Thad Young proving to be a big key in Bulls' growth

The veteran forward is averaging double-digit points off the bench and providing valuable guidance to the young Bulls.
by Sam Smith
Remind Me Later
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Body

Take a seat class. Professor Young is at the podium. He's going to explain that you can see by more than looking.

Today's class is Big Man 101, and it is mostly directed at Wendell Carter Jr., the Bulls starting center. He's not often a finishing center, which is why he needs to be in class. The 6-7 Thad Young is not a center, though he often plays one for the Bulls. Like Monday when Young closed the game with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen and Garrett Temple in the Bulls 125-120 victory over the Houston Rockets. It was no oversight Young was in the game with his team high plus/minus of 15 for the game. Bulls coach Billy Donovan more often has shaped a conclusion with clever turtles instead of daring rabbits.

"I think some of the guys on our team as bigs, they tend to get rushed when they get in the pocket," Young was explaining after Monday night's admirable win. "That's when turnovers start to occur. I'm not really rushed; I kinda take my time. If I don't see anything, then I just throw the ball back out and then we restart it all over again. But understanding where the (24-second) clock is. Just me using my patience and my poise in the pocket and not just camping out around the three-point line. I'll go out there and make some here and there, but that's not the bread and butter of how Thad Young plays and that's not the bread and butter of what the Chicago Bulls need from me."

As the Bulls now 6-8 with two straight wins to break a four-game losing streak prepare for the Charlotte Hornets Friday, Young's play this season has not been so much a metamorphosis but a return to his original form, a unique and intelligent interior facilitator and scorer. It's been one of the strengths of Donovan's tenure. He promised a revival of the truism that players need to be placed in a position to succeed. Young last season was asked to be cross country trucker when he's really a rush hour problem solver.

The 14-year veteran, like Temple and Otto Porter Jr., not only is the spine of a muscular bench core, but can be a guide and counselor with the wisdom of decades to help the Bulls' kids with a basketball exegesis. Because the game also has hidden meanings and interpretations that only experienced hardwood scholars can deliver. It's becoming one of the strengths of the team as we see with LaVine's maturation as a facilitator. And not only the teamwork, but the awareness that comes with slowing down without losing your quickness.

Like John Wooden would say, "Be quick, but don't hurry."

Bench Squad

Thad Young has been part of a veteran group, along with Garrett Temple and Otto Porter Jr., that has been pivotal in guiding the younger players on the team.

"The biggest thing with the young guys and the veteran guys, the young guys are listening," the 32-year-old Young says. "They're taking in the things that we're doing when we get out there on the court. They're seeing how we move the ball, they're seeing how we pick apart defenses and we get easy reads just by moving the basketball and passing and cutting. So they're taking those things and even applying it to their games. Obviously, the young guys are the core pieces of our team and they're gonna make us go. So we want to put them in the best position possible and I think that's what's been happening."

Porter at 12.5 points per game, Young at 10.4 and Temple at a fraction under 10 also have been one of the most productive reserve groups in the league as Temple said he predicted before the season. It hasn't been just veteran guidance. There's both been offense, and that the young, high draft picks don't take offense. Which isn't always welcomed with many of the celebrated high draft picks and young star "brands" of this NBA era.

But these Bulls kids have accepted there is something to learn, which often is the most important first step in education.

"They've been putting themselves in the best position possible, getting us off to some decent starts and then letting the veterans just kind of come in and keep those leads, build those leads up," said Young. "Then throughout the course of the game, just listening to us -- we're up on this sideline and we're talking to guys—and Coach is giving us an opportunity to help coach. He's giving us an opportunity to be just solid veterans."

Sometimes the NBA places a microphone in a huddle or with a player, and what listeners generally hear are a bunch of "Let's go," and ‘Good shot,' and, ‘Yeah, yeah.'

Why don't we take a listen to what a real veteran who sees the game, like Thad Young, sounds like. 
 Coach Donovan and Thad Young

Coach Donovan and Thad Young

Though first it should be noted how much Donovan has helped Young's attitude and commitment with a return to his playing roots. The clever left hander is one of the rare NBA players in this era who operates most efficiently and effectively in the lane with an assortment of shots you wouldn't often teach but go in more than anyone would expect. For a long time, you knew his coach was saying, "No, no, no, good shot."

