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Goodbye, Thaddeus Young: Former Sixer and Golden Boy of a Bland Era

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Jake Fischer, 13, throws up his hands at the Sixers draft party at the Wachovia Center after Sixers pick Thaddeus Young.

That's me in the royal blue Sixers Camp t-shirt seven years ago. The appears-to-be-sleeping twerp to my right is my little brother, Jameson. June 28, 2007 was so long ago, the gold, black and white Gilbert Arenas Washington Wizards alternate jersey he's wearing isn't ironic yet. My mother graciously shlepped us over the Walt Whitman Bridge that evening to attend the Sixers' season ticket holder NBA Draft party. Inside the Wachovia Center, Marc Zumoff was hosting some form of a talk show on a stage that was built at center court.

A strange energy filled the arena. The Sixers were coming off a 35-47 season — the year in which Sixers GM Billy King traded Allen Iverson to the Denver Nuggets for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 first-round picks. Philly entered the night owning the No. 12 overall pick in the Draft as well as picks No. 21 and 30 from Denver. Those two picks would become Daequan Cook and Petteri Koponen, respectively. The Sixers traded Cook and a 2009 second-round pick to the Miami Heat for Jason Smith later that evening. The Mavericks currently own the draft rights to Koponen, who has never played a minute of NBA basketball. No wonder that post-Iverson rebuild never really got off the ground.

When the Sixers were on the clock at No. 12, Zumoff played to the crowd, a group of delirious fans widely convinced Philly needed a big man to pair with Miller and Andre Iguodala. Rumors had swirled for weeks that King thirsted to trade up from No. 12 and grab the Sixers' front court cornerstone of the future. Then, we watched Greg Oden, Al Horford and Jeff Green all hear their names called in the first five selections. The crowd grew tense. After watching him torch my beloved Villanova Wildcats in the Elite Eight that March, I wanted the Sixers to draft Joakim Noah out of Florida. Instead, King failed to orchestrate a trade and the gigantic screen behind Zumoff announced Philadelphia had selected Thaddeus Young, a 6-8 freshman forward from Georgia Tech. I threw my hands up in disgust.

The picture at the top of this story ran in the Daily News the following day on top of John Smallwood's column titled, 'King makes best of bad situation.' That's the exact caption the paper ran under the photo. The piece claimed King made the right decision drafting for upside instead of immediate production. Pubescent me clearly disagreed.

That picture is still framed and hanging in my childhood room in South Jersey today. Now, it's more of a reminder of how wrong I was rather than a strangely awesome piece of fan memorabilia. Thaddeus Young morphed into my second favorite Sixers player of all time behind only Iverson. Because of Smallwood's article and that printed picture, I've always felt a bizarre connection to Young. Yet for some reason, it's not gut-wrenching he will be traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday. I'm relieved.

***

I was privileged to watch the majority of Young's career in Philadelphia just 11 rows behind the Sixers' bench thanks to those aforementioned season tickets. My father had seats for all but one of Thad's seasons on Broad Street. Not being able to stomach a masterful tank job, my dad decided against renewing his seats for this past season. In those red-cushioned chairs, I saw Young struggle with what position he was in the NBA. I watched him hustle relentlessly regardless of which of the five coaches in his seven years roamed the sidelines.

Young arrived in Philadelphia as a 19-year-old kid and was thrown onto a team that was set up to fail. Andre Iguodala could never be Allen Iverson. Maurice Cheeks isn't an NBA coach, as we learned for the third time in February. Yet Thad still had a productive rookie year, averaging 8.2 points, 4.2 rebounds in 21.0 minutes per game while shooting 53.9 percent from the field and even starting 22 games at power forward alongside Sammy Dalembert.

The Sixers finished 40-42 that season, good enough for the 7th seed in the East where they clashed with the Detroit Pistons at the end of their mid-2000s golden era. Young helped the Sixers take a 2-1 lead on Detroit while averaging 10.2 points per game and playing his best defense on the bigger Jason Maxiell and Antonio McDyess while Dalembert battled Rasheed Wallace. Young started every game in that series, just a few weeks before I graduated from middle school. But you know how the series ended: the Pistons won three-straight to close out the matchup and the Sixers were stuck on the treadmill of mediocrity until Sam Hinkie arrived last summer. There was his game-winner against the Orlando Magic a year later and the first-round "upset" over the Bulls in 2012, but there wasn't much else for Thad to celebrate about during his time in a 76ers uniform.

In Young's seven seasons in Philly, the Sixers posted a record of 237-321, with roughly a third of those losses coming in just 2009-10 and 2013-14 alone. None of his teams ever won more than 41 games in a season. It's been a bland era full of predictable outcomes and uninspiring basketball. Yet throughout that constant drab, Thaddeus Young was the perennial glimmer of hope, the workhorse that refused to give in to the status quo. He had a quirky shot and ran like his shoes were tied together. But Philly found it adorable and grew to love him as one of its own.

Averaging 13.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game for his career, Young was never in the conversation of who the Sixers' next superstar would be following Iverson. That discussion was saved for Iguodala, Jrue Holiday and, yes, even Evan Turner. Still each February, the national media would stop and look at his numbers, watch the film and debate whether Thad should at least be part of the conversation for who should compete in the All-Star game. He was never truly considered for the February classic, but was a perennial inclusion in "All-Star Snub" articles. He was never quite Luol Deng, but he served that same role in Philly that Deng did in Chicago. He was never a superstar, but fought and often managed to transcend the murkiness that engulfed his team.

***

It's pathetically cliché. He's an undersized power forward consistently performing against bigger, better and stronger opponents. That's why Philadelphia has embraced his style of play and humbled demeanor. When Liberty Ballers reported that he had requested to be traded back in December, nearly a dozen people tweeted at me saying they had actually cried upon hearing the news. Not Thad. He's one of us. He could never want to leave.

But the truth is, no matter how his time ended in Philly, nothing could ever tarnish the reputation that he built here. Thad asking to be traded is the perfect ending to his story in Philadelphia. He arrived as a project and outgrew the canvas Bill King gave him to develop on. He surpassed all of our wildest expectations. He could have flamed out like Tyrus Thomas. Instead, he has nearly identical career win shares as Rudy Gay in one less season.

As the Sixers move forward into the future with a defined direction, Hinkie's ultimate success as a general manager will essentially be determined by how effective he drafts. If he can find value like King did with Young at No. 12 back in 2007 — find players who so far exceed the team's projections for them — this franchise will be in phenomenal shape moving forward.

After a hectic summer on the road following the Sixers through both the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues, I've returned home for a few weeks before ultimately leaving once again for another year of school up in Boston. The cork board that covers every inch of my walls still graciously displays cutouts and posters from nearly every SLAM Magazine printed since 2005. There's a poster of Baron Davis dunking on Andrei Kirilenko and gigantic spread of Dominique Wilkins posterizing some Clippers player. And yet, that picture of my reaction to drafting Thaddeus Young still stands out the most.

I'm now 20 years old, essentially just starting out my career like Young was back in 2007. Today, I can throw my hands up in disbelief at how much Thad has accomplished in such a shitty situation and somehow he's still only 26. We can all learn from the man Young grew to be in Philadelphia. There's a reason so many members of the Philly media have tweeted they'll miss covering him. His presence in the Sixers' locker room will be sorely missed.

Young's the type of person and kind of player that would purchase ad space in the local paper to thank the team's fans. After he's overcome what the fans have endured these last seven years first hand, we should be the ones thanking him.