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Raptors' Young staying professional, ready despite lack of playing time

Thaddeus Young Toronto Raptors Thaddeus Young - Getty Images

TORONTO – Like the rest of us, Thaddeus Young is a bit confused by his sporadic early-season usage.

After being acquired from San Antonio at last February’s trade deadline, the veteran forward was excited about what he could bring to the Raptors in his first full season with the club, and so was the team. In training camp, just a few weeks ago, the sense was that he would play a key role coming off the bench. That was his expectation when he re-signed with Toronto as an unrestricted free agent over the summer.

However, 10 days into the new campaign, that hasn’t been the case. Through the team’s first six games, Young has totalled 32 minutes. He’s yet to log more than 11 minutes in any contest and has played just five minutes over the last three games – a stretch that included two DNP-CDs (did not play – coach’s decision).

“I’m definitely surprised,” the 34-year-old told TSN after playing five scoreless minutes in Toronto’s 112-90 loss to Philadelphia on Friday night. “But things happen and you just have to go with it.

“It’s tough. It’s definitely a tough situation to be in but I’ve just gotta bear with it and continue to be there for my teammates, continue to trust in what I’m doing as a player, and hopefully when the time comes I’ll be ready to go out there and take care of business.”

Young averaged 6.3 points and 4.4 rebounds in 18.3 minutes over 26 games with the Raptors last season. His addition, along with the second-half emergence of Precious Achiuwa and Chris Boucher, helped stabilize Toronto’s bench, which had struggled early in the year. The plan was for Young to reprise the role he played late last season and into the playoffs, with him, Achiuwa, Boucher and off-season signee Otto Porter Jr. – who has been out with a hamstring strain and is yet to make his debut – forming the nucleus of the second unit.

It’s unclear what changed. Granted, Young hasn’t been especially effective in his limited playing time. He’s scored seven points, committed four fouls and missed four of his five three-point attempts, and the Raptors have been outscored by 28 points in his 32 minutes. Still, the sample size is small and it’s hard to judge a player like Young in short spurts.

Young impacts the game in ways that aren’t always reflected in the box score. He’s not the type of player that’s going to come in and score in bunches. Over his 16-year career, he’s carved out a niche as one of the league’s great glue guys – a high IQ player who does a bit of everything on both ends of the floor and makes his teammates better.

So far, head coach Nick Nurse has kept his rotation tight, with the bulk of the minutes going to his top seven players – the five starters as a well as Achiuwa and Boucher. From there, he’s skewed younger. Rookie centre Christian Koloko and sophomore point guard Dalano Banton are the only other players who have appeared in all six games. It could just be a positional thing, with Nurse prioritizing Koloko’s size or Banton’s quickness in certain matchups. Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, they may prefer to use those minutes to develop and see what they’ve got in those younger guys.

Of course, nothing is set in stone. It’s a long season and the back end of Nurse’s rotation tends to be fluid. He spoke to Young after last Monday’s game in Miami, the first of two straight DNPs for the veteran forward, and his message was: “stay ready.”

“I wouldn’t say that I planned on not using him in Miami that night, it’s just kind of how it turned out,” Nurse said last week. “We’ll see. We’re gonna need him, there’s just no doubt about it. It’s kind of a night-to-night thing.”

Young’s routine hasn’t changed much, even if his role has. If anything, he’ll be at the gym a bit earlier, or leave a bit later to make sure he’s getting his work in. And even if he’s not able to contribute as much as he’d like to on the court, he knows that he can always make an impact off of it.

“When you’re not playing you have to find other ways to make the team better,” said Young. “One of my ways is continuous leadership – helping the young guys, making sure I’m giving tem pointers on what to do, yelling at guys from the bench, and then constantly staying in the young guys’ ears. Some of the young guys come in and they have a lack of confidence, but I try to continue building them up, continue helping them grow their game.”

He can’t help but have some déjà vu. Young found himself in a similar spot a year ago, sitting on the bench and waiting for his opportunity. He was going into the final year of his contract when the rebuilding Spurs acquired him from Chicago in the DeMar DeRozan sign and trade, and he didn’t factor into their long-term plans. At one point, he appeared in four of 28 games for San Antonio before being dealt to the Raptors for veteran guard Goran Dragic and a first-round pick.

Unlike Dragic, who requested a personal leave when he fell out of the rotation in Toronto, Young stuck it out. Despite his disappointment, he remained professional, continued to bring leadership and help guide his younger teammates, and worked hard to stay ready for his next opportunity, whenever and wherever it would come.

The trade to Toronto was freeing, in that sense. It felt like the perfect fit for the player and for the team. With the Raptors, he was playing regularly again, making an impact on the floor while also bringing some much-needed veteran leadership to one of the league’s up-and-coming clubs at a crucial time, heading into a playoff push. That’s why he signed a new two-year, $16.3 million deal to remain with the franchise this past July.

The irony of finding himself back in limbo isn’t lost on him, but he’s handling it the only way he knows how.

“It’s not my first rodeo,” Young said. “I’ve been there before, the same situation with the Spurs last year, playing sporadically throughout the course of the season. I got here and my [playing time] picked up. So you never know what can happen. You just have to stay ready at all times.

“Obviously, in the last few games I haven’t gotten very many minutes to actually make a real impact. But when I do, I’ll be there.”