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Bourguet Breakdown: How would Thaddeus Young look on the Suns?

Gerald Bourguet Avatar
September 9, 2021

Fresh off an NBA Finals run, the Phoenix Suns need to get young.

No, not young, Young. As in Thaddeus Young.

As The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported in late August, the Suns are “among the contenders” that have pursued the 33-year-old forward, recently acquired by the San Antonio Spurs in the DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade with the Chicago Bulls.

Last season in the Windy City, Young averaged 12.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game while starting in just 23 of his 68 appearances. And despite only logging the ninth-most minutes per game on the team, he still managed to record the second-most win shares on the roster (5.1), trailing only All-Star Zach LaVine (5.9).

With Young being on an expiring $12.4 million contract, a trade package of Dario Saric, Jalen Smith and some sort of draft compensation logistically works. The question is, how would he fit in with the Suns? What would he bring to the table, and is it worth punting on a well-liked (albeit injured) player like Saric as well as a second-year big with potential like Stix? A look at Young’s last season with the Bulls provides some clarity on where he might shine in Phoenix and where he might struggle.


At 6-foot-8, Thad Young has rarely been utilized as a point forward throughout his 14-year NBA career. Yet in Chicago last year, he often functioned as a playmaking big man, nearly doubling his previous career high in assists per game. Per, the only players 6-foot-7 or taller who averaged more assists per 36 minutes were Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, LeBron James, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Tomas Satoransky, Domantas Sabonis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — All-Stars and All-NBA players all around, with the exception of his teammate Satoransky, who is basically an oversized point guard.

According to The Bball Index, Young was an exceptional facilitator regardless of position, ranking in the:

  • 91st percentile in playmaking talent
  • 64th percentile in passing versatility
  • 93rd percentile in passing efficiency
  • 86th percentile in passing creation volume
  • 90th percentile in passing creation quality

As Cleaning The Glass notes, his career-high 25.4 assist percentage ranked in the 96h percentile. It’s pretty easy to see the numbers point to Young being  an elite playmaker.

The thing is, most of his assists aren’t particularly flashy; if anything, he’s just an effective, smart passer. In Chicago, his greatest strength in the pick-and-roll wasn’t typically his finishing ability, but rather, what he did with the rock when defenses collapsed on the short roll.

Whether it was threading the needle to another big man in the dunker spot,

Finding an open cutter off the ball,

Or making the right pass to an open shooter on the perimeter, Young routinely punished defensive rotations by moving the ball exactly where it needed to go.

It wasn’t always in the pick-and-roll, but even when he sneakily slipped the screen (or anytime he caught the ball near the basket, for that matter), Young made the fundamentally sound pass to the open man … almost to the point of frustration. Some Suns fans may have experienced a familiar jolt watching those clips as they recalled when a younger Deandre Ayton frequently passed out of doubles right in front of the basket instead of just putting the shot up. Young sometimes overpasses, trading a semi-contested attempt at the rim for another semi-contested rim look or 3-point shot for a teammate, but his intentions are always good.

In defense of Young, who only shot 66 percent on his looks at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass, his greatest threat was often as a passer, not a scorer. A considerable number of his assists came from simple handoffs where a Bulls guard or wing would get him the ball with his back to the basket before quickly curling around him for a quick-fire 3. These “blink and you missed it” kind of plays relied on Young’s ability to carve out space with his hips, jam his ass into anyone who got too close and often keep one or even two defenders at bay with pure thiccness before immediately feeding the ball back to his open teammate with a quick little pitch play. Even when he didn’t create contact, that momentary obstruction gave his guards the split-second advantage needed to get off a clean look.

It’s not difficult to imagine just how much damage mid-range artillerymen like Chris Paul and Devin Booker could do with even the slightest bit of space Young provides on handoffs like these:

This more extreme example borders on being whistled for an offensive foul, but just look at how Jaylen Brown bounces off that hip check like he just got sideswiped by a Smart Car:

These are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of Young’s ability to facilitate from the perimeter. Monty Williams has repeatedly praised Dario Saric and Frank Kaminsky as being “connectors,” guys who can keep the 0.5 offense moving when they catch the ball at the top of the key by either putting the ball on the floor or making sharp passes to off-ball cutters.

