TORONTO – It’s going to be something of a homecoming for Thaddeus Young when he steps onto the court at Well Fargo Center for Game 1 of Toronto’s first-round playoff series with Philadelphia on Saturday.
The Raptors’ veteran forward started his 15-year NBA career with the 76ers, who selected him with the 12th-overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent his first seven seasons in the City of Brotherly Love. That’s where he made his playoff debut and ultimately won his first postseason series in 2012, as part of a young up-and-coming Sixers team that included Lou Williams, Jrue Holiday and Andre Iguodala.
He’s got plenty of fond memories from his life-changing time in Philly, both on and off the court.
“Honestly, that's where I grew up,” Young said. “That's where I went from being a boy to a man. I started my family there, married my wife, [had my] two kids. I went from being a kid, getting drafted seven days after turning 19 years old, and then to leave there at 26 and go to another team, it was definitely a hard situation for me because I thought I would always be there.”
“Philly will always be another home for me. I still talk to people that sit courtside. I still talk to some of the people that work in the organization all the time. They're family, but at the end of the day I'm with Toronto Raptors now and this is my new family. And I have to make sure that my new family is gonna get this win and get this series.”
The Raptors acquired Young from San Antonio in exchange for Goran Dragic ahead of the February trade deadline. It was an exchange of veteran players on expiring contracts that had fallen out of favour with their former clubs. The cost for Toronto was moving down 13 or 14 spots in this upcoming summer’s draft – giving up its first-round pick, which will be 19th or 20th overall, depending on a coin flip tiebreaker with Denver, for Detroit’s second-round selection, which will be 33rd overall.
They’ll have his Bird Rights in free agency during the off-season and can bring him back; at 33, he still has plenty to offer a team and has looked like a fit with this group. Regardless of what the future holds, the trade is already paying dividends for Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and the Raptors. This is the time of year they had in mind when they made the deal.
It took some time for Young to get acclimated. Not only did he have to learn a new system and get comfortable in his new surroundings, but he also had to get his rhythm and conditioning back after playing so sparingly with the Spurs through the first four months of the season. He also wanted to ease his way in and survey the locker room dynamics before being more assertive with his leadership.
As his comfort level has gone up, so has his impact. Over the final nine games of the regular season, Young averaged 7.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 48 per cent from the field and 36 per cent from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. His contributions go well beyond those numbers, though.
Young averaged a career-best 17.9 points in 2013-14, his final season with Philadelphia. Since then, with his stops in Minnesota, Brooklyn, Indiana and Chicago, he’s established himself as one of the league’s great glue guys. He does a little bit of everything on the court, and he does everything well. With his energy on defence, passing and cutting, and steadying presence, Young has helped solidify a Raptors bench unit that had struggled for most of the season. Over that recent nine-game span, Toronto outscored opponents by a team-best 84 points with him on the floor.
What most people don’t see is the impact he’s had off the court. More and more, as they got deeper into the stretch run and the postseason drew closer, his new teammates would look to pick his brain. A few of them have been to the playoffs before, but this will be their first in a prominent role. Rookie sensation Scottie Barnes is getting set to make his playoff debut. Young’s been more than happy to share his experience and impart some wisdom.
“It's a completely different game,” he said. “My advice to them is just, through all the madness and crazy stuff that's going to be going on throughout the course of the game, all the adversity that you're going to fight, just manage to stay level-headed and stay poised, never get too high or too low, always try to be at an even keel. And that's what's gotten me to this point, always being patient, poised, and just being even keeled and not trying to do too much outside of what I do, but just bringing what I do to the game each and every night.”
One benefit of clinching a playoff spot early and avoiding the play-in tournament is that Nick Nurse and the coaches have had the entire week to get the team prepared for its upcoming series with Philly, and Young has been an important part of that process. The 33-year-old was one of the last players in the gym after practice on Wednesday afternoon.
“You getting these young guys ready?” Webster asked Young on his way out of OVO Athletic Centre.
“Yes sir,” he replied.
With an average age of 24.8, the Raptors are the third-youngest playoff team. Young is the only player on the roster in his 30s. Their longest-tenured players, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby, have championship experience, but Young brings a different and much-needed perspective.
“I think he’s been super vocal,” Siakam said. “He's been through a lot, he's played in big games, and he's been in the league for [a long time], so I think that's another presence. Obviously, we like to think of ourselves as vets, but we have six years of experience in the NBA and he has 15. That's so many games and I think that we can definitely learn from him.”
Young remembers playing in his first postseason game with Philly as a rookie in 2008. He started in a win over Detroit and scored eight first-quarter points, including the Sixers’ first two buckets. He recalls cooling down considerably after that.
“I started off so fast, and I was so tired because I started so fast,” he said. “And it was just crazy. It was an environment like no other and you just can’t let it get to you. You have to always remain focused, remain locked in, and just play your game, play to who you are every single time.”
Young has appeared in 1,085 regular-season games, tied for ninth-most among active players. And 516 of them came as a member of the Sixers. Another 14 were in Philly as a visitor. He’s been back before and he says it never gets old. He’ll always have a special connection with the franchise that gave him his first opportunity in the league and with the city that played such an important part in his life. But once he steps on that court on Saturday, it’s all business.
“From Day 1 when I first walked in [as a Raptor], I said, yeah, this team can be special,” he recalls. “We have some special pieces and we have a special group of guys. It’s just a matter of making sure we’re all together each and every time, each moment that we step on the court.”