It isn’t easy getting old. It’s even more difficult when it happens to you at the tender age of 25.
Thaddeus Young, in his seventh season playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, is now officially the elder statesman on the team. In February, the team traded its only two other veterans in an effort to build toward something bigger and better in the coming seasons.
After Young, the next four leading scorers on the Sixers have a total of eight seasons of experience, including this one. Coach Brett Brown wasn’t kidding when he called Young the team’s “grandfather.” Of course, given the youth on the team and roster construction, Philadelphia’s struggles come as no surprise.
What is surprising is Young’s mere presence on the team. Most of the talk around Thad all season was his potential value to another franchise, and it was presumed that he’d be dealt by the time the deadline rolled around, along with Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner, the two vets who were both sent to the Midwest.
Quietly, though, in the depths of the Eastern Conference, Young has turned himself into something much more than a trade chip wasting his time on a cellar dweller. Basketball fans have seen this situation play out countless times—a respected vet, unhappy about toiling for a team without hope to win in the short term, starts making noise or slacking on the court and in the locker room.
That’s not Young, though. He’s had a rep as being a hard worker and a pro’s pro from day one, and in this long season he’s putting up the highest scoring totals of his career, leading the team at 17.7 points per game, despite seeing a drop in efficiency with his higher-than-ever usage. As the lone veteran left, he’s had to up his leadership, both on the floor and behind the scenes.
“I’ve definitely tried [to be more vocal],” the soft-spoken Young said. “It’s not coming in and screaming at guys. It’s pulling one individual guy aside, talking to him and telling him certain things that are going down on the court, helping them through certain situations.”
The young guns on the Sixers feel his influence as the old guy on the team.
“Thad’s just a classy guy,” said rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams from his locker adjacent to Young’s. “He shows up every day and shows us how to work hard.”
Tony Wroten, a second-year player and first-year Sixer, appreciates more than just the effort Young puts out for 48 minutes after the refs toss up the ball, but how he keeps the team moving forward as the Sixers struggle.
“He just stays positive. He pushes us. If he’s going to go hard, we’re all going to go hard,” Wroten said. “He could come in like, ‘I don’t want to be here,’ so he ain’t gonna play, but Thad comes to play every day, every night.”
Young is doing more than just helping keep the youngest team in the League focused on improving day in, day out in a season full of losses. He’s one of the few things keeping them competitive on many nights.
Immediately following the the trade deadline decimation of Philadelphia’s roster, Young kicked everything up a notch. Never a high-volume scorer throughout his career, Thad took a career-high 29 shots as the Sixers suited up just eight players in their first post-deadline tilt. In the first five games after the deadline, Young averaged 24 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 5 assists, picking up 4 steals a game as a bonus.
“I’m not a guy that wants to go out there and take 20 to 30 shots a game. I have to now. It’s a situation where I have to go out there and try to put up LeBron- and Kobe- and KD-type numbers in order for us to be in games and have a chance to win games,” Young said as he slipped on a pair of atomic red Air Penny Vs before a game against the Magic.
In all that, Brown, a first-year head coach after spending six seasons on Gregg Popovich’s bench in San Antonio, has stretched Young more than at any point in his career. In his three years playing under Doug Collins, Young launched a total of 34 three-pointers, moving down low as something of a true power forward after a few years as a 3-4 hybrid. But playing in Brown’s up-and-down, shoot-and-let-shoot system, Young is right back to tossing up triples—over 180 already this season—after three full years without the shot as part of his arsenal.
“[Coach Brown] basically told me that’s what he wanted me to do,” Young said. “It was just one of those things where it was the structure of the team. We’re a pace team, it just fell into place,” Young said.
He’s unafraid to use the threat of it in his offensive game, despite shooting slightly below league average at 31 percent; against Orlando in this late-February game, he jab-stepped and pump faked from beyond the arc to create space for his slicing layups, seemingly always finding a way to get back to his dominant left hand, as he has over his seven seasons, when he did end up driving.
He’s also being used in ways that have pushed him, to the brink of and right out of his comfort zone. Turner was one of the few guys capable of being a primary ballhandler the Sixers had; now that he’s gone, someone has had to pick up that burden—Young. It’s not something he’s accustomed to doing, and it’s not something that he’s been pushed to do in the NBA.
“I have to help Mike and Tony. If I get a steal, then I push the break and make plays for guys. It’s kind of that point-forward mentality,” Young said.
Even past the deadline, there’s still uncertainty as to Young’s future. He’s well aware of the trade rumors that floated around him for the first half of the year, appreciative that teams around the Association are aware of what type of player he is despite flying mostly under the radar. He says he’ll have to talk with GM Sam Hinkie and the rest of the staff after the season to determine whether he’ll be around to see Philly’s lottery picks—MCW and the injured Nerlens Noel this year, plus potentially two more coming this summer—develop into the All Stars Hinkie surely hopes they’ll be. A cloudy future hasn’t slowed his hustle one bit, though.
“I’ve always been a guy that just goes out there and plays basketball,” said Young. “This is my craft and I try each and every day to get better.”
On this night, Young and the Sixers were headed for another L against the team perched right above them in the race for ping pong balls. With less than a minute to go, they trailed by double digits, their 12th straight loss all but wrapped up. Young handled the ball at the top of the key, drove hard to his left and went up for a layup through contact. Young hit the hardwood as the ball ricocheted off the rim and the Magic corralled it, heading up court to bleed the clock down to its final ticks.
Thad peeled himself off the floor and got down to the other end. With time running out in a blowout, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for him to take his time getting back. But someone has to show the kids what being a pro is about, after all.