Thad Young is back to his 'bread and butter' and Bulls are benefitting

Rob Schaefer
·9 min read

How Young getting back to 'bread and butter' is helping Bulls originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

When Thad Young inked a three-year, $41 million contract with the Bulls in the summer of 2019, it was viewed as a last-step signing for a team then looking to burst out of its rebuild. Eighteen months later, the scope of why his addition was so lauded is fully taking shape. 

Yes, Young's current 23.5 minutes per game average places him well below his 24.9 mark for 2019-20 -- at the time the second-lowest of his NBA years. And averages of 10.4 points and 4.3 rebounds are pedestrian compared to the rest of his career. 

But his usage has been refurbished, and many of those minutes have been impactful. He's been one of the biggest benefactors of the Billy Donovan hiring.

Last season, Young’s role in the Bulls’ offense was more perimeter-tethered than at any other point in his 13-year career. His 3.5 3-point attempts per game marked the second-loftiest total of his career, and his .369 3-point attempt rate (percentage of his field goal attempts which came from 3) the highest by eons.

I'll go out there and make some (3s) here and there, but that's not the bread and butter of how Thad Young plays,” Young said after the Bulls’ recent win over the Houston Rockets as he compared his usage this season against “camping out around the 3-point line” last season. “And that's not the bread and butter of what the Chicago Bulls need from me.”

Indeed, Young’s 3-point attempt average is down to 1.4 per game, his 3-point attempt rate sliced roughly in half. And though he’s shooting just 28.6 percent from deep after -- to his credit -- knocking down 35.6 percent in 2019-20, his scoring efficiency is up across the board. Young’s current field goal (57.5 percent), 2-point (63.6 percent) and effective field goal (60 percent) percentages would all be career-highs, albeit on limited volume.

Here’s a comparison of his shot distribution from last season to this one, per Cleaning the Glass, which factors out garbage time possessions:

Percentage of field goal attempts by zone: Thad Young

 

Rim

Short Mid

Long Mid

All Mid

Corner 3

Non-

Corner 3

All 3

’19-20

39%

22%

3%

25%

16%

20%

35%

’20-21

32%

49%

2%

51%

8%

8%

17%

Source: Cleaning the Glass

Young has done a ton of damage in that “short mid” area -- defined by Cleaning the Glass as between four and 14 feet away from the basket -- shooting 62 percent (84th percentile for his position). His patented quick-twitch lefty hook shot over defenders large and small is a real weapon, and has allowed the Bulls to bully mismatches when they present. He’s making that formula work in the post and even on the move as a roller with crafty floaters.

Thad Young plays bully-ball

1611199976

As the old adage goes: Free cheese.

Young’s passing, too, has added a layer to the Bulls’ offensive attack. His 3 assists per game and 18.9 percent assist rate would both be career bests, and his playmaking in what he calls “the pocket” has provided a handy release valve for Bulls guards under duress. 

Opponents trapping ball-handlers -- mainly, Zach LaVine and Coby White -- in pick-and-roll with Young screening has granted Young myriad opportunities to slip, catch and facilitate with a 4-on-3 advantage. In that context, more times than not, he's going to find the open man:

Thad Young pocket playmaking

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He’s also proven adept at manipulating defenses with eye movement, ball-fakes or a purposeful dribble to open space for his teammates:

Thad Young manipulating defenses

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And recognizing miscommunications and split-second lulls in opponents’ rotations... Then exploiting them with left-handed lasers:

Thad Young recognition

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Since his return from a leg infection that kept him out all of preseason and for the team’s first four regular season games, lineups featuring Young own an effective field goal percentage of 59 percent. Without: 55.8 percent. 

“Just coaches seizing opportunities to play me to my strengths,” Young said. “One of my strengths is just me setting a screen, getting into the pocket, or slipping out the screen and getting into the pocket and just playing. If a guy shows I know the big is under the basket open. If they come off the corners I know which corner to hit. And then just having the patience and the poise to play in the pocket.”

