A rare and marvelous thing occurred during the third quarter of Tuesday night’s game between the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Washington Wizards — Wolves forward Thad Young discovered his shooting touch.
Young had converted a 16-foot jumper and a layup in the final few minutes of an otherwise dreadful first half, in which he’d missed five of six from both the field and the free throw line while getting routinely outmuscled under the basket by Washington’s Kris Humphries. He also splashed another midrange jumper to begin the third period.
But it was midway through that third stanza when Wolves fans and management finally got a glimpse of the glide-and-grit player they coveted from his seven years in Philadelphia, the same one who had enticed the faithful with a 26-point effort on the season’s opening night versus Memphis.
It began with a step-back jumper along the left baseline with 7:12 left in the period, followed a minute later by a drive down the left lane for a layup off a pick-and-roll play with point guard Zach LaVine, and then an almost casual 17-footer just 34 seconds after that.
Then, glory be, Young flashed a little physicality. When Humphries started jamming his hot-shooting opponent with close contact, Young sloughed him back with a slight bang of the shoulder and drained another long jumper on the left wing. Then he worked his way into down into the right low-post, accepted the pressure and spun toward the middle for a layup that brought the Wolves to within three points. Before the quarter concluded, he added a step-back jumper after his drive was closed off by the larger Nene Hilario, and finished the period with the flourish of banging Nene off him down in the paint and floating in a jump-hook.
When the smoke had cleared, Young had a career-best (and team season high) 19 points in a single quarter, converting nine out of ten shots from the field and one-of-two from the free throw line. Even the three personal fouls he garnered in those twelve minutes demonstrated a passionate aggression that had been lacking the first half—and unfortunately, for much of the 2014-15 season.
A failing gamble
Perhaps the best way to describe the Timberwolves’ season to date is that it has crumbled, broken apart into messy little pieces that seem to further disintegrate with attempts at reassembly. No doubt this is due to a barrage of injuries that began with the team’s playmaker-leader, Ricky Rubio, and then extended to their brutish but balletic low-post force, Nikola Pekovic, and their lone long-range marksman, Kevin Martin.
Rubio, Pek and K-Mart were the holdover core of veterans that head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders was counting on to provide competitive ballast as the Wolves made the transition from traded superstar Kevin Love to wunderkind athletes cum 2014 draft lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine.
Saunders had lined up the trade of Love to Cleveland in exchange for top pick in the past two drafts, Wiggins and Anthony Bennett, plus a trade exception and Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2015. It was an impressive haul given that Love had already informed the world he was opting out of his contract in Minnesota after this season.
But Saunders wasn’t finished. The Philadelphia 76ers were sending signals to other NBA teams that they were desperate to lose as many games as possible to secure themselves another very high lottery pick. Their best player, Young, could be had for resources that damaged their present status and enhanced their future. So Saunders flipped that first-round pick he had just acquired from Cleveland along with end-of-the-bench players Luc Mbah a Moute and Alexey Shved to Philly in exchange for Young.
By making the move, Saunders was taking a calculated gamble. Young’s contract has an early termination option that enables him the choice of becoming a free agent at the end of the 2014-15 season or continuing the final year of his deal. In essence, the Wolves could be merely renting his services for this season, in exchange for a first-round pick.
At the time it felt like the shrewd capstone on Saunders’ rapid roster overhaul. Although he was a seven-year veteran, Young turned 26 in June. Throughout his career, he had been a highly coachable and diligent performer in a variety of circumstances. He was a starter in the playoffs his first two seasons, then a crucial sixth man when the Sixers returned to the playoffs his fourth and fifth seasons. The final two years in Philly, he was an anchoring veteran presence for a franchise that fell apart via acrimony between the players and outgoing coach Doug Collins in 2012-13, and began razing the roster in earnest over the course of a miserable 19-win season in 2013-14.
In context then, Young felt like a perfect fit. At 26, he was a linchpin between the vets and the kids. Love’s departure had created a gaping void at power forward for the Wolves, which has been Young’s primary position throughout his career. Perhaps most significantly, at a time when the Wolves were entering a period of transition and turbulence, one in which Saunders would inevitably have to choose between mollifying veterans and developing youngsters, Young was a steadfast professional who had admirably endured a more rugged rendition of the same scenario the past two seasons.
If the Wolves fell apart, Young loomed as the sort of large, fresh presence that could accommodate and even enable an improvised scenario, be it a reliance on veterans or a commitment to the kids. He was regarded, in essence, as the kind of large presence and unifying package of emotional and physical skills that could help immunize the Wolves from exactly the sort of crumbling that has taken place.
What seemed like a pretty sure bet has become a failing gamble.
