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How Thaddeus Young is finding his place in the Spurs offense

Young has taken advantage of Poeltl’s absence to force his way into the rotation.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs Daniel Dunn-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last week, Thaddeus Young has begun to settle in with the young Spurs squad he joined as part of the DeMar DeRozan trade this past offseason. Thanks to the ongoing absence of Jakob Poeltl, Thad’s playing time has ticked upward, and he’s averaged about 25 minutes per contest in the 3 games they’ve played without Big Jak. Those extra minutes have been good for him and the Spurs.

For Thad, it’s clear the extra playing time has allowed him to find a level of comfort in the Spurs offensive system. That’s to be expected, of course, but in the first few games of the season, it seemed much farther off. Witness, for instance, his awkward shuffle as he tries to find the right angle to set this screen for Dejounte Murray.

Dejounte works the defenders to get an angle for the pocket pass, but it finds Thad well outside the paint, giving his defender plenty of time to recover and the play ends with Thad trying to force an interior pass that results in a turnover. That’s not the kind of chemistry you want to have with your team’s lead ball handler. With two DNPs in the team’s first 4 games and just 12 minutes of play split between the other 2, he looked out of sorts in the little time he spent on the court, scoring just 2 points on 3 shots with 1 assist against 2 turnovers.

Given the Spurs roster situation, with Drew Eubanks and Jock Landale already competing for minutes at the 5 and, eventually, Zach Collins potentially spending time there as well, Thad seemed destined to continue his NBA journey in another city from the moment he arrived. But his early play dropped the likelihood of another team offering anything of value in return for his services to somewhere between nope and not a chance. However, with 14 years in the league and having played for 5 other teams, his ability to adapt should never have been in doubt, and indeed, he has. Consider this chart from Cleaning The Glass.

CleaningTheGlass.com, 11/8/2021.

Sorting all the bigs in the league by assist rate (the percentage of their teammates’ made field goals the player assisted on), the leaders are nothing if not predictable: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, and Nikola Jokic. Ignoring for a moment the lineup quirks that have resulted in Paul George being classified as a big, the 5th player down is a bit of a surprise. Thaddeus Young, the Spurs’ backup center’s backup, is somehow assisting on over 24% of his teammates’ made buckets when he’s on the court. By way of comparison, Dejounte is currently at 33.7%, Derrick White is at 24.7%, and every other Spur is well below 20%.

Thad’s turnover rate is obviously problematic, but even with those giveaways, his presence on offense has been key to the little bit of offensive success the Spurs have had in Jakob’s absence. As a team, they scored exactly 1 point per possession in those 3 games (304 pts/304 poss), but got 1.1 points per possession with Thad on the court (168 pts/152 poss), and just .9 points per possession with him on the bench (136 pts/152 poss).

The sample size is still pretty small, but it’s not like the Spurs lit it up from deep when he has checked in, making just 10/29 from deep (34.5%) in his 74 minutes. He’s not doing the scoring himself, either, having taken just 5 shots a game so far this season. Though he’s shooting well, hitting 62.9% from the floor, he remains a low usage facilitator who shoots only when he’s in the paint or the shot clock is low.

Instead, the difference appears to be more closely related to his ability to move the ball within the flow of the offense. That mostly manifests as timely pivots into the next action and good decisions on whether to hand the ball off or look for the next option. But once or twice a game, his awareness and passing ability gets the Spurs a free basket.

Against the Thunder, it kicked off that brief stretch of basketball late in the 1st quarter where the Spurs seemed on their way to an early and easy night.

As Dejounte brings the ball up the right side, Keldon Johnson and Thad set up for a pair of screens to get Devin Vassell free heading into the middle of the court. Dejounte briefly pauses like he’s going to look for Devin at the top of the key before executing a handoff with Lonnie Walker on the far side. Meanwhile Josh Giddey fights over the screens, so Devin resets back to the corner by circling through the lane.

Lonnie plays a little back and forth two-man game with Thad in the center of the floor, but isn’t able to shake loose of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, so the 2nd time he tosses it to Thad, the big man fakes the hand-off back to Lonnie and dribbles toward what looks like a hand-off with Devin. Knowing that Giddy will attempt to stay on his body as he heads up the floor, Devin takes a couple of big hops up the sideline before planting hard and cutting back to the basket. Thad keeps moving toward the sideline to keep the passing window as wide open as possible and hits Devin with nice little bounce pass in stride for the dunk.

The two seem to have developed a bit of mind meld already, as they produced a pair of similar highlights against the Magic.

The cut is nearly identical, but because Tre Jones is still clearing out of the lane, Thad has to wait a little longer to deliver the pass. Instead of bouncing it in between the two defenders, he sneaks it over his defenders head and hits Devin just in front of the basket for an easy layup on the opposite side of the rim.

And in a pinch, Thad can fill in at the point. R.J. Hampton denies Dejounte after the inbounds, so Thad brings it up the court and Dejounte sets up with Keita Bates-Diop to give Devin another pair of screens to get open coming back into the middle of the court. Perhaps because he’s not used to being in that position, Hampton doesn’t drop to protect against the curl, and in general, seems completely unaware of the threat.

Thad sees that Devin’s defender is in trail with nobody in the paint and immediately switches the ball into his left hand to drop a bounce pass for Devin around the outside of Wendell Carter Jr. It’s not a great pass, but Devin’s go-go-gadget arms reel it in and there’s nothing anybody can do about it at that point except get in the poster.

Thad’s Basketball Reference page lists ‘Thagic Johnson’ as one of his nicknames, which was probably always a bit aspirational, but is especially so at this point in his career. Highlights aside, it’s probably good to remember that over 40% of his minutes so far have come against the Thunder and Magic. It’s fair to assume he will be somewhat less successful over a more competitive distribution of his minutes. But, lest you think he only shows out against the worst teams in the league, here he is connecting with Doug McDermott against the Mavericks.

These are all very nice plays, but that doesn’t make Thad an offensive fulcrum. Even on the 2nd unit, nobody is going to mistake him for Jokic, or even 2014 Boris Diaw, but he has just enough of that kind of playmaking ability to be dangerous. That’s not going to make the difference between ending up in the lottery or fighting into the play-in game, but it is an important part of the offensive ecosystem the Spurs want to develop.

Making good reads and hard cuts needs to be rewarded and when you play with a big like Thad, there’s a good chance he’ll find you on your way to the rim. Whether that’s enough of a benefit to warrant playing time on this particular team is questionable, but it’s easy to imagine how much fun it would be to play with someone who so readily sets the table for highlight reel plays.

Hopefully, the rest of the league is paying attention.