TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Trae Young emerged from the visiting locker room at Coleman Coliseum and asked an Oklahoma staffer, “Where’s my dad?”
At a time like that, after a difficult day in a hostile arena that ended in an upset loss in front of at least 50 NBA scouts and execs, a 19-year-old searching for a little parental support was understandable. But it would have to wait.
First, the dazzling freshman point guard had to walk back through the arena where he had been serenaded by boos and chants of “over-rated” by the Alabama fans. They were kinder now, with an 80-73 victory secured. One Crimson Tide fan yelled out some encouragement, and Young lifted a thumb in the air toward him.
Then it was into the media room for the postgame news conference, where Young evenhandedly fielded questions about the array of strategies the Tide threw at him. They face-guarded him when he didn’t have the ball, applying chest-to-chest defense you might see in a high school game against a one-man team. They ran traps at him to force the ball out of his hands. On the other end of the floor, Tide coach Avery Johnson showed his NBA background by putting Young in pick-and-roll situations that exploited his considerable defensive shortcomings.
It was, in sum, a challenging afternoon. Young’s 17 points were 13 below his season average, and the fewest he’s scored since 15 in his college debut last Nov. 12. It was his sixth straight contest with a single-figure assist total (eight) after some ungodly games in that department. It was his fifth straight game with five or more turnovers.
And he lost the hyped matchup with fellow freshman point guard Collin Sexton, on the team scoreboard and the personal scoreboard (Sexton finished with 18 points). The NBA personnel flooded Tuscaloosa to watch the lock June lottery picks square off, and the two spent much of the game guarding each other in a mano a mano duel.
On this day, with more to prove, Sexton had more help and made more plays late. Down 10 with 1:46 left, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger waved the white flag by removing Young. On the bench, at least, the kid couldn’t be face-guarded.
This is Trae Young’s new normal. He is the focus of every game plan and every student section on the road. A revelation in November and December, he’s been a target in January — and will be in February and March, too. The wrist-flick shooting and creative passing are dazzling and look effortless, but the game is becoming harder.
This is a lot for a freshman to handle. In a stellar freshman class, nobody is carrying more on a thinner set of shoulders than Young.
At Duke, Marvin Bagley III is just one of many elite talents. Same with DeAndre Ayton at Arizona. It’s different for Young — he’s the alpha and the omega of Oklahoma, the reason everyone wants to watch the Sooners.
“That’s something I’ve had to mature about,” Young said. “Now I’m at the point where I just need to make the right play. Don’t force anything. I think I did that pretty good tonight.”
He did. Young’s 17 shot attempts were three fewer than his season average — and 22 fewer than the crazy 39 he hoisted in an overtime loss at Oklahoma State a week earlier. They were also eight more than the too-few nine he took vs. Kansas on Tuesday. Seventeen was about right, especially given the efforts by Alabama to keep him from controlling the game.
“Our guys accepted the challenge of playing one of the best college players in the last several years,” Johnson said. “We gave him about seven different [defensive] looks. Six of them were successful.”
The aftereffect of becoming a breakthrough star is enduring the deconstruction that follows. Not every game is going to be a 40-point performance, or a 20-assist masterpiece. When the uneven and unsuccessful games come, so do the critics. Saturday, the valid criticism was Young’s defense, which was hardly dogged and at times downright passive.
“Collin was a stud when we were trying to make Trae Young play some defense,” Johnson said. “ … We like our guy. Collin was terrific today. [Young] gets a lot of credit, but we love our guy.”
Both players are listed as 6-foot-2, with Young at 180 pounds and Sexton 185. But Sexton looks more muscular and plays with more physical force. There were times he was able to easily overpower Young on drives or post-up plays.
On the other end, Sexton had plenty of help. He and several teammates took turns draping themselves all over Young when the Oklahoma star was off the ball.
“They wanted the matchup,” Sexton said of his teammates. “They knew the matchup, and they helped me with it.”
How the NBA decision-makers will view this game is anyone’s guess. Last time there was a major point-guard showdown in the college game, Kentucky’s De’Aron Fox obliterated UCLA’s Lonzo Ball in the 2017 NCAA tournament — and it didn’t matter. Ball was drafted three spots ahead of Fox, and Ball has been the slightly more productive pro to this point.
So any judgements made off this game are almost assuredly premature at best, or downright wrong at worst. But in the end it was a good day for Sexton and a tough day for Young, who couldn’t quite hold up his end of former Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield’s Twitter boast.
Before playing in Saturday’s Senior Bowl in Mobile, the Heisman Trophy-winner tweeted, “The Sooners are taking over the state of Alabama today.” Not quite, at least in Tuscaloosa.
After the postgame news conference, Young graciously took a picture with a young Alabama fan and then headed back through the Coliseum toward the locker room. His eyes stayed peeled across the mostly empty area, until they locked with his father’s.
Rayford Young motioned for Trae to come over. But a staffer hustled him into the locker room to change. Parental support on a difficult day would have to wait a little while longer for the breakout star of this college basketball season.
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