Thaddeus Young's Newfound Identity

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Ethan Strauss, of TrueHoop and Twitter fame, sent out a tweet which bothered me well over three weeks ago. It bothered me so much that I intended to pen this article at that point, but things in life got in the way of me getting to it until now. Anyway, this is the tweet:

To put context into that tweet, a short time before that he said he wanted to see Thaddeus Young on another team that could develop his three point shot, which on the whole seems like a reasonable thing to do. Would Thad be better if he turned his penchant for shooting long twos into a penchant for shooting threes at a higher eFG%? Surely, especially if he paired that with his awesome around-the-rim game in the right ratio. But it’s not so much the context of the Collins criticism that bothered me, which is a true if extreme characterization of Collins’ philosophies, but the idea that Doug Collins has somehow made Thaddeus Young more ineffective than he otherwise would be that did and remains the reason for this piece

Because, to me at least, Doug Collins is largely responsible for making Thaddeus Young an awesome basketball player today.


Let me take you back to April 2010. If you’re unfamiliar with that time period, a volcano erupted in Iceland, making air travel to, from, and around Europe practically impossible. Also, Rihanna’s Rude Boy topped the Billboard Top 100 for the entire month. And most importantly, the Sixers were a shell of a basketball team, finishing off the franchise’s worst season in a decade under a lame duck coach* and with no real direction for the future. Knowing the crowd here, I assume you all remember the pain and agony well, or if you don’t remember you intentionally forgot about it. A roster full of (mostly) overpaid veterans and intriguing (but unproven) youngsters made for a weird mix that remained weird even when things got better.

*Oh how the more things change, the more they stay the same. By this of course I mean Eddie Jordan being a lame duck coach. I think he just sleeps during Lakers games now.

Chief among the unproven youngsters was Thad, who for the most part looked completely lost on the court. Most notably, he struggled whenever he was asked to play on the perimeter in all three of his NBA seasons. He started the season as a small forward, moving from the power forward spot he primarily started at the prior year (due to Elton Brand's injury), combining with Andre Iguodala to form an intriguing athletic duo. Unfortunately, that athleticism never translated to scare anybody in basketball terms, as Young struggled both offensively and defensively with players smaller than he is. Meanwhile, because he stunk as a wing, Eddie Jordan (who apparently had some wherewithal) moved him to the bench to play as a big. He played well on offense as an undersized big, but on defense he was crushed to the tune of a 20+ PER, according to

In short, Young was a classic tweener: A position-less, amorphous (okay, not really), homeless (okay, definitely not) basketball player. Things hadn’t changed from the previous two seasons, where he occupied the same spot on the roster, albeit more effectively. His prospects of becoming a long-term starter diminished as NBA observers wondered whether or not he would be able to adjust to playing on the perimeter enough to warrant starting or even receiving a contract extension from the Sixers. Most assumed that he was too short (a generously listed 6’8") and too weak to play as a big full-time, or at least as a starter.


Then, a DOUG COLLINS appeared. Like his predecessors (and me, but I'm not the story here), Collins was tasked with figuring out what to do with Thaddeus Young. Like them, it seemed he initially leaned toward making his wing play work, but unlike the previous coaches he realized quickly that Thad wouldn’t succeed out there – his jumper had regressed over the summer so much he couldn’t shoot reliably from almost anywhere without being completely open, and he continued to struggle on both ends of the court when relied upon as a wing. So Collins made him an almost full-time big*. The result: Thad’s best season to date, with career highs in PER and better defense with a consistent position. He also came off the bench for all but one game, because Collins realized he was too small to take a physical beating against bigger starting lineups.

*One thing to note – if you were to look up time splits from the first Collins season on, you might notice that it seems Young played a good chunk of his minutes at the small forward position. For whatever reason, they assigned Andres Nocioni (ugh) the power forward minutes when they played together. So if you saw that discrepancy and wondered what I was smoking, wonder what the people were smoking. But don’t tell them I said that because I love their site!

Then, Collins tasked him with improving his jumper the next season, and he did that. He took and made more jumpers, even if they weren’t threes. The next summer, leading into this season, Collins asked him to bulk up to help his defense, and he did. Thad’s now strong enough to defend in the post against almost all of his opponents. As of Saturday morning he was in top 2/3rds of the NBA in post defense, allowing .82 points per possession to opponents on post-ups according to Synergy (thanks to Tom Westerholm for the numbers), and while his pick-and-roll numbers are down so far this year, his pick-and-roll defense helped the Sixers advance in the playoffs last season and should round into form. Thad is now an integral part of the Sixers defensive schemes, and Zach Lowe (in my opinion the NBA media's best writer/observer today) even mentioned Thad as a honorable mention candidate for defensive player of the year for the season so far! Just imagine that, say, two or three years ago.


All of this is meant to say that Thaddeus Young has progressed significantly as an NBA player since his rookie season, even if his basic box-score stats wouldn’t indicate it. For instance, his per-36 numbers have pretty much remained unchanged since his age 19 season, aside from his recent aversion to three point shooting.

But he has a lot going for him now that he didn’t have before. For instance, his PER rose from his first three years to over 18 in each of the past two seasons and is at about that level despite his playing more now. But primarily: we know what player he is. He's a big. For years the Sixers shuffled him between roles. While specific positions have, by and large, been abandoned in the NBA, his role yo-yoed between the perimeter and the interior, and his weaknesses in each general area prevented him from becoming a long-term starter.

Now that he can effectively play at both ends of the floor in one of those two areas, he can be a long-term NBA starter, something that he hadn’t proven capable of before this season. He plays nearly 3/4ths of the game in that one area and plays well in that role on offense and defense. Also, he - again - has the best on/off net rating on the roster at +13.0. If you’re unfamiliar with the term net rating, it compares the team’s estimated point differential, comparing when a player plays to when he doesn't. As Mike Levin wrote about earlier this season, Young's on/off ratings indicated that he was the early season statistical MVP, and while the net rating isn't quite as extreme as it was then, it's still very significant. Whether that’s due to his brilliance or his replacements’ futility is another issue, but combining the minutes with the rating is key – Young makes a huge difference for more time each game than at any point in his career, making him even more valuable than ever before, despite usually going against bigger and better players for those longer periods of time.

Thad has put in the work, and his coach has helped find him a role where he can thrive and, most importantly for us, help the team immensely. His contract, once thought to be a bit too much to stomach for a player with an unknown role, now seems to be favorable. And he's really, really good. We can thank him, and Coach Collins, for that.

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