Young isn’t much of a ball-handler, but a lot of Chicago’s offense was predicated on feeding him on the perimeter, running a bunch of guards and wings all over the court in off-ball actions, and letting him zip passes to whichever cutter opened up:

Some of these reads seem simple enough, but being able to anticipate where the defense is and when his cutter will free up (as well as actually fire that pass into crowded spaces) is a gift. It was a recurring staple of Young’s facilitating in Chicago, and his one-handed, over-the-head dimes were almost reminiscent of Nikola Jokic. Young routinely looked like a quarterback going through his progressions, staying patient in the pocket as he rifled through his primary, secondary and tertiary options before making the right throw.

And make no mistake about it: If you cut, Thad Young will find you. With that rocket of a left arm, the man is not afraid to SLANG that thing all over the court:

In Monty’s 0.5 offense, the ball doesn’t stick very often, and when it does, it’s usually in the hands of someone looking to create their own shot in isolation like Paul or Booker. Even if the Suns made a move for Young, they wouldn’t change their whole system just to incorporate one facilitating bench big who had a great year on the NBA’s 21st-ranked offense. In other words, don’t expect to see too much of Young sitting at the top of the key with the ball in his hands for 5-6 seconds while Suns cut every which way. That was what Chicago needed from him, and it contributed to his career-best season as a playmaker.

With that being said, watching some of Thad’s lefty lasers, there’s more than enough court vision, instinct and quick decision-making to mesh with a system predicated on all three. Young can be particularly effective on those short rolls by feeding Deandre Ayton or JaVale McGee in the dunker’s spot, rewarding cutters like Mikal Bridges or Cameron Johnson, and locating 3-point snipers like Bridges, Johnson, Jae Crowder or Landry Shamet on the weakside. Even with defenses laying off Young due to his lack of perimeter touch, he’s still comfortable taking one or two dribbles to force the issue and make the right play from there.

Or, ya know, pulling shit like this outta nowhere every once in a blue moon:


Young would obviously be a nice addition in the playmaking department, especially for a team that will be missing Saric this season. But he wouldn’t be a seamless fit either, and some of his flaws are worth addressing.

The one glaring drawback is his lack of perimeter touch. While his passing makes him appear like the exact brand of frontcourt connector Monty loves, his 3-point shooting (26.7 percent on 0.7 attempts per game last year) doesn’t even come close to what Saric (34.8 percent on 2.7 attempts per game) or Kaminsky (36.5 percent on 1.8 attempts per game) provided in that regard. 

He’s simply not a great shooter in most respects. According to The Bball Index, he made just:

  • 35 percent of his pull-up 2s
  • 35 percent of his catch-and-shoot 2s
  • 33.4 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s
  • 32 percent of his corner 3s

It’s not like it was just a down year; he’s a career 33.1 percent shooter from long range on low volume (1.5 attempts a night). The Suns may have been middle-of-the-pack in long-range attempts, but they ranked seventh in 3-point percentage. Young’s deficiencies as a shooter matter, and they could affect where he’d most effectively slot in on this particular roster, since basically all of the Suns’ 4s were credible threats from beyond the arc.

Aside from that, the knocks on Thad Young are minor. Like the Suns, he gets to the free-throw line at an alarmingly low rate (14.9 percent, which landed him in the seventh percentile, per Cleaning The Glass), so he wouldn’t be able to help there. He also was a bit turnover-prone with a 15.4 turnover percentage, per CTG, and he was actually a minus on the defensive end for the Bulls, though that may be mostly due to playing on a bad defensive team in general.

There’s also the obvious sentimental factor: Trading a well-liked player like Saric — both in the locker room and by the fanbase — would sting, especially in the wake of an ACL tear that sidelined him for all but two minutes of the Finals. Saric’s absence in that series flew under the radar, and though his presence probably wouldn’t have changed the ultimate outcome with Giannis Antetokounmpo running rampant, it’d be a pity to see his resurgent Suns tenure end because of a devastating injury on the biggest stage.

Likewise, some might feel disappointed if the Suns shipped off Jalen Smith — a player Phoenix drafted ahead of Tyrese Haliburton, Devin Vassell and Tyrese Maxey — before getting a more extensive look at what he can do. The Suns’ preferred position for Smith vs. the position he’s actually best at remains a conundrum, but it’s tempting to make the case that his lack of a Summer League or a real training camp as a rookie year hindered his ability to contribute on a contender. Coming off an All-Summer League First Team selection, during which Stix averaged 16.3 points and 12.5 rebounds per game on 35.7 percent shooting from deep, Phoenix will be banking on him carving out a bench role this season if someone like Thad Young never materializes.

