He’d watched the frenzy Griffin, an Oklahoma City native, enjoyed during his time in Norman, and desired the same adoration from those who’ve followed him throughout his career.
“Of course, Trae’s the guy that can be a difference-maker. We add him to a seasoned group that we’ve got coming from last year.”
Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger on Trae Young
“Now that Paul George and Carmelo Anthony are in town, Trae’s dropped down a few spots,” Ray Young said. “For the last few years, when you talked about Oklahoma athletes, it was Russell Westbrook, Baker Mayfield and Trae Young.”
Ray Young said he always knew his son might surprise people with his school choice, just as surprises with other aspects of his life.
The 19-year-old loves older movies, such as “Coming to America” and “He Got Game.”
“I can’t believe I just watched ‘Training Day,'” Trae Young said of the movie for which Denzel Washington won Best Actor. “Denzel’s best. That’s my favorite actor.”
And while his teammates blast hip-hop tracks in the locker room, the “old soul” prefers ’90s R&B groups New Edition and Boyz II Men.
“I like slow jams,” Young said.
His father questions how his musical palette will help him this season.
“In college, I was listening to some Tupac or some Biggie to get ready for games,” Ray Young said. “You put on Trae’s headphones and he’s got some Ginuwine and Bobby Brown. I’m like, ‘How are you going to get ready for a game listening to Bobby Brown?'”
If Young leads a turnaround this season, the folks in Norman will welcome his unique musical preferences.
After Hield led Oklahoma to the Final Four in 2016, the Sooners nosedived last season into an 11-20 finish (5-13 Big 12) with a roster that featured eight underclassmen. The Sooners lost three of their top four offensive options from the previous year, and then leading scorer Jordan Woodard (14.6 PPG, 3.1 APG) suffered a torn ACL in February and missed the final seven games of last season.
“We were learning the entire year,” said Khadeem Lattin, a senior who started for Oklahoma’s Final Four squad in 2016. “Outside looking in, it just looks terrible. While we were in the war, it feels terrible. But it was really a blessing in disguise because now we know. There’s no better way to learn than through fire.”
Lon Kruger, one of two coaches to lead five programs to the NCAA tournament, understands the turbulence of college basketball better than most. So he anticipated the dramatic decline after the program lost the Wooden Award winner and his veteran supporting cast.
Yet he’s hopeful the arrival of Young, a McDonald’s All-American, can spark a roster full of young talent that matured through last season’s troubles. Five of the top six scorers from last season return to a team that stumbled on offense (45.7 percent inside the arc, 302nd) but finished 39th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com.
He’s also encouraged by the scrappy efforts of last season’s squad, which played four overtime games and lost nine contests that were decided by six points or less.
“Of course, Trae’s the guy that can be a difference-maker,” said Kruger, who enters his seventh season at Oklahoma. “We add him to a seasoned group that we’ve got coming from last year.”
Back at the practice facility during the team photo shoot last month, Young looked on as Sonu the magician continued to impress those gathered in the gym.
He’d abandoned his card tricks and replaced them with an illusion involving rubber bands.
Sonu appeared to pull one of the rubber bands through his hand, drawing another round of incredulous looks from Oklahoma basketball players, coaches and staffers.
Through their applause and cheers, Trae Young stared and searched for the loophole.
“He’s real cool,” Young said of Sonu. “But I think I caught him on one of his tricks.”
Young spent a portion of the photo shoot arguing with his teammates about who owns the team’s “NBA 2K” crown. Young and four other Oklahoma players all demonstrably declared they were the champions.
The relaxed vibe seemed similar to the environment Hield manufactured the year his tightknit group reached the Final Four.
Young’s parents know he’s grown closer to his teammates in recent months.
“He doesn’t come home as much as we thought he would,” Ray Young said. “He’s 10 minutes away. I asked him to come pick something up, and he said, ‘Dad, I don’t feel like driving across town to do that.'”
But the Oklahoma freshman can make that short drive whenever he wants. That’s one of the reasons he stayed.
“It was always a dream to play here,” he said.