If the basketball gods show New York hoops fans any justice, “The Next Stephen Curry’’ will fall — this time — to the Knicks at No. 9 in the June 21 NBA Draft.
Trae Young is the biggest celebrity if not the most electric player in the draft. Yet it’s the grimy late-season details of Oklahoma’s freshman point guard that make this orange-and-blue talk possible.
Young shot 22.8 percent (28-of-123) in his final 11 games. He missed 21 straight 3-pointers during a three-game span. The Sooners lost nine of their last 11, including first-round exits in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournaments. And Young’s defense sagged and his turnovers rose.
John McKelvey is not an NBA scout. He’s a sportswriter for the Norman Transcript, where majestic Oklahoma University is located. McKelvey covered Young in his last two years of scholastic ball at North Norman High, where the gyms were packed across the state for all his games, with Russell Westbrook dropping by and fire marshals turning people away.
“I never saw him dunk,’’ McKelvey said.
“After two years,’’ said Sooners assistant Chris Crutchfield, “he’ll be an NBA All-Star. One, he’s quick with the ball. Two, he can really, really shoot it. And three, he can pass it. Based on the way the NBA is designed with defensive rules, it’s ideal for a guy like Trae to have success. If you don’t guard him at 35 feet he may shoot it. If you do, he’s going to go by you.’’
Unless they trade up a few notches, do the Knicks have a chance? They must, otherwise Young would not have agreed to a workout. A source told The Post Young will work out for fewer than a half-dozen teams.
“I personally think he’s the best player in this year’s draft,’’ said Travelle Gaines, Young’s new trainer. “I think he’s a generational shooter and has gifts and tools you can’t teach. You can’t get tripled in the NBA. Hopefully the Knicks trade up and I’ll be at the first game.’’
“The thing about the Knicks,’’ McKelvey said, “is it’s a perfect spot. He loves the spotlight, always wants the spotlight. He doesn’t turn down an interview.
“He likes people talking about him.”
Slam Magazine had the 19-year-old on its cover. Sports Illustrated donated pages in homage of his freshman year. Kevin Durant, who sponsored Young’s title-winning AAU team, once invited him to his Oklahoma City apartment to watch basketball.
Young made headlines at the draft combine in Chicago when he said, “My main focus isn’t necessarily to be the best player in this draft. My goal is to be the best player in the NBA.’’
Young arrived in Los Angeles County on March 21 to begin the next chapter of his career. After his one-and-done with Oklahoma ended in first-round disappointment in overtime to Rhode Island, Young would get ready for the draft with a paucity of distractions in Calabasas, Calif.
“He can’t really go anywhere in Norman,’’ said his father Rayford, who had an All-Big 12 career at Texas Tech, played overseas in Portugal and France, and experienced training-camp stints with Houston and Dallas. “He couldn’t stay here. He can’t really leave the house. When we went to watch Russell in the playoffs for OKC, he missed the first quarter, talking, signing autographs, taking pictures. He knows you never give people the cold shoulder early in your career.”
The Youngs hired Gaines, a trainer who uses new-age techniques such as cryotherapy. Hopping into a freezer of negative-200 degrees for two minutes certainly tops the old-school way of sitting in a cold tub for 20.
Hardly a freak athlete, Young led the nation in scoring and assists — a Division I first despite the tailspin. But members of his circle knew he needed to head to Los Angeles to get stronger and fitter to become an NBA defender.
As Rayford said, “He knows he’s got to prove he can be a defensive player. When he played AAU ball [he was alley-oop mates with fellow lottery candidate Michael Porter Jr.] he was really good on defense. He was asked to do so much for Oklahoma, not making excuses. It wasn’t the defense I’d seen him play.”
Don’t mention Young’s defensive shortcomings in front of his mother. Rayford and Candice were high-school sweethearts in Pampa High in Texas.
“Candice was a 5-6 point guard and known only as a defensive player,’’ Rayford said. “She gets mad when you talk about Trae’s defense.’’
Enter Gaines, who is free to spill the new data. The 6-2 Young weighed 170 pounds with 7.3 percent body fat before they began a three-workout-a-day regimen and drastic diet change.
Last Wednesday, Young tipped the scales at 183 pounds with 5.7 percent body fat.
“He gained 13 pounds of muscle, lost almost 2 percent body fat,’’ Gaines said. “He’ll be 185-188 at training camp. He had phenomenal strength coaches at OU but there’s X amount of time you’re allowed to practice and be in the weight room along with the rigors of being a star athlete in Norman. Now he’s a professional. It’s 24 hours a day of diet and exercise.”
Young’s food menu is unrecognizable — five strawberry-banana protein shakes daily.
“He’s a kid. He wants to eat burgers and chicken fingers,’’ Gaines said. “Trae is an extremely picky eater. We went through a few flavors that were no good — chocolate, Oreo, vanilla. But he pounds those strawberry-banana ones down.’’
As much as he’s socialized with NBA stars along his journey thanks to his father’s connections (he met Chris Paul as an 8-year-old when the Hornets evacuated New Orleans to play in Oklahoma City for the 2005-06 season), Young has always felt a touch slighted.
