The transformation of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony from impressive small forwards into revolutionary and spectacular power forwards has been a topic of much discussion this season; it’s often seen as one of the keys to the Heat’s championship last season and it’s one of the big reasons for the Knicks’ surprising success this season. Each brings a unique skillset to a position often associated with sticking around the hoop and feasting on putbacks and lobs: James brings playmaking vision and supreme athleticism while Anthony can be a deadly scoring threat in the post in nontraditional ways.
But the 76ers’ Thaddeus Young is a lesson in how undersized players can have success even when they play their position in relatively traditional ways. Listed at 6’8” and 235 lbs by NBA.com, he falls in line with James and Anthony, who both come in at 6’8” and 250 and 230 lbs respectively. Physically, Young is certainly closer in build to James, broad through the shoulders and blazingly fast with his first step, plus an emphatic finisher at the rim. And at and around the rim is where it really counts for Young, at least offensively.
This is because since he came into the league in 2007 he’s gradually refined and honed his game away from being a jack-of-all-trades and more and more towards a traditional power forward’s role. Below are his season shot charts from his sophomore season (when he began to play a more consistent number of minutes) through this year, and you can see his focus dialing down, with fewer and fewer three pointers each season:
In 2008, he shot 164 3-pointers. In each season since: 137, 21, and 4. And this season so far? Zero. This year, Young has really focused his offense down low, taking 205 shots from 8 ft or less, where he’s shooting 59.5%, and only 104 total from 8 to 24 ft, where he’s shooting 39%. Watching clips of his play in that area, what becomes apparent is that he’s using his size and speed to his advantage, especially on mismatches and through a well-developed sense of space.
In the play below, Young (#21) is matched up on Jason Kidd in the post:
You can see that early on he sees Chandler behind Kidd down low and so kicks it back out Holiday before re-posting. Once Chandler has crossed the lane to put a body on Kwame Brown, Young goes to work, taking one quick dribble and a drop stepping across the lane. He’s not only fast with his first step (as we’ll see later) but also quick off the ground, and here it lets him elevate over Kidd and before Chandler can block him. The shot rolls off, but Chandler had to leave Brown, who’s there to tip it in.
Here, Young is matched up against the 6’10” Bismack Biyombo, whose 7’6” reach and love of swats means you know he wants to send Young’s shot away:
But again you see Young’s ability to get the shot up quicker than Biymobo anticipates.
Here’s a collection of clips showcasing Young’s speed in getting to the hoop. In the first one, his shot fake wrongfoots Tristan Thompson long enough to get to the cup and in the second he fakes Byron Mullens right out of his extra-long shorts.
In the third clip, he gets past Bargnani on the perimeter, but Valanicunas stays in the paint instead of drifting out to cover LaVoy Allen and so suddenly Young has to contend with two 7-footers and the layup rims out.
He’s more successful against Koufus, whom he puts with a jab step, and then in the last clip he shows off not just his speed but his reach, slicing nicely between Amir Johnson and Kyle Lowry for the lay-in off the pass from Nick Young.
In each of these cases, Young is using his quickness to beat a bigger man, but not always in a perfectly straight-line way—he’s not always just launching on the catch. His midrange shooting is respectable enough to make defenders have to guard him, and then by deploying a range of jab steps and shot fakes he gets them going in the wrong way just enough to explode into the lane and drop a layup or floater.
Of course, at 6’8” and with a lot of strength, he’s also a handful for guards, but again, not just for his sheer size. The clip below starts with back-to-back handlings of Russell Westbrook in two different ways:
In the first clip, he gets good position on Westbrook on the block, but after one dribble, he spins baseline and steps through for the layup. Late in the same game, he gets switched onto Westbrook again. Westbrook gets him off the block and then switches to fronting him, but the pass to Allen at the free throw line opens up the angle enough for Young to catch the lob and put it off the glass.
The next clip shows Young using a mix of strength and speed to push Marquis Daniels aside for the layup, and that mix is what makes him so effective around the hoop. It’s difficult for defenders to know whether to counter him with quickness or physicality and he’s become adept at sensing what to go to in this particular rock-paper-scissors contest. He doesn’t make every shot, certainly, but after watching nearly all his attempts from within 8 ft, he doesn’t often make the wrong choice.
Additionally, Young is a respectable ballhandler on the break, taking this rebound all the way up the court for the floater over Brendan Haywood:
And just watch him dine out on the Celtics’ zone here as he slips into the space between Jason Terry and Kevin Garnett to catch a pinpoint pass for an easy two:
Lastly, I want to draw attention to how well he uses the space around the basket as the Knicks’ rotation breaks down here. The trap on Evan Turner at the top of the arc springs Spencer Hawes, who breaks for the low block and draws Young’s man, Carmelo Anthony. Young smartly bounces out to the free throw line, where he stops just short of Jason Kidd and lifts his hand for the ball, bouncing back to the middle and catching it for the slam.
Now Young is not the all-around talent that James is, nor the scoring savant that Anthony is. His game is also built on being a solid rebounder and an above-average defender, especially when it comes to steals (currently 17th in the league per game). But what he’s showing is the viability for the tweener as almost traditional power forwards on offense, even without superstar talent. Given the large number of athletic young players in that mold (Derrick Williams, Terrence Jones, etc.), Young’s game is one they should be paying attention to.