Tragedy, tumult and torpor
As mentioned earlier, Young began his tenure with the Wolves in impressive fashion, scoring 26 points against the stalwart Memphis Grizzlies frontcourt in a game when Wolves starting center Nikola Pekovic clearly wasn’t ready to play. The next game, Minnesota’s home opener against Detroit, saw Young again lead the Wolves in scoring with 19 as the team posted its first win. Two contests into the season, he was averaging 22.5 points on 54.8 percent shooting, knocking down four of his seven three-point attempts and all seven of his free throws while doling out six assists to go with five steals, nine rebounds and just two turnovers.
Then that player disappeared. Ask Saunders what is wrong and he’ll say that Young misses the injured Rubio. Yes, that is inexorably true, although Young’s shooting percentages are better with Rubio’s replacement, teenager Zach LaVine, on the court then they are when LaVine sits. It also seems logical that Young misses Pekovic, a stauncher, beefy presence who better complements Young’s undersized height and weight at power forward better than the similarly undersized backup center, Gorgui Dieng.
But a more striking and poignant potential reason for Young’s abrupt decline is the death of his mother back in mid-November.
The night before he rushed to her bedside to be present at her passing, Young converted just 2-of-10 shots in his then-worst performance of the season as the Wolves fell to Houston down in Mexico. It would be two full weeks before he returned, a period during which Pekovic and Martin joined Rubio among the significantly injured (none of the three are expected to return this calendar year). During his first game back, Young missed nine of ten field goals and three of four free throws in a loss to Milwaukee. He bounced back with 22 points in a win over the Lakers, but then played a season-high 42:30 as the Wolves were thumped by a second-half comeback from the Trailblazers in Portland.
Then came a road game against the Clippers in Los Angeles on the first day of December, Minnesota’s third game in four nights, and the fourth game Young played in the six days since he’d returned from his bereavement leave from the ball club. After a promising first period, the Wolves were thoroughly thrashed by the talented, physical front line of Blake Griffin and D’Andre Jordan.
In the midst of a humbling third quarter, in which the Clippers extended their 15-point lead at halftime into a 33-point bulge, out-rebounding the Wolves 16-to-6 along the way, Young lost his composure. In contrast to most of the other Wolves, who were listless, Young began overextending himself in silly ways, fighting for balls he had no chance of getting, putting up shots against near-impossible odds while ignoring open teammates, and guarding whatever player happened to be closest to him rather than sticking with a set rotation.
The consummate pro had seemingly snapped. After that flailing and fruitless third period, Saunders rested Young for the rest of the game. Wolves fans haven’t since seen that kind of breakneck energy and passion—for good or for bad—from Young until he belatedly joined the party in a feel-good win over Portland last week and then followed it up with that inspired third quarter against the Wizards.
Statistically, Young is probably enduring the worst season of his eight years in the NBA. He was a 50 percent shooter during his tenure in Philadelphia, but that has regressed to 45.7 percent this season. That isn’t because he is attempting more long-range three-pointers either: He is 26.9 percent from that distance, and has converted only 3-for-19 since those opening two games — and just 1-for-15 since returning from bereavement leave.
Shunning three-pointers hasn’t translated into more attempts at the other efficient NBA shot — layups at the rim. In Philadelphia, 42.8 percent of Young’s field-goal attempts were from 0-3 feet away from the hoop. This season, shots at the rim comprise a career-low 34.4 percent of his attempts. Nor is he being judicious on when to go to the hole—his accuracy on shots from 0-3 feet, 61.4 percent, is also a career low among his eight NBA campaigns.
A lightweight power forward who can neither stretch the defenses with the three-point threat nor get into the paint for buckets on a reliably basis is an offensive liability. On top of that, Young’s rebounding percentage is at a career low. On the bright side, he has come near the career-bests he established last season for assist percentage and steals percentage. But that seems small consolation for a player who should be the most NBA-capable performer among Minnesota’s healthy contingent.
By his performance and his body language out on the court, Young can’t wait to get out of town. The glitch in exercising his option at the end of this season is that he won’t be able to take advantage of the high rise in the league’s salary cap that is expected to occur two off-seasons from now, when the enormous influx of new media revenue arrives.
Maybe this is a temporary setback. Maybe the combination of all the injuries, his family tragedy, and a new, suddenly disappointing environment are contributing to a challenge Young will eventually surmount. Maybe he’ll take his option year in Minnesota rededicated to recapturing the versatile skills, unyielding effort and tolerant perspective that made him seem like such a sound acquisition.
But as of now, Thaddeus Young is not the glue guy we hoped him to be. He is one of the crumbs, disintegrating on contact and lacking in caloric content.