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Thaddeus Young could go from throw-in to key piece for the Spurs

Young was likely included in the DeRozan sign-and-trade to match salaries, but his defense and especially his passing could actually make him a huge addition to the rotation.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

When the news broke that the Spurs were acquiring Thaddeus Young along with Al-Farouq Aminu (as well as some picks) for DeMar DeRozan in a sign-and-trade transaction with the Bulls, it was fair to wonder if the veteran forward would even set foot in San Antonio. Aminu wasn’t expected to draw much interest after a two-year decline, but Young should have intrigued other teams.

The original transaction is now done, and there hasn’t been any rumors about potential trades, so it seems like both players are here to stay. Which could actually be a good thing, since Young in particular actually has a lot to offer that other players in the team can’t provide.

It’s too early to tell who the Spurs will start next to Keldon Johnson at the other forward spot. Young is probably the least exciting option, since he doesn’t offer the spacing Doug McDermott could bring to the table or the upside of either Luka Samanic or Devin Vassell. The veteran is a 33 percent career shooter from behind the arc on only 1.5 attempts per game, so expecting him to suddenly turn into a marksman would be foolish. It certainly didn’t work out for Jim Boylen in Chicago. He’s also on a one-year deal and is six years older than the oldest core “young” player, Derrick White, so molding the starting lineup to fit his strengths would not be wise. Maybe Young will start, but it feels more likely that he’ll come off the bench. And in that role, he could be extremely valuable.

Young has always been a good defender. He’s strong but mobile, which means he’s sturdy enough hold his own inside and on the boards against traditional power forwards and nimble enough to hang with more perimeter-oriented ones. His quick hands make him disruptive, while his experience and knowledge of the game allow him to make reads and be a great help defender. Having someone who can handle tough assignments if needed but who can also bring leadership to the defensive side for the second unit would be huge. For a starting group that will likely have three above average defenders, Young could be a good luxury to have, but for a bench group trying to find an identity after the departure of two major pieces, having Young to set the tone on the defensive end could be game-changing.

It’s not hard to make the case that the NBA’s 2020/21 Hustle Award winner can help pretty much any lineup on its own end, but Young’s lack of outside shooting makes the fit on the other not as seamless with either unit in San Antonio. There’s one skill that he refined last season, however, that could help the Spurs a lot more than a few three-pointers would: facilitating.

Young averaged a career-high 4.3 assists per game last season in his first year under Billy Donovan’s motion offense, a gargantuan number for a power forward, which would have incidentally ranked third on the Spurs behind DeRozan and Dejounte Murray. More impressively, Young did that on just 24 minutes a game on a team with a ball dominant guard. He was always a decent passer, but the change of offensive system and the room he got thanks to the attention Zach LaVine demanded from defenses made him elite. If it carries over, it would go a long way into helping San Antonio mask the potential lack of shot creation left by the departure of DeRozan. And the beauty is that it would not come at the expense of touches for the young guys but as a complement to their games.

Young can’t create advantages on his own often, but he capitalizes on them when someone else does, or turns a small one into a gigantic one. He does so by doing all the things big men are expected to do, like making great outlet passes and hand-offs, but especially as an elite short-roller. Almost every time Young finds himself on a 4-on-3 situation he makes the right play. He doesn’t just fire the obvious pass but, just like Draymond Green, he manipulates the defense with pauses and fakes into surrendering a better shot.

Young is also great at finding cutters. His head is always high as he surveys the court, looking for a lapse in focus from a defender. Whenever he had the ball, Chicago’s players knew that he’d try to find them, so they moved for easy buckets. If the Spurs go back to their bubble identity of constant player movement, having Young to facilitate from the high post or the block on mismatches would create plenty of uncontested shots at the rim or from beyond the arc.

Particularly intriguing could be units in which Young and Luka Samanic fill the big men spots. Young worked fantastically with Lauri Markkanen on offense last season, creating plenty of open looks for him that helped the duo boast an excellent 113 offensive rating. With Young facilitating from the top the arc, the paint was open, so Markkanen could cut or drive for easy buckets. If someone else cut and help came or the defense collapsed on Young, he found Markkanen open from beyond the arc.

Samanic could play a similar role thanks to his shooting and speed for his size, which could allow him to even work the hand-offs Markkanen and Young used so well last season. Defensively the concerns about rim protection on those center-less units would be real, but with both Young and Samanic potentially switching often, the issue could be mitigated.

There’s a lot to be excited about when it comes to Young’s potential contributions, assuming he’ll be focused and playing his hardest, which shouldn’t a be a given, unfortunately. Young is a pro’s pro and a high character guy who’s always played hard, but he’s also a ring-less 33-year-old on the last year of his deal who got moved to a young team with no chance to seriously contend. It wouldn’t be surprising for him to simply try to stay in shape and count the days until he’s bought out, so that he can choose where to land before entering free agency. The hope is that playing for Pop and having a significant role in what could be a very fun Spurs team will be enough to convince Young to give it his all for the entire year, or at least until the front office finds him a new home.

Those concerns won’t be answered until the season starts, but for now the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade is looking fantastic, as it not only netted the Spurs some extra picks but also a piece that fits their roster as well as Thaddeus Young. It’s rare that throw-ins that are included mostly for salary-matching purposes turn out to be key players, but the Spurs might have gotten one in the always underrated veteran forward.