With that being said, this is a business, and James Jones will do what he must to get the Suns back in the Finals and over the hump this time. If that means sacrificing an injured player and a second-year big who hasn’t shown much in an NBA setting for a certified upgrade like Young, he will. Perhaps Smith grows into a useful player one day, but his upside isn’t immense enough to stop Jones from making moves if he thinks they’ll push Phoenix closer to its first title. Even Smith’s Summer League honors were marred by 36.5 percent shooting against inferior competition, and another season of underwhelming performances would tank the trade value of this former 10th overall pick. The Suns have seen far too often what waiting around for “potential” to manifest can do to a franchise, so the biggest obstacle to a Thad Young trade would really be haggling over draft compensation. 

Could Jones get away with one or two second-rounders instead of a future first? Given that Young is a 33-year-old on an expiring contract, a first-rounder seems high, which may be the biggest obstacle to a potential deal. But the Spurs aren’t currently interested in Stix, an injured Saric and a pair of second-rounders, the Suns’ ability to get this trade done would hinge on either involving a third team, Jalen Smith impressing in the first couple months of the season to boost his value (a dicey proposition)…or relenting and including a future protected first-round pick. San Antonio may not have much use for Young next year, but Phoenix will definitely have competitors for his services on the market, and this may be the dividing line between getting a trade done or missing out on him altogether.


For now, let’s assume the Suns find a way to entice the Spurs and the swap is made. The big question then becomes where Young would play, since he’d be the latest in a long line of current Suns capable of playing multiple positions.

There’s a good case for him replacing Saric straight-up as the prototypical small-ball 5. According to Cleaning The Glass, Young logged 57 percent of his minutes at center last year, posting a +6.3 point differential. For the other 43 percent of his minutes, he played the 4-spot, posting a +2.3 point differential. Furthermore, his assist percentage shot up to 30 percent as a 5, which put him in elite territory (98th percentile). Monty wasn’t afraid to deploy Saric as a full-time backup 5, and even dabbled with some Torrey Craig in undersized lineups, so Young would make sense here too.

The wrinkle there is the Suns addressed a glaring roster flaw in the offseason by adding some size, rim protection and another lob threat in JaVale McGee. For all of Saric and Kaminsky’s skills as “connectors,” the Suns got beat up in the Finals by the towering Milwaukee Bucks, especially after Saric went down and Ayton struggled with foul trouble. Adding an experienced, legitimate center like McGee is a definite plus, and despite his inability to spread the floor, Young did spend considerable time as a 4 in Chicago, building chemistry alongside Nikola Vucevic after he joined the Bulls.

The difference is Vucevic is a good floor-spacer, making 40 percent of his 3s last year. Neither McGee nor Ayton are in that same stratosphere. Spacing would be crucial whenever Young logged minutes as a 4, since the only area he’s really above-average as a scoring threat is on short-mid shots in the 4-14 feet range, where he shot 48 percent (again, Young is a dynamo on the short roll!). 

The good news is, no matter which position he played on a roster full of multi-positional weapons, Young provides value with his playmaking, his penchant for racking up steals and his knack for crashing the glass. In fact, Thad ranked in the 75th percentile for offensive rebounding percentage last year, and a considerable number of his assists stemmed from fighting for loose boards before a quick kickout for 3 — one of the most demoralizing plays in basketball for any defense.

Whether he’d play the 4 behind Jae Crowder or the 5 behind Ayton is really for Monty to tinker with, much like he did last year in the frontcourt until the Suns’ preferred starting five finally figured each other out. It could very well be matchup-dependent during the regular season too; some opponents may call for a small-ball approach with Young at the 5, while others might demand more size with Cam Johnson at the 3, Young at the 4 and McGee at center. Positional versatility and some overlapping skill-sets should be seen as a luxury, not a curse.

These days, Young’s name is an oxymoron. At 33, he’s no spring chicken. It’s possible he’d amount to a one-year rental, and it would cost the Suns a beloved player and a much younger one with room to grow. With that being said, even if he’s not the typical James Jones guy (i.e. a shooter), Young is definitely a Monty Williams guy who’d fit well in the 0.5 offense as long as they could mask his lack of a 3-point shot. That Achilles heel certainly didn’t hold him back with the Bulls, whose offensive rating plummeted from 114.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the court to a team-worst 104.2 whenever he sat. Flanked by superior firepower and crafty cutters in Phoenix, it’s hard to see how Thaddeus Young would be anything but a marked bench upgrade for a championship-caliber roster.

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