Young has a potpourri runners/floaters from up quickly with the occasional running hook off the backboard that might even surprise Kareem. Though Young maintained his professionalism last season, he probably was the most unhappiest man in the locker room being stationed outside as a stretch something.

It wasn't what he expected and he could barely conceal his disappointment. He was the main free agent acquisition before the 2019-20 season, a savvy and popular veteran whom Indiana Pacers players considered the "glue guy" to their team. But Indiana management wouldn't pay his price and the Bulls jumped in. It seemed like an important addition for his experience, production and leadership. Young always prided himself on helping and guiding teammates, but he found himself being asked to become a floor spacing shooter, which couldn't be further from his expectations. Occasionally his disappointment would leak out publicly in a subtle double entendre, but he'd quickly reboot to supportive teammate mode. Though in private team times like film sessions, his critical voice often as loudest.

No longer as he's finally returned to the role he played successfully for more than a decade in the NBA, both on the court and mentoring teammates.

"Just coaches seizing opportunities to play me to my strengths," Young acknowledged. "One of my strengths is just me setting a screen, getting into the pocket (the area in the lane between defenders), or slipping out of the screen and getting into the pocket and just playing. If a guy shows, I know the big is under the basket open. If they come off the corners I know which corner to hit. And then just having the patience and the poise to play in the pocket."

Class has begun.

Players can only remain in the lane or paint for three seconds, which is not strictly enforced. Still a player has to be intelligent and aware and basically not loiter. So the 6-8 Young will set a screen since he's been playing a lot of center or power forward in the closing and smaller lineups Donovan has used against teams like Houston that play small. Though Young can handle himself even against players like DeMarcus Cousins, who was shooting threes primarily against the Bulls for some reason.

Once Young sets the screen, by show he means if his defender helps with the player using the screen to get open. That means Young knows there's not much protection at the basket for a pass. If his defender helps or shows, then a defender from one of the baselines is supposed to come to the basket to help. So Young is telling Carter or Markkanen to watch that movement, which will tell him which corner shooter is open for the Bulls. 
 Thad Young

Thad Young gets a mismatch on Lakers guard Alex Caruso.

"Just patience and poise," Young counsels. "Just staying confident in that pocket. Just understanding that you're going to see a crowd, but with you being the biggest guy out there on the court, once you see a crowd, just look at your reads and look at where guys are coming from. They come off the corner, make the corner pass."

Rookie Patrick Williams actually is one of the best at this even at his age because he plays with unusual composure for a rookie. Williams is athletic, but he doesn't rush his plays, thus giving him time to make those "reads." It usually takes players years to read those defensive moments. It's what quarterbacks have to do in football, and why young quarterbacks usually make so many errors.

So back to class for Carter.

"If they step up on the roll, which is you, then you make the bounce pass to the other big on the baseline," Young explains.

Carter sets the screen and his defender shows or helps. Carter begins his run to the basket. Defensive help has to come off one baseline or the other. So don't go too fast, get the ball, see who's coming and then finish or pass for an open three.

"If you roll down the middle of the lane from making a side screen-and-roll and guys come off the corner, then the opposite corner is open," noted Young. "Just getting him to understand where his reads are and how he needs to analyze the court. I told (Carter) the other day, I said when you get to the top of the key, once you catch the ball, you look for the weakest defender and then you go at him."

So you examine the scouting report and watch the film and you know who'll be the most forceful and physical on defense and who will back off. Carter gets a lot of catches at the high post and above the free throw line or circle. Reading doesn't mean just the coverages, but also the personnel. Switching is common in the NBA these days, meaning a player doesn't defend one player but switches to another as his initial assigned player goes past a screen. So if Carter then finds a below average defender in front of him, well go for it!

"They switch, then you got a post-up," Young pointed out. "Just understanding where he is on the court at all times."

There's a lot more going on than seems to be going on, the game within the game that players are looking at while we are looking at the basket and the game. It seems these days thanks to players like Young, Temple and Porter the Bulls are listening, learning and finding it's leading them to some good places.

Class dismissed. For now. But the learning never stops.

Got a question for Sam?

Submit your question to Sam at asksam@bulls.com

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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