That savvy, combined with his versatility on the defensive end, has led to Donovan leaning on Young down the stretch of multiple contests early in the season, either at small-ball center or, most recently, alongside Lauri Markkanen in the frontcourt. In 18 total minutes across seven “clutch” games -- defined by NBA.com as being within a five-point margin with five minutes or less to play -- Bulls lineups featuring Young have posted a plus-7.2 net rating, scoring at a rate of 119.1 points per 100 possessions and defending at a rate of 111.9 per 100.

That’s a limited sample size, to be sure, but backs up the eye test on Young’s steadying presence. Early-season metrics of every ilk fawn over his impact. One example: In Young's 10 games, Bulls lineups with him included (235 minutes) sport an offensive rating of 116.8 and defensive rating of 108.5, good for a plus-8.3 net rating -- marks that would rank third, 11th and third in the NBA, respectively. Without Young (250 minutes), the offensive rating dips to 108.5, the defensive rating swells to 117.4 and the net rating craters to minus-8.9. Equivalent to 17th, 29th and t-29th.

Such figures carry a lot of noise, from sample size concerns, to the players Young is playing alongside, to the often bench-heavy units they’re playing against and so on. Still, the Bulls are scoring and defending more efficiently in his minutes. By a lot. Better than the reverse

And, of course, such nerdery fails to even encapsulate his impact off the floor. Donovan has fully empowered Young, Garrett Temple and Otto Porter Jr. to operate in coach-on-the-floor capacities for a young Bulls squad that boasts a starting lineup with an average age under 22. All three have embraced such responsibilities wholeheartedly.

"The biggest thing with the young guys and the veteran guys, the young guys are listening," Young said. "They're taking in the things that we're doing when we get out there on the court, they're seeing how we move the ball, they're seeing how we pick apart defenses and we get easy reads just by moving the basketball and passing and cutting. They're taking those things and even applying it to their games.

"The young guys are the core pieces of our team and they're gonna make us go. So we want to put them in the best position possible and I think that's what's been happening. They've been putting themselves in the best position possible, getting us off to some decent starts and then letting the veterans just kind of come in and keep those leads, build those leads up. And then throughout the course of the game, just listening to us -- we're up on this sideline and we're talking to guys. Coach is giving us an opportunity to help coach. And he's giving us an opportunity to be just solid veterans."

Young has found particular purpose guiding Wendell Carter Jr. through his evolution into a more facilitative role. Carter is averaging 2.4 assists (double last season’s 1.2) and 1.9 turnovers through the first 14 games of his third season -- for the first time in his career empowered to regularly play-make from the elbows.

“Some of the guys on our team are big, they tend to get rushed when they get in the pocket. And that's when turnovers start to occur,” Young said.

Asked what he seeks to impart to Carter, specifically, he added: “Patience and poise. Just staying confident in that pocket. Just understanding that you're going to see a crowd, but with you being the biggest guy out there on the court, once you see a crowd, just look at your reads and look at where guys are coming from. 

“They come off the corner, make the corner pass. If they step up on the roll, which is you, then you make the bounce pass to the other big on the baseline. If you roll down the middle of the lane from making a side screen-and-roll and guys come off the corner, then the opposite corner is open. 

“So just getting him to understand where his reads are and how he needs to analyze the court. You know, I told him the other day, I said when you get to the top of the key, once you catch the ball, you look for the weakest defender  and then you go at him. And they switch, then you got a post-up. So, just understanding where he is on the court at all times.”

Young is coughing the ball up 2.2 times per game in his own right. For a team ranked 29th in turnover rate, no player is free of criticism. But his in-the-pocket playmaking has been largely, to use his words, patient and poised.

And the Bulls' team-wide returns have improved. After a 22-43 finish to 2019-20, and two season-opening blowout losses to kick off 2020-21, sitting 6-8 doesn't sound too bad.

"We have some of the similar pieces, same people as last year, but I think the mentality's just changed," Young said. "I think we're a better team."

His play and guidance are a big part of why.

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