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Chauncey Billups can still picture Rayford Young bobbing in Texas Tech’s January 1997 layup line. Billups had watched the film. The tape didn’t lie.
Rayford entered that inaugural Big 12 season projected as the conference’s best freshman, and Billups realized, “Damn, this kid can hoop.” As he jogged toward half court in Lubbock, rounding his turn in Colorado’s layup line, there was Rayford, eyes locked onto the sophomore.
“This dude just keeps staring at me. Kind of mean-mugging me. I was just like, ‘Yo, what is wrong with this dude?'” Billups recalls now. “Without even talking, he was kind of egging me on, like he wanted to get a piece of me.”
Only months separated Billups from hearing his name called third in that June’s NBA draft. Rayford knew quite well the bear he was poking. He began the game on the bench, keeping his glare focused on the Buffs’ star.
Rayford finally rose to enter as Billups was due for his usual first rest, yet he begged Colorado head coach Ricardo Patton to let him stay on the floor. Incredulous, Patton initially refused. How could his steady floor general rebuff the game plan during a road conference game?
“I said, ‘Coach, just please do me that favor.'” Billups says. “Because I really wanted to show this dude, ‘Why are you looking at me like this, man? I’m the best guard in the league, dawg.'”
Billups proved his point, powering Colorado to an 80-78 victory. But Rayford showed his, too. “He was a little guy who played big,” says Tony Battie, a junior on that Texas Tech team. “He never was afraid of the moment.” The 5’11” dynamo attacked the paint with abandon and drove right into the opposing trees lurking in the paint.
Two decades later, Rayford’s eldest, Trae Young, has brought that same snarl to the NBA, unleashing sidestep three-pointers from half-court logos and whipping no-look assists out of endless pick-and-rolls for the Atlanta Hawks.
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With just 131 professional games under his belt, Trae already stands third in the league in scoring (29.7 PPG) and second in assists (9.2 APG) in 2019-20 en route to earning his first All-Star selection. Trae’s numbers are so lethal and his game so absorbing that he paced all Eastern Conference guards in fan voting, earning a coveted spot in the game’s starting lineup.
He’ll enter a locker room in Chicago flooded with his elite peers on the court, yet even before this, Trae has always found himself amongst the NBA’s All-Stars. “He’s like a little brother,” says Chris Paul.
When the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina forced the New Orleans Hornets temporarily to Oklahoma City, Rayford, having settled in nearby Norman, relished the opportunity for his seven-year-old son. That November, as Battie’s visiting Orlando Magic took the Ford Center floor, one voice emanated above the rest of the sellout crowd.
“I hear somebody calling my name, and I look up and it’s Rayford,” Battie says. The former Red Raiders embraced, and Battie set aside family passes for Rayford and young Trae to come visit the postgame locker room. With each opponent arriving in Oklahoma, Rayford flipped through his Rolodex of former teammates and foes, like Billups and Tyronn Lue, seeking an introduction for his little hoop head.
Paul starred as those Hornets’ babyfaced Rookie of the Year. Following most home battles, after sparring with his own heroes on the same floor for the first time, Paul always carved moments out of his postgame routine for Rayford’s boy, eagerly loitering outside the locker room.
“I just remember going down to the tunnel waiting to meet,” Trae now says, a reminiscent smile evident in his voice over the phone. “He was always just trying to give me advice.” Trae met Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, always peppering each floor general with questions before later watching their film at home.
When Battie’s Magic returned the following season, they managed to enlist Trae as an Orlando ball boy for the evening. He was assuredly Rayford’s, shockingly comfortable with the leather between his palms, alleviating any concern about tossing a pass to a child. “He had a knack for the ball. He passed really well for being a small kid. His timing was right,” Battie says.
Trae’s advanced abilities popped on the preteen AAU circuit. “You’d just keep hearing about him and hearing about him,” Billups says.
The Hornets returned to New Orleans full-time in 2007, but the successful stint sparked the first of polarizing flames that permitted Clay Bennett’s ownership group to move the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season, rebranding as the Thunder. “I was one of the first people in line to get two tickets,” Rayford says. He still holds seats 3 and 4, Row R in Section 119 of the-now Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Burgeoning MVPs Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook soon replaced Paul as OKC’s marquee act, and so too as Trae’s confidants. Former Thunder director of player personnel David Vanterpool played with Rayford on the ABA’s Kansas City Knights in 2001 and quickly joined his former backcourt mate’s roster of postgame credential plugs.
Trae first noticed Westbrook’s fashionable flare, mouth agape at a flashy pair of Christian Louboutin shoes. “He told me one day I’ll be able to get some,” Trae laughs.
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Over time though, the youngster noticed Westbrook’s parents were always there. His wife was always there. “That’s something that I took away from him,” Trae says. “To always keep that circle small and remain true to your family and who came up with you.”
With Vanterpool’s help, they wound through the stadium’s bowels one evening, until Trae walked directly up to Durant. Vanterpool and Rayford shuffled to the side while Durant and Trae shared the first of many conversations.
“The growth of that relationship happened really organically,” Vanterpool says. Durant’s manager, Randy Williams, a Texas product himself, knew of Rayford’s local high school and college lore. They reconnected, as Rayford did countless times, at a Thunder game. Then Nike flew Trae to the Bahamas for a showcase, and Williams learned Rayford’s boy was more than a meet-and-greet.
