James Young knew fairly early in his life what he wanted to do and how he would go about doing it.
Basketball, for one, was always the path Young was going to go. He loved football when he was a kid, and his athleticism may have given him a shot to play at a major level had he not received a hint in the seventh grade, in the form of a helmet-jarring hit, to stick with basketball.
“It was like the last play of my first scrimmage,” Young said. “I got picked up and tossed out of bounds. After that I quit. I was a running back and I was pretty good. I had tried going to a couple practices, but it was tough. After that first scrimmage, I couldn’t do it anymore.”
From that point forward, Young knew basketball was his dream. He hasn’t played football since.
It was then a matter of deciding where he wanted to go to play basketball. Young had that all figured out, too.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Kentucky (and join) the great history that they have,” Young said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “Once I got the opportunity to come here, it was just mind-blowing for me.”
Young has lived in Michigan his entire life, in the corridor between two national power college programs. Michigan State University was a couple hours drive to the west, and the University of Michigan was about an hour to the south.
The pull of both programs would have tempted a lot of homegrown kids. The pressure from friends in Michigan to stay in state was palpable.
But Young blocked out the noise because he already knew where he wanted to go. Kentucky was his choice, and it didn’t matter what the people around him in Michigan were saying, that’s where he was going.
“(Michigan and Michigan State) just wasn’t my type of fit, and I felt like Kentucky was a better fit for me,” Young said. “A lot of people from my high school actually said I should go to (Michigan) State or Michigan, but I just knew what I wanted to go to. I just wanted to go where I loved.”
How a Michigan kid became a die-hard fan of a program several states away might seem hard to understand on the surface, but the exposure of today’s game has changed all that. UK’s 20-plus nationally televised games a year puts the program on every child’s television screen, and Young was one of the kids who took notice.
“I watched them on TV all the time and found out about the great history they have behind them,” Young said. “I always watched Tayshaun Prince and everybody. Tayshaun Prince is actually one of my favorite players. I used to watch old videos of him when he used to play here.”
The only problem for Young is that, while he knew Kentucky was the school for him, the Kentucky coaching staff didn’t know (yet) if Young was the type of player for UK.
Young was already a high-profile recruit during his junior season, but the coaches had never watched him nor had him on their radar. When Young burst onto the national scenes during the Nike EYBL circuit between his junior and senior seasons, he used the attention as a way to lobby some attention from the coaching staff.
“I was hoping that they got in contact with (what was going on) just to let them know I was here and looking at them,” Young said.
Position: Guard/small forward
Date of birth: Aug. 16, 1995
Parents: Tiplance Vernon
Hometown: Rochester, Mich.
High school: Rochester High School
Favorite TV show: ESPN
Favorite food: Pizza
Favorite superhero: Superman
Favorite player: Tracy McGrady
Favorite hobby outside of basketball: Football
Favorite movie: The Lion King
Favorite artist: Lil Wayne
The staff caught wind of Young’s success and came to watch him on the EYBL circuit in Virginia. Once the coaches saw what he could do, they were sold.
“I saw Coach Cal and (Kenny Payne) on the sidelines,” Young said. “When I saw them come, I tried to play my best. It went good from there.”
Still, there were more obstacles to overcome to achieve what he always knew he would be doing.
Young spent the summer at home in Michigan before officially becoming a Wildcat, and there were public doubts that Young would ever make it to Lexington. Though he was confident he would be a part of the 2013-14 team, Young couldn’t help but hear people try to tear down his dream.
“I just kept hearing like, ‘You’re never going to come. I don’t think he’s going to come.’ They’re telling my family, ‘I don’t think your son is going to go there’ and all this other stuff,” Young said. “I tried to just leave it alone and not listen to it as much, but for some reason I kept just hearing it from random people.”
When Young received his acceptance letter from Kentucky, he posted it on Instagram. The caption for the photo: “For the haters(.)”
Young said he posted the letter to prove all of his critics, especially those back in Michigan, wrong.
“I was stressed all summer, so once I finally got here, it was like a load off (my shoulders),” Young said. “It felt great being on campus.”
Young credits his mother, grandmother and godfather, Sean Mahone, for helping him stay focused through the recruiting process and this summer. Young lived with Mahone while he went to Troy High School through his junior season in high school.
“I’m best friends with his son, Evan Mahone,” Young said. “We went to school together. We used to stay at each other’s house like every night. We just became really close ever since then. Sean has been like a father for me ever since because my dad has been gone. I don’t really talk to my dad. Sean has been like that role model for me.”
Mahone played an important part in Young’s recruiting, but Young decided to transfer to Rochester High School after his junior season to move back in with his mother and grandmother, the two rocks in his life. At Rochester, Young led the school to its first regional championship in 63 years.
“My grandma has always been there for me,” Young said. “When my mom was in the hospital, she came from Flint to live with us. She lived with us until like 2005, so me and my grandma became really close. She’s just always been there for me. … Her and I have a connection that no one can break ever.”
Now that Young is at Kentucky, he could be a valuable piece to UK’s title chances.
This year’s crop of players draws comparisons to John Calipari’s first team at UK in that there is an embarrassment of riches. Not only does this team feature elite prospects, there are a bevy of them.
The problem with that 2009-10 team is that for all the talent it had and all ways it could beat the opposition, 3-point shooting was not a strength. At times, it was a weakness, and it eventually cost that team a shot at the national championship when the Cats went 4-for-32 from behind the arc against West Virginia in the 2010 regional finals.
There are some that wonder if the 2013-14 team doesn’t mirror that squad, but Young could end up being the difference between the two.
Quiet off the court, the lefty makes noise on it. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, he can play inside and out, he can get to the basket with his quickness and he’s an underrated passer. But his greatest asset, he says, and what UK might count on for him this year, is his 3-point shooting.
Some wonder how Young and Aaron Harrison, the consensus No. 1 shooting guard in this freshman class, can both get time at the two, but Young said he’s more of a wing, not just a shooting guard.
“I’m more of a scorer,” Young said. “Long and lengthy. I’m pretty quick. I can rebound.”
Young, who met and played with the Harrison twins at the McDonald’s All-American Game in April, envisions a lineup where all three are together on the court at once.
“They like the Dribble Drive. That’s exactly what I love, too, so I think we’ll be good getting each other open and getting each other open shots,” Young said. “(The Dribble Drive) gets everybody open. You drive it hard and a lot of people will be open for the 3.”
Young, ranked the 11th-best overall player in the 2013 class, is conceivably overlooked on a national perception level because of the number of talented players UK has pieced together this season, but he said he doesn’t pay attention to such talk.
“I just want to do me and play my best game,” Young said.
Young is too focused on sticking to the plan. He’s always known he’s wanted to play basketball and do it at Kentucky. Now he knows what he wants next: a national championship.
“If we work hard like I know we will, I’m pretty sure we can do a lot of damage and just go and make it in the tournament,” Young said. “Once we get to the tournament, we can do what we’re supposed to do.”
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