Have you ever had two friends you were absolutely convinced would get along great? Like maybe you have a friend from college who’s coming into town for the weekend and then a buddy at work and you’re sure — just sure — that when you all hang out on Friday night everyone is going to become fast friends.
But then after you all hit the bar:
“Great spot, right?”
“Yeah, man, Minneapolis is great.”
“And how about Jason?”
“He’s … fine.”
“Yeah, I mean … he’s kinda … weird, don’t you think?”
But you don’t. You think Jason’s great. And you think Mike’s great. It’s not like they clashed over anything, didn’t fight about anything — at least not that you saw. But they just didn’t click, for lack of a better term. And you’re left thinking it could have worked, that they just didn’t see it.
This was the Thad Young experience this season for fans of Young and the Minnesota Timberwolves. For at least the last three years, Young has been one of my favorite players in the league. He was a frequent bright spot for the Philadelphia 76ers through some dismal seasons, adapting his game to the power forward position and showing an uncanny knack for taking advantage of his matchup, whether by blowing past a bigger defender or backing down a smaller one. He wasn’t a rim protector, but he was a ballhawk, forcing turnovers and getting out on the break.
Beyond his on-court performance, though, he also just seemed like a solid dude. A father of two, a player who accepted playing a different position because the team needed it, a guy who embraced a tough situation in Philly with a smile.
So what happened in Minnesota?
In going from Philly to Minnesota to Brooklyn, Young went from solid on a terrible team to underwhelming on a young team to productive on a veteran playoff team, confirming what just watching him seemed to show. He went from 18.8 points per 36 with the Sixers last year to 15.4 with the Wolves to 16.8 with the Nets. He was more productive in terms of assists, but his tenure in Minnesota saw a dip in his shooting, rebounding, offensive rating, defensive rating, and just about everywhere else.
Most personally perplexing — given that I long advocated for Young as a 3-point shooter in an offense designed to get him those looks — he went from making 3-pointers at a 30.8% rate on 3.9 attempts per 36 his last season in Philadelphia to hitting them 29.2% of the time on 1.5 attempts per 36 in Minnesota. I began to think maybe he couldn’t be a productive long-range shooter, but then he attempted 2.2 per 36 in Brooklyn and hit them at a strong 38%.
The question, then, is why? I would posit there are reasons both basketball-related and personal at play here.
When the Wolves traded for Young, he was brought in to be a stabilizing veteran presence on a very young roster. The trade with Cleveland that sent out Kevin Love and brought in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett meant they likely would have had to start Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Nikola Pekovic to begin the season, meaning not one but two almost completely unseasoned players on a team that the Wolves hoped could threaten the playoffs as a low seed. (I’m not going to address how realistic that expectation was — I’m only saying that it was the belief they had at the time.)
This vision of the team quickly deteriorated. Just five games into the season, Rubio went down with a serious ankle injury. Two games later, Young’s mother passed away and he took time away from the team. By the time Young returned to the team five games later, both Pekovic and Martin were out with injuries.
Instead of being one of several veteran voices helping to solidify a young and talented roster, Young was the only real starting veteran alongside Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad early in the season. And Young as a player works best as a scavenger, taking advantage of mismatches, forcing turnovers, etc. As an undersized power forward who’s not breaking players down on the perimeter or bullying them in the paint, it’s hard for him to direct the action on the floor, leaving him to rely on getting the ball from a rookie point guard playing out of position before he could go to work.
Now, Young didn’t bitch, moan and complain about the situation, but he also didn’t exactly put the team on his back. His play was mostly workmanlike but also occasionally unfocused and even disinterested. He made some foolish gambles on defense. He settled for midrange jumpers when he could have forced his way inside.
I have a complicated relationship with all this. I want to excuse it, to chalk it up to his mother’s death, which, as I wrote, is a thing that can reverberate for months and even years. Or to getting into a situation that looked one way and went another. I’ve been a fan of Young for years, and one bad stretch — even if it’s for the team that I cover — is not going to sway me from my opinion that he’s a unique and good player. If you want to indict him for his sometimes listless performance with the Wolves, I would understand, but I just can’t write him off.
There can be a tendency to look at things as destined to happen the way they did. A given player is a bum or one of the greats and whatever makes him one or the other is an indelible part of who he is. If a situation turns out well, the people involved had vision, foresight; if it turns out badly, they were foolish and should have known better. I happen to think that Young in Minnesota might have worked out seven out of 10 times, and that the circumstances were such that it just happened to be one of those three other times. There might not even be any real lesson to learn. It might just be one of those things you chalk up to experience and move on from.