Thad Young was named the winner of the NBA's Hustle Award, joining previous winners Patrick Beverley, Amir Johnson, Marcus Smart and Montrezl Harrell last season. He averaged 12.1 points per game this past season and believes he can continue to play at a high level for several more seasons.
It's not even one of those arcane analytical statistics, but it's something I've seen Bulls forward Thad Young do so often the last few years that I began to notice. He has this remarkable knack for retrieving a turnover, one of his own or a teammate's, a quick draw play that turns an opponent's fast break into at least a sense of relief. So I asked him about it. His explanation sounded like why he also could be substituting for Hubie Brown at coaching clinics and why he should be must listen at NBA rookie orientation.
"A turnover is unfortunate, but mistakes happen through the course of a game," Young agreed. "It's a matter of not dwelling on the past. Throughout the course of a game there is so much trial and error to the point you are going to make mistakes. So you have to be able to know how to pivot out of those mistakes. One of the ways is when you turn the basketball over you don't dwell on the past or be down on yourself or complain to the refs. Hustle back, try to get the ball back or make sure you get back in position to help your teammates and not put them in worse position. Because if you don't run back you have a four-on-five situation. You're one man down. It's about always just making sure you put your team in position where you can help as opposed to hurt your team."
It's also why the forward who isn't particularly athletic, is a bit too small for power forward and a bit too slow for small forward and who isn't a particularly notable shooter is going into his 15th NBA season, is among fewer than 200 players all-time in the NBA to have played in more than 1,000 games and Wednesday at age 33 became the oldest winner of the NBA's Hustle Award.
The annual award which debuted in 2016 might also be called the "Little Things" award. Because it describes those elusive "little things" that coaches always talk about that are so important to win games but which are rarely honored. The award might also be called the "Coach's Favorite" award because it generally describes what coaches (and fans) implore players to do. And wish more would. Or the "Fundamentals" and "Intangibles" award because it characterizes the elements of the game so fundamental to success, but often so elusive.
Thad Young dives on the floor for a loose ball with Phoenix's Cameron Johnson
The award recognizes the so called dirty work of diving for loose balls, sacrificing your body for charges, getting your hand on balls for deflections, closing out to contest shots, setting screens to free up teammates for better shots and boxing out to secure rebounds for yourself or teammates.
Young led all NBA players in charges drawn per minute and loose balls recovered on offense per minute. He also ranked in the top 10 in box outs, top 15 in deflections, top 20 in screen assists and top 30 in contested twos and threes. The award is a quantification of multiple categories of hustle stats. Young has been in the top 10 in each year the award was given. Previous winners were Patrick Beverley, Amir Johnson, Marcus Smart and last year Montrezl Harrell.
"For me, it's always been about making sure that I'm helping put us in a position to where we are continually getting better as a team and to win games," said Young. "This indicates what I kind of do and what I bring to the table as far as trying to do everything in my power, which is hustling and getting loose balls and getting steals and rebounds, blocking shots when I can, coming from behind, back tracking guys or knocking the ball out for deflections. Doing all the different things, charge taking, being the help if a guy gets blown by, making sure I'm discouraging the opposing team from doing something that they want to do. I think that's what I've been able to bring to the table as an an indication of who I am as player.
"An award is an award," Young added, "but the label on the award also indicates who you are as a player. I think the label on this award indicates what I've done throughout my career, me being in attendance every night. But also going out there and hustling every single night and making sure it's not only about putting up points, rebounds and assists, but being on the other side of the basketball and making sure I'm putting together a statistical process in what I'm doing on that end of the floor, which is steals, blocks, deflections and rebounds and charges, making sure I'm helping guys out."
Thad Young makes a play for a teammates against New York.
Young isn't mentioned among the supposed elements for ultimate success, like being a building block for the team or an All-Star. For the Bulls, he only started 23 of 68 games last season. But his presence both on the court and in the locker room as a mentor and advisor makes him one of the more valuable players on the team.
Young averaged 12.1 points this season, which is close to his career average. But despite averaging the fewest minutes since his rookie season, he also set career highs in shooting percentage, offensive rebounds and assists. He was top four among the Bulls in points, rebounds and assists per minute.
"It's about knowing who you are as a player and knowing what you can bring to the game and bringing those aspects to the game and also being selfless when you are bringing certain components to the game," said Young. "I've always been a selfless individual and I make sure I go out there and do whatever I can to win basketball games. Even it means going out there for blocks and charges and steals some nights where I am not needed to score. There are nights I'm needed on the defensive end. I also feel like I can go out and fulfill a role that needs to be fulfilled when Zach (LaVine) doesn't play and Vooch (Nikola Vucevic) doesn't play, there is a situation where I have to change my mindset a little bit. I have to go out and score 18 to 20 and help get some other guys points (Young averaged 19.5 points and 10 rebounds the last two games with LaVine and Vucecic out)."
Young is entering his third season with the Bulls on a three-year contract he signed in the summer of 2019. His contract is partially guaranteed for next season. He said he has not spoken with management yet about their plans for next season or regarding his circumstances.
"Both sides are taking time to relax and take a breath," said Young. "I know they're working toward how we can make the team better. They are giving me time. We're going to have a conversation. We just haven't had a conversation yet. We do text."
Young also believes he can play at this level with the unique contributions he makes to the game for several more seasons.
"I think I played well (this season)," Young said. "I think there is room for me to continuously play better. I look at it like this: If I play the way I played this season, there is room to believe I can play another five, six more years. I'm not faced with the fact I have to be the star of the team. I'm faced with the fact I have to be a leader and I have to be guy who stars in his role to the highest level every single night.
Thad Young rises up for a big dunk against Oklahoma City
"For the minutes I play and how I am being played, I honestly believe I can continually do this for awhile," Young continued. "I don't have have to go out and score 20 points a night. Yes, I would love to do that, but that's not my job. My job is to go out there and provide us energy and provide us a calming force to make sure I'm putting us in position to win basketball games through my intelligence, my game play and consistency. I can go out and score 12 points a game without having plays run for me. Most players nowadays need plays run for them. They generally don't know how to move without the basketball, don't know how to move into open spots on the court. For me, it's going out and being able to score without (a play) and when I do get the basketball make smart decisions with it, rebound and still play on a high level, guard multiple positions and play multiple positions. There is no doubt in my mind I can continue to play this game for a very, very long time."
Though, Thad Young acknowledges, no one dreams of being Thad Young.
But it is a dream life and a dream job.
Which, Young says, is one way you perhaps persuade kids to believe in taking charges instead of making (credit card) charges.
"One thing we all kind of look at as players is we look at career earning, right," Young said with a knowing laugh. "One of the things you can show is, ‘Look, I made a living doing this and look at the career earnings (more than $100 million in career salary), look at the time in the league, look at the minutes being played.' When you look at all those different metrics, guys are, ‘OK, yeah I can do the same thing.'
"You also have game tape and film," Young pointed out. "When a coach shows (in film sessions) 10 clips of you taking charges or you getting a steal, you back tapping the basketball to another player or you chasing down a guy and getting a blocked shot or you stopping a three-on-two break, that process can help a guy."
It's another way to remain Young at heart.
And as for the Bulls, Young is similarly sanguine.
"I always have hope when you have a team with the players of a certain caliber that can take you to a next level," said Young. "We think Zach and Vooch are those players who can take us to the next level together. It definitely gives us possibilities."
They just have to keep hustling. Because there is a reward.