We’ve brought back the Role Player of the Week Award for a second season! Since stars like LeBron James and Stephen Curry get most of the highlights, this weekly article will highlight more under-the-radar players who excelled in their roles for a given week. It could be a young player coming into his own, or a veteran succeeding in a smaller role. Our winner for this week is Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young.
So far, the season has been fairly disappointing for the Indiana Pacers. A team that was supposed to take a big step forward sits at 15-17, on the outside of the current playoff standings in a middling Eastern Conference. The team’s net rating of -2.0 is 18th in the league.
Indiana’s offense was supposed to carry its defense, but that hasn’t been the case. The team sits 15th in the league in defensive efficiency and 20th in offensive efficiency. For several reasons, the offense hasn’t been as good as expected.
But there are times that it becomes clear why so many thought the Pacers offense would take a big step forward. And, if Indiana can start to realize its potential, perhaps the drastic improvement of Thaddeus Young’s outside shot will get the recognition it deserves.
Every year, some veterans are historically bad three-point shooters start out the season lighting it up from deep, and people wait to see if it lasts.
Normally, it doesn’t. Remember when Dwyane Wade looked like a Splash Brother to start the season? He’s now at 31 percent on threes this year, and 19.4 percent in December.
But we’re 32 games into the season, and Young, who has never shot better than 34.8 percent on threes over a full season, is at a blistering 45.5 percent. That’s not just corner threes, either; Young has hit 21 of 43 triples (48.8 percent) from places other than the corner, where the league average is 35 percent, per NBASavant.
The knock on Young has always been that he doesn’t provide range or true shot-blocking ability, and most effective big men give one or the other. Young’s shooting will regress, but if he can continue to be respectable from outside, it will have a huge impact on the whole offense.
With Myles Turner starting to emerge as a stretch five (37.3 percent on his 51 three-point attempts this season after shooting just 14 threes all of last year), Indiana could have two starting big men that can shoot for the foreseeable future. In a league where spacing has become so valuable, playing five-out could unlock a lot for the Pacers offense.
It’s not like Young is a three-point specialist now, either. He still only shoots 2.4 threes per game, but it’s opened up the rest of his game. Young is shooting a career-best on two pointers as well (55.9 percent), and his eFG percentage of 59.0 is well above his career-high for a season of 54.5. His herky-jerky moves inside are tough to guard, and, even though opponents know which way he wants to go, he has a knack for getting to his left-hand.
Young has meshed well with Turner, which is important since Turner is the future for this Pacers squad. With Young and Turner on the floor together, the Pacers are +2.5 this season, per NBAwowy. When Turner plays without Young, the team is -0.4.
Indiana can run pick-and-roll with either big when they are on the floor together. Young is good at rolling to the basket and making decisions on the fly and often finds Turner quickly on the baseline if his man comes to double. When Turner is the roll man, Young will make himself available in the corner and, if his man completely abandons him, cut straight to the rim.
Defensively, Young and Turner’s switching ability allows the Pacers to play a frantic style when necessary. Turner is still learning how to stay in position but has the potential to be a defensive force. If he reaches that potential, the frontcourt’s defensive versatility could be a force.
Indiana has some problems to sort out, but Thaddeus Young’s quiet improvement counts as a real plus this year. If he can show his jump shot isn’t a fluke, the starting frontcourt will be one thing Nate McMillan doesn’t have to worry about.