McKelvey, the Norman sportswriter, will tell you that considering Young averaged 42.8 points in high school — including one 62-point night — he was lightly recruited. Especially for a player once brought on stage by Lil Wayne during a concert.
“He’s so tough,’’ Gaines said. “People have doubted him because he’s always been a little undersized. He’s fueled by the criticism and always focused and works extremely hard. Coming to L.A., he can be a normal kid.”
Even with an in-season endorsement from LeBron James — “He better go pro,’’ James said — Young’s draft stock slipped from a guaranteed top-three pick to, at best, No. 6, where Orlando sits. The Magic need a point guard, but also are eyeing Alabama’s Collin Sexton.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger was a Knicks assistant for Don Chaney in 2001 just as the franchise began its nosedive. Kruger has talked to the Knicks front office about Young in addition to other NBA clubs.
“Most of the [NBA] people point to that — size on the defensive end,’’ Kruger said. “Defending the post and defending against mismatches, especially the way the playoffs are going. Now everyone looks for mismatches. Most feel the skill level and speed and ability with the ball more than offsets the concern on the other end. He’s going to have to adjust but he’s got the quickness and instincts to be a good on-ball defender.”
Kruger always thought he had a fair chance of beating out Kentucky’s John Calipari for Young, who lived five minutes from the Oklahoma campus.
“I thought he’d want to share the college experience with his family, extended family, friends who can be at games,’’ Kruger said. “Family was really important to him.”
The Youngs settled in Norman when Trae was 5, after Rayford’s European career crashed following a compound ankle fracture he suffered as a 25-year-old. Of all the basketball nuances Rayford taught his son, taping his ankles for every game and practice was the most important.
“I got lazy one game and didn’t tape my ankle,’’ Rayford recalled.
Rayford wanted Trae, who has two sisters and a brother, to attend Kentucky, falling for Calipari’s sales pitch of college basketball’s most prolific NBA factory.
“I’m a huge fan for Calipari,’’ Rayford said. “I always wanted him to go there. Cal showed up with a blueprint on how to make him an NBA player. He’s been really good with point guards. My wife wanted him to stay home or at least go to Kansas, 3 ¹/₂ hours away.”
Calipari may have broken out the champagne when Rayford, after a particularly critical column on his son in the Norman Transcript, tweeted on Jan. 21, 2017: “Time to be honest OU fans, these two writers will be the reason my son can’t go to school here. It’s been four years of this.”
Rayford, referring to the columnist and McKelvey, eventually deleted the tweet. And Trae eventually spurned Calipari.
Oklahoma had scouted Young since the eighth grade, and Crutchfield was allowed to attend more games than any other college coach. His two sons and Trae were high school teammates. College coaches are permitted a maximum six “contact evaluations’’ in a year.
“Crutch went to a lot of his sons’ games,’’ Kruger cracked.
“We showed Trae our vision the way we wanted to play and fit into his freedom,’’ Crutchfeld said. “That was the main selling — to let you play your game. The ultimate freedom and being the hometown hero. People came to see him play like watching a phenom. He did some entertaining stuff that made you say ‘Wow.’ Shooting 35-footers from the volleyball line on the high school court. With ease.”
His status would have been different at Kentucky, a program filled with top recruits who needed the ball.
“[Trae] said, ‘Dad, we’re going to win there.’ He wanted to bring excitement back to Oklahoma,” Rayford recalled. “The whole plan wasn’t one-and-done. The plan was develop for two years. But the whole thing exploded.’’
Crutchfeld knew Oklahoma hit the jackpot last July during practices leading up to its New Zealand/Australia tour against semi-pro teams.
“Those practices we all were looking at each other like, ‘Wow.’ Going five-on-five in a 4-minute scrimmage, his team scored 16 points and he’d have 12 of them,” Crutchfeld said. “In New Zealand, against older guys, he was getting 22 [points] and seven [rebounds] playing half the game.’’
Then the season started. And the Curry comparisons followed. Crutchfield thought it was unfair, believing their similar skin complexion fueled some of it.
“He got off to such a great start, maybe a start no one in college basketball ever had, after 15 games,’’ Kruger said.
Young couldn’t keep up that pace. The Oklahoma coaching staff each believe teams adjusted by getting the ball out of Young’s hands. Other insiders believe Young’s teammates faltered in the white-hot glare, started missing shots and Young’s confidence swooned, too.
During one low moment, Texas Tech fans broke out in a “F–k you, Trae’’ chant. Rayford, sitting in the stands at his alma mater, was heartbroken. The feeling was Texas Tech had been kept in the recruiting process by Trae just to allow his father’s old school a publicity boost.
Young’s final numbers: 27.4 points, 8.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds. And 5.2 turnovers.
“He tried threading the ball through a tight window, and he shouldn’t have done that,’’ Crutchfield said. “He would split two defenders off ball-screen situations. We gave him that freedom to take those risks. He’s a risk taker to a degree.’’
There was a time taking Curry at No. 7 in 2009 was a risk, too. The Knicks were ready to pounce at 8. Golden State made the pick and Knicks fans haven’t stopped weeping.
“I don’t like the expectations of my son being compared to him,’’ Rayford admitted. “It scares me.’’
Speaking in Chicago, it was clear it doesn’t scare Trae.
“I love the comparison,” he said.
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