Number Crunch: Has Thaddeus Young Turned a Corner?

As a 19-year old rookie Thaddeus Young looked like a promising part of the Sixers future. He accumulated a PER of 16.5, averaged 14 points per 36 minutes and shot 54% from the field. He played solid defense at two positions and was an average rebounder for a tweener (11.9% total). However; every year since then he's regressed. As his usage rate increased, his PER decreased – from 16.5 to 15.3 to 14.0 a season ago. His FG% dropped from 54 to 50 to 47. And his rebounding and defense fell off. He went from potential All-Star to completely worthless in a span of three years, with no real explanation.

Fast-forward to this season. Thad is 22 years old with three full seasons under his belt, and playing for arguably the best coach of his career. Though his development had been temporarily stunted, a breakout year wasn't completely out of the question. So no one should be too surprised to see Thaddeus off to a scorchingly-efficient start, in what may be the beginnings of a breakout season.

Through 17 games Thad has career-highs in PER (19.2), FG% (60%) and points per 36 minutes (17.4). He ranks 13th and fifth in TS% and eFG%, among players who've played at least 400 minutes. He's also shown minimal improvements in passing, turnover rate and defense.

Has he finally turned a corner, or is his hot start an aberration? 

When people try to explain Thaddeus' hot start – including Thad himself – they often credit him with being more aggressive on offense and settling for less jumpers, which is a logical theory, but not completely true.

60% of Thaddeus' shots came from less than 10 feet last season, compared to 62% this season. He's taking more close shots, but it's a minimal increase.

He must be making a lot more trips to the foul line right? Nope. His free throw rate has only seen a minimal increase, from .20 to .23. And his free throws per 36 minutes have only increased from 2.8 to 2.9.

He must be taking less midrange shots right? Nope; actually more. 33% of Young's shots are taken between 10-23 feet this season, compared to only 23% last year. And he's converting at a lower rate. 

One of the differences this season is the decrease in three point attempts. Last year 17% of Young's shots came from beyond the arch, compared to only 6% this season. But that still doesn't explain the spike in PER and FG%, because he's made up for the decrease in threes with an increase in midrange shots.

The major difference in Young's game is his conversion rate on close shots. Through the first three years of his career Thaddeus has made 59% of his shots from closer than 10 feet – his highest percentage being 62% his rookie season. This season he's converting at a whopping 77%. 

So the idea that Thaddeus is attacking the rim more, or being more aggressive may be overblown. He hasn't seen a significant increase in close shots or free throws, nor a decrease in jumpers. The only difference in Thad's game – creating the illusion of vast improvement – is an impossible-to-maintain FG% on shots from closer than 10 feet.

If everything else remains the same, but Thaddeus starts converting close shots on par with his career percentage (59%), his sparkling FG% (60%) would drop to 49%.

So to answer the question: turned the corner or aberration? I'm leaning towards aberration. 

The good news is the minor improvements in his passing, defense, and turnovers are likely for real.

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