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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO – Thaddeus Young remembers the first time he almost played against Kevin Durant.
 
Teenagers and prized recruits of a loaded 2006 high school class at the time, the two talented forwards were both scheduled to participate in the NBA’s Top 100 camp – an event that assists elite student-athletes in the development of their basketball and life skills.
 
Alas, Young had to pull out due to a last-minute foot injury so their first meeting would come later that year, at the Jordan Brand All-American Classic. They were named co-MVPs of the annual showcase, with Young – who was enjoying an excellent freshman season at Georgia Tech – getting the win and outscoring the standout from Texas, 28-16.
 
Still, Durant made an immediately impression on Young.
 
“I’ve always been a big fan of him, his game and his work ethic,” Young said just before his Toronto Raptors hosted Durant’s Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday. It was his 1,100th NBA game and the 22nd time that he and KD have gone head-to-head over the course of their 16-year professional careers. “We’ve always had a big-time mutual respect for each other.”
 
Their paths haven’t exactly lined up since the old Seattle SuperSonics selected Durant second overall in the 2007 draft, with Young going to Philadelphia 10 picks later. One is a future Hall of Famer and all-time great scorer, but continues to find himself at the centre of – or at least adjacent to – drama and controversy. The other is a jack-of-all-trades. Young has carved out a niche as one of the league’s most beloved teammates and glue guys, and is far more likely to put out a fire than to ignite it.
 
As a seemingly never-ending barrage of injury and illness continues to befall the Raptors, Young’s dependability has come in handy. In their 112-98 loss to Brooklyn, they were missing seven players, including their top-three playmakers: Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes and Fred VanVleet, who was ruled out roughly 90 minutes before the game.
 
Toronto hasn’t had its full nine-man rotation in any of its 18 games this season. The team’s five starters have all been healthy and available five times and not since late last month. Amid the chaos, Young has helped steady the ship and keep them afloat.
 
“He’s been good,” head coach Nick Nurse said of Young, who finished with 12 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 28 solid minutes against Brooklyn, as the Raptors fell to 9-9 on the campaign. “He’s doing a good job leadership-wise, too. He’s good in the huddles and he’s trying to keep those guys going. So, he’s been a true pro.”
 
“He’s probably our most valuable player right now,” VanVleet said the other day. “He’s been key for us.”
 
Despite coming in with just 10 available players, including a couple on two-way contracts who were just called up from the G League, the Raptors hung in early, trailing by one point at halftime.
 
The Nets have faced their share of adversity, and then some, weathering Durant’s off-season trade request, Steve Nash’s firing, Kyrie Irving’s suspension, and most recently the disappointing loss to a 76ers team missing Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey. But, in the end, the shorthanded Raptors were simply overmatched by all that talent on the other side.
 
Between injuries, the pandemic, the Tampa season and then his vaccination status, Irving was playing his first game in Toronto since February of 2019. He scored 26 of his game-high 29 points in the second half, as the Nets pulled away. Ben Simmons, who was coming off his emotional return to Philadelphia on Tuesday, chipped in with 14 points and some inspired work on the defensive end. Meanwhile, Durant was held to 12 points and took just 10 shots, but Brooklyn outscored Toronto by 30 points in his 33 minutes. The Raptors were plus-16 when he was on the bench.
 
“The motherf---er is [still] getting better,” Young said of Durant, who remains a perennial MVP candidate at age 34.
 
Also 34, Young knows who he is as a player and how he can make an impact at this stage of his career. At one point last month, he logged just five minutes over a four-game stretch, having fallen out of Nurse’s early-season rotation. If there’s a silver lining with so many guys out of the lineup, it’s that Young’s had the opportunity to re-establish himself as a meaningful contributor. The Raptors have learnt that he’s best deployed as an undersized centre.
 
Even though he started alongside seven-foot rookie Christian Koloko on Wednesday, it was Young that took the opening tip and served as the primary defender on Nets big man Nic Claxton.
 
Playing the five is something that Young has been asked to do more of over the past few seasons, but the skillset – including the sneaky, throwback post game we’ve seen from him recently – is something the crafty veteran has always had. He learned the game from his father, Felton Young, a seven-footer who played for Jacksonville University and was selected by the Buffalo Braves in the eighth round of the 1978 NBA draft. He burrowed bits and pieces from some of the big men he played with early in his career: Elton Brand, Theo Ratliff, and a couple of former Raptors, Donyell Marshall and Reggie Evans.
 
“I’ve always [had] good footwork and known how to get my shot off in certain positions – floaters and post moves. And when guys are trying to impose their will on me defensively, just using their body against them. Other than that, it’s just a matter of natural feel for the basketball game.”
 
Early in the second quarter of Wednesday’s loss, Young backed down the smaller Irving and found the cutting Juancho Hernangomez for a layup. On the next possession, his reverse layup capped off a 16-0 Raptors run, giving them a rare lead.
 
To open the second half, he took Royce O’Neale into the post and knocked down a baby hook shot from 10-feet out. Later, he posted up Irving and when Durant came over to help, he split the two defenders and finished at the rim.
 
After coming off the bench in each of his first 10 games this season, as well as his 26 contests with the Raptors last year, Young has started the last five. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 2.2 steals in 30 minutes. He’s also shooting an impressive 29-for-38 inside of the paint.
 
An hour after the final buzzer sounded on Wednesday’s loss, Young was the last Raptors player left in the locker room. His wife and two sons were waiting for him in the hallway, but this was nothing new. As part of his post-game routine, he spends time in the hot tub and the cold tub. He’s on the trainer’s table getting some manual therapy. None of that changes, whether he plays 30 minutes or 10, win or lose. That’s how you play 1,100 games in this league.
 
“Doing all my old man stuff,” he joked. “Just taking care of your body at all costs.”
 
The Raptors just got Gary Trent Jr. and Chris Boucher back from their illnesses. VanVleet is still battling his lingering bout of the flu, which has cost him three of the last five games, but their hope is that he’ll be available against Dallas on Saturday. While Barnes is day-to-day with a sprained knee, they’re targeting next week for Siakam’s return from a groin injury that’s kept him out of the last nine games.
 
But if and when they finally get back to full health, Young has made a strong case for continued playing time. His calming, steadying presence is one of the biggest reasons they’ve been able to tread water.
 
“It’s just who I am as a player, it’s who I am as a man,” Young said. “Regardless of the situation, I only know one thing and that’s to work. Put my head down and continue to grind, continue to work, and continue to make sure I’m doing the things that the Toronto Raptors brought me here for: to help these young guys continue to chug along and continue to get better as a group. But, also, when it’s time for me to step in and do the job to the best of my abilities, be able to show them that this is how we should be playing basketball, this is how the game is played, this is how you stick around for a long period of time.”