Players are obviously a huge part of Lon Kruger’s 10-year legacy as the Oklahoma basketball coach.
And at the top of any list of Kruger’s OU greats are Buddy Hield and Trae Young.
Just two years apart on Kruger’s timeline, they couldn’t have been much different. Both were hard workers, and both captured the nation’s attention with their prodigious shooting skills — but that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.
Hield came to OU from Freeport, Bahamas, via Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas, almost as a recruiting afterthought — a nice role player with a solid upside.
Young arrived from down the street at Norman North High School as a 5-star prize, a likely lottery pick before he ever stepped onto the court at Lloyd Noble Center.
“Well, you know, every player is unique,” Kruger said last week at his retirement press conference. “You know, we've never compared one player to another.”
Hield worked his way up from 7.8 points per game and part-time starter as a true freshman to 25.0 points and national player of the year honors as a senior.
Young scored 22 in his second college game, 28 in his third, 33 in his fourth and 43 in his fifth and never failed to score in double figures during his one-and-done meteoric season in Norman.
“Trae, quite frankly, probably arrived with a more complete skill set than Buddy,” Kruger said. “And Buddy just kept getting better and better and better, and he was driven to be great.”
Hield was famously the first one in the arena and the last one out. He borrowed the keys to the practice gym and often was found working on his shot early in the morning or late at night or between classes. Legend says he sometimes slept there, then woke up and started shooting again. Hield practically willed himself to national accord.
For Young — not that he hasn’t worked hard; he remains a relentless worker on his floor game, his shot and his physique — but it just always has come easier for him than it did for Hield.
Their NBA careers have followed that same path. Hield averaged 8.6 points as a rookie, 15.1 and 13.5 in his next two seasons, and then 20.7 and 19.2. Young, meanwhile, averaged 19.1 as a rookie, then 29.6 last year as he made the NBA All-Star Game.
“Buddy and Trae were unbelievably skilled people,” Kruger said. “You know, they're different skill sets, for sure. And yet, they were both driven to be exceptional. And both extremely hard workers, both invested in their craft.
“Buddy was extremely smart. As you know, he turned down early entry after (his) junior year, and said, ‘I can do better. I can have a better foundation.’ And then became Player of the Year and, you know, then absolutely earned everything that that came his way.
“And then Trae was so skilled, and was so fast with the ball. People sometimes would ask, you know, ‘How can he do all those things, but he’s not that athletic?’ You know, I look at them like, ‘He’s faster with the ball than than anyone else is without.’ And yeah, he had great vision and great imagination as a passer. He is a terrific passer.”
With such a pronounced dichotomy between their arrivals and tenures at Oklahoma, did Kruger have a different approach to coaching both Hield and Young?
Not much, he said.
“We kind of start out with, ‘This is where we're at,’ ” Kruger said. “And then with the player, we listen a lot. I think listening is a huge, huge ingredient. You know, we asked about the player’s vision, you know, ‘Where do you want to be? What do you want to accomplish? What do you want to do?’ And then we work backwards from that.
“ ‘OK, if you want to be great, you know, on the court, gonna be great in the classroom or great at anything, you know, let's develop a plan to get there.’ And then you do that together, you know. Everything’s about shared ownership. It’s never ‘my way’ or ‘your way,’ it’s always, ‘Let’s get this done together and make it our way.’
“And both have excelled in the NBA,” Kruger said. “Couldn't be happier for them. Couldn't be more proud for them.”