“You’re like,” he says, voice rising, “‘Who is this kid?'” Soon after, Durant’s Nike brand sponsored Trae and running mate Michael Porter Jr.’s superb Mokan Elite AAU team, gifting the teens KD backpacks and kicks.
Rayford wound up dropping teenage Trae off at Durant’s brownstone to watch Duke and Kentucky clash in the 2015 Champions Classic. Instead of meeting friends for TNT Thursdays, Trae returned to Durant’s on several occasions just to watch their beloved game on a big screen. They weren’t teaching moments, but rather private gatherings as equals.
“It was just chilling. We’d just watch basketball,” Williams says. “It wasn’t like a big thing to us. I think it just depends on the person you are. Trae’s not really no awestruck dude like that.”
“That’s Kevin Durant,” Trae says, appreciation still present in his voice. “I’m a 16-year-old kid, just chilling at Kevin Durant’s house. It’s crazy, but whenever you see those types of guys off the court, you realize how much they’re like everybody else.”
His dream and reality became increasingly intertwined. “You see something that is a possibility,” Vanterpool says. “‘He likes the same video games I like. I’m playing this with him. Well, shit, why can’t I do what he does?'”
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Trae’s strides were landing lockstep in his idols’ footprints. While grappling with his college decision, he pulled the fabled Point God to the side during a session at Paul’s summer camp, asking about Paul’s choice to play at Wake Forest in his native North Carolina.
Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger promised Rayford the Sooners would deploy his son in the way the Golden State Warriors unleashed Stephen Curry, unlike the secondary roles Duke, Kentucky and Kansas offered.
Williams knew Trae would dominate Oklahoma’s tune-up games, positioning his draft stock to explode during Nike’s preseason tournament, the PK80, honoring co-founder Phil Knight’s 80th birthday. Sure enough, Trae hung 43 points on Oregon during the event, lifting him into conversation for the 2018 NBA draft’s No. 1 pick.
Trae blitzed the rest of Oklahoma’s nonconference slate. He opened Big 12 play by hanging 39 points and 14 assists on TCU, harkening back to that summer’s training sessions with Billups. Trae stopped in Denver for a few days before joining USA Basketball in Colorado Springs, drilling pick-and-rolls with his dad’s former rival by day and gobbling barbecue at a family gathering in Billups’ backyard at night.
Acknowledging Trae’s size and stature, they focused on his finishing ability at the rim. “Nobody can keep you out of the paint, but what are you gonna do when you get there?” Billups quizzed his pupil. The former knew he struggled converting through contact and practiced drawing fouls on the occasions he did knife all the way to the bucket. At the line, after all, Billups converted 89.4 percent of his free throws throughout his 17-year career.
Trae has mastered an impressive array of floaters that arc over opposing giants’ reach, yet he regressed to the mean during the closing stretch of his lone collegiate campaign. He shot just 2-of-14 from deep at Texas, then 1-of-8 at Iowa State and 0-of-9 three days later at Texas Tech. He failed to record double-digit assists in any of his last eight games despite reaching that threshold in 11 of his first 24 contests. Opponents double-teamed the phenom at half court. Scouts began wondering if his size would prohibit true success at the next level.
Only doubt never followed his frustration. Trae remembered what Paul and then-Rockets assistant coach Irv Roland told him that December when Houston visited OKC and Rayford once again secured postgame access.
“I used to tell Trae, even when he struggled in college, that the NBA would be easier than college was,” Paul says. The pro game, predicated on tempo and triples, would afford Trae ample real estate to dance, Paul promised. “The game’s just more wide open, and you’re able to see what he can do with better teammates and better floor spacing,” Roland says.
That expanse of hardwood, however, has left all 180 pounds of Trae susceptible on the opposite side of the court. “The biggest thing I used to talk to him about was defense,” Paul says.
Atlanta overall ranks 28th overall in team defense, a natural side effect of a roster boasting just six players with more than three years of service. As a result, the Hawks sit in the Eastern Conference basement, and Trae has felt the stress of shouldering a sputtering attempt to contend for the postseason.
“What people don’t understand is that’s really important to him,” Billups says. “This is a kid that really, really wants to win.” And so he phones his All-Star mentors, seeking guidance on how to eke out more victories.
“When the leader hangs his head, you give everyone else a pass to do it,” Billups advises him. He lists anecdotal lessons from guiding the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back Finals appearances. Billups would consciously table-set for his teammates in the opening quarter, confident he would get his during the second frame. Each marksman has a different shooting pocket, and it’s wise to learn their preferences.
“These are high-level conversations,” Billups says. “He’s not a sponge. I call guys like him a filter. Because a sponge, they take in everything. A filter takes in everything and knows what to kind of feed out.”
“I remember taking that picture with Trae in Oklahoma City. It’s pretty amazing to see what he’s been able to do in his first two years,” Irving says. “I don’t know if that’s a sign that I’m getting older.”
Either way, it certainly renders Rayford’s long scheme successful.
Five-time NBA Champion with Los Angeles Lakers and head coach of the LA Sparks, Derek Fisher, joins “The Full 48 with Howard Beck” to pay tribute to his Lakers brother, Kobe Bryant, and share thoughts on their special bond and friendship, Kobe’s leadership style, his post-NBA career, and what the media got wrong about the basketball legend during his life.