Thaddeus Young missed eight games with a sprained left wrist last season, and was compromised in the final 29, but that wasn’t his only concern regarding body parts. He also had to worry about toes – the ones he avoided stepping on.
Young, then, began the Pacers’ training camp on Tuesday fresh of body and spirit. His wrist is fully healed and he has a more secure leadership position in the locker room.
“It’s back to 100,” he said of his wrist after the morning workout that opened camp. “I’m happy about that because now I can actually go out and make some jump shots.”
He’s also happy because he can actually go out and exhibit some leadership. As the second-oldest player on the team behind Al Jefferson, and one of just two returning starters, he’s primed to flex his maturity for the onslaught of young players added to the team over the summer.
“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” he said. “It’s been done before.”
It all starts with the wrist, because Young can’t lead well if he can’t perform well, and he can’t perform anywhere in the proximity of a peak level with an inflexible wrist on his shooting arm. He proved that last season, when he also proved he could at least find ways to contribute substantively despite the injury.
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Young sprained his wrist in a game at Brooklyn on Feb. 3. The Pacers won that game, and won the next two (at home) without him, but then lost six in a row by an average of 10.3 points. The Pacers realized how much they needed him in his absence.
“We really struggled,” coach Nate McMillan said. “We lost our rhythm on both ends of the floor. Having a guy like that on the floor, he plays regardless of whether he’s getting calls or not. That’s important.”
Young returned against Memphis on Feb. 24, his wrist wrapped in tape and uncertainty, and scored 10 points in 25 minutes in a 10-point victory.
He wasn’t himself, though. The Pacers alternated wins and losses over the next 14 games, not coincidentally given Young’s presence but limitations. Anything beyond layups was an adventure, and even those were far from guarantees. He averaged just 7.8 points over the next 15 games while hitting 4-of-16 foul shots. A 40 percent 3-point shooter before his injury, he tried to avoid even attempting such flings, but was lucky enough to hit one of the four he attempted.
Young removed the tape from his wrist for the game at Cleveland on April 2, which coincided with Lance Stephenson’s return to the Pacers. He scored 19 points on 9-of-12 shooting that day and 14.8 points on 61 percent shooting over the final six regular season games. He averaged 12 points on 54 percent shooting and nine rebounds, along with two steals, in the playoffs.
“He probably shouldn’t have been out there, but just having him on the floor allowed us to be in that comfort zone,” McMillan said.
It’s not just about offense, though. Young was, and probably still is, the Pacers’ most versatile defender, able to deal with power forwards around the basket and wing players near the 3-point line. His ability to switch assignments on pick-and-rolls means the guards don’t have to fight through as many screens, a vital element of any effective defense.
“Our defense is tied together when he’s out there,” McMillan said.
Looking back, it’s obvious Young was under-utilized and under-appreciated last season, on the court and in the locker room. He was the new guy on a team clearly built around Paul George, one that included other returning veterans. He kept his mouth shut, for the most part, and let his game do the talking, at least when his wrist didn’t muffle him.
No longer. His wrist was fully healed by mid-summer, and while he occasionally feels a twinge here and there he said he got through Workout No. 1 with no problems.
“I’m ready to rock and roll this season,” he said.
McMillan’s ready for that too, and will nudge him toward center stage.
“We will look to establish him more,” McMillan said. “Last year he just kind of played off of our guys. He was a guy who did a great job of just playing off the offense. We’ll can call more sets for him now.”
As Young said, it’s been done before.
He was a complementary player with Philadelphia in the 2012-13 season, averaging 14.8 points on a roster led by Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner. The following season, with Holiday gone and Turner sent to the Pacers at the trade deadline, he averaged a team-high 17.9 in slightly less playing time per game. Then in the 2014-15 season, in the 28 games he played after he was traded to Brooklyn, he averaged 13.8 points. The following season, with Deron Williams gone and Joe Johnson traded at mid-season, his scoring average improved to 15.1 and his rebounding average from 5.9 to 9.0.
This season brings another opportunity for the chameleon to take on a new look.
“I have to do a lot more (this season),” he said. “I don’t have the luxury of having guys like Jeff Teague, C.J. Miles and Paul George. We have good guys, but I have to do a little more. But that’s not just me, that’s everybody. Everybody has to put out a little more effort to make up for what we lost.”
The same goes for leadership. Young is talkative, but in a quiet sort of way. He’s probably the team’s most mature player, a family man who would disappear in the off-season if not for his wife’s tweets, and capable of adjusting his role in the locker room as well as on the court. While Myles Turner has been publicized as the new face of the franchise, he’s just 21 years old. Young is 29, with 10 NBA seasons in the bank – which should mean he’s young enough to play and old enough to lead.
Asked on Monday if he felt re-energized being surrounded by so much youth, he wasn’t sure how to take it. It’s not like he’s an old codger in need of a transfusion.
“I’m still fairly young,” he said. “I’m 29. Jeez. I’m going into my 11th season, but I’m 29 years old. At the end of the day, it’s not about feeling young or feeling re-energized, it’s about doing the things you need to do as a team. I want to put it all on the line for these guys.”
“When you have certain guys on your team like a Jeff Teague or Paul George, you try not to step on guys’ toes,” he said. “This year, we have a much younger team. Somebody has to speak up. Why not me? Why not Big Al? Let’s bring these guys along and try to win games.”
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