In his 15th NBA season, Thaddeus Young is playing basketball for an audience of two.
They were front-row centre on Saturday night as the Toronto Raptors reserve forward was being asked about his impressive performance on Game 4, where Young provided a little bit of everything at a moment when his limping club needed it most.
Young only arrived in Toronto in February when the Raptors acquired him at the trade deadline for some depth at forward and maybe more importantly for the kind of veteran example a young team needs to fast-track its development.
But Young’s family joined him almost immediately in Toronto. His boys are home-schooled and there was no question about whether his wife Shekinah and sons Thad Jr. and Taylor – 12 and 10 -- were going to be with him.
He’s got lessons to teach them. On Saturday the topic could have been what it means to be a true professional.
Young had played sparingly during the first three games of the series, in no small part because of a sprained thumb on his shooting hand.
But in Game 4 with rookie Scottie Barnes limited in his own comeback from a sprained ankle and Fred VanVleet having to leave early in the second quarter after straining his hip, Raptors head coach Nick Nurse turned to Young, who has a Swiss Army knife skillset: able to do everything from wrestle with Sixers centre Joel Embiid in the post to pick apart the Sixers zone with pinpoint passes from the inside of defence.
And Young delivered. The Raptors needed his 13 points, 5 rebounds, five assists and three steals on 6-of-9 shooting in his 29 minutes to help them keep their hopes of reeling the Sixers back in after falling behind 3-0 in the series. Game 5 is Monday night. He even provided on the game’s highlights, when he caused Embiid to lose his balance with a cross-over dribble Young used to pull up into a smooth jumper, to the crowd’s delight.
It's not normally part of his menu. The last time he dropped someone with a crossover?
“This knucklehead,” he said, pointing at Thad Jr. “It happened. I’m sure everyone was going crazy. I’m more excited about the win. I’m happy we got that.”
It’s the entirety of the performance that Young takes pride in. The former lottery pick has carved out a long career by figuring out what teams need and ways to give it to them.
“It’s all about going out there and executing and making sure that I’m always there for my teammates,” said Young. “I’m always putting out that 100 per cent every single day. That’s the plan. We stuck to it [in Game 4] and got the win … I don’t control minutes; I don’t control coaching or anything like that. The only thing I can control is when I’m touching the court. When I touch the court it’s just going out there and proving your work and proving who you are for the period of time you’re in this league.”
It's the role player’s credo, and not everyone is cut out for it, but Young takes pride in it. It’s an outlook the Raptors were looking for at the trade deadline. The dividends have paid off already in that 22-year-old Precious Achiuwa has credited Young’s example to help accelerate his learning curve as he plays significant minutes in his second season, VanVleet has said how much he appreciates having a true veteran on hand to help with the leadership burden, and Nurse says Young’s attention to detail in practice, film sessions and walk-throughs has helped his younger teammates pick up on game plans as they get more sophisticated as the season goes along.
“Yeah man, he’s the ultimate pro, right?” said Pascal Siakam, who led the Raptors with playoff career-high 34 points in Game 4. “[You] see him every day, he comes in, gets his work done, after, recovery, he’s just a professional with all that. Having someone like him on our team is definitely a plus.
“And I just like the fact that, I don’t think he’s been playing that much in the series – obviously had that thing on his finger – but just having the opportunity to come in and just be ready it shows how professional he is, and he’s been in the league for a long time and he knows what it takes. I think that he was huge for us [in Game 4] in just making plays and defensively understanding the coverages, the matchups, and he’s always talking to us out there and I think he was great.”
Young was especially helpful as the Sixers stayed in a zone for long stretches of the game. He hit one corner three and had good looks at a couple of others, but it was his passing that was even more important, as he connected with Chris Boucher for four of his five assists as Boucher made cuts into seams in the defence and Young found him.
“That’s why I’ve kind of done, especially the last four or five years, is kind of been out there as a guy who can calm everything down when they’re running zone – flashing to middle, staying poised, make the right play,” said Young. “If there’s nothing there you can always throw the ball back out and start again, so just always having patience. That’s what gets us over the hump, having that patience, having that poise throughout the poise of the basketball game.”
As Young was speaking, his sons were listening in rapt attention. Just as with his teammates, Young was trying to set an example in word and deed.
“[I’m] Just giving them the things and tools that they need,” said Young. “It’s always special to have them around because they get to see stuff other kids don’t see. They get to travel the world and come watch their dad play basketball. Their time is gonna come. I’m putting a lot of time into both of these little guys sitting in this crowd right here and just making sure I’m doing my best as a player and my best as a dad as well and as a husband. Just making sure they see these things I’m doing and it’s instilled in them.”
They couldn’t get a better example than what their Dad put together in Game 4, when the Raptors needed it most.