Thad Young plays like he’s been a Toronto Raptor forever

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The Missionaria Protectiva of Dune are missionaries, frontierspeople, myth-makers who travel to far-flung worlds and societies to plant cultural and religious seeds. The forward-looking program for the Bene Gesserit lands on worlds simply to spread tales and superstitions. The intention is to create a fertile ground so that if other Bene Gesserit — even centuries in the future — end up on that world, the implanted systems of belief will provide landmarks for those future Bene Gesserit to use, to read, to shape their actions so as to wield that world — completely unvisited and unknown by those future Bene Gesserit — in their favour. Basically, sowing a field before you even own it or have anything to plant. Before you’ve ever even visited.

Thad Young’s arrival on the Toront Raptors seems to have been preordained, predicted, and prepared by a Missionaria Protectiva of his own. The Raptors have been trying to add him for so long — perhaps he did plant the cultural seeds that eventually grew into this Raptors’ system. He’s sure playing like it.

The Raptors are supposed to have a complex system, a difficult scheme that requires work and study and head-scratching nights filled with chewed pencils and microwaved coffee to understand. The complexity of the system has been cited repeatedly in cases made in defense of the slow learning by newcomers to the team as varied as DeAndre’ Bembry, Stanley Johnson, Precious Achiuwa, and others. In his first game after the trade, Young didn’t check in for the Raptors, as Nick Nurse opted to keep the rotations the same — the team was, after all, riding an eight-game winning streak. The Raptors lost. Young spent the next two days “in a heavy classroom-type atmosphere.” 

He’s played for the Raptors in following last two games. It did not take him long to learn the Raptors’ system. After all, at six foot eight with a seven-foot wingspan, he fits in physically. As a defense-first player who prioritizes forcing turnovers, he fits in philosophically. As a finisher who is more of a shooter by necessity than by trade, he fits in aesthetically. But he’s also an intellectual, reportedly with a 4.3 GPA at Mitchell High in Tennessee: that helps a player to learn a system, no matter how complex. Most of all, he’s an experienced veteran who knows what needs to happen on the basketball court at any given moment.

“First of all, he is a player with some experience and understanding of how to play,” explained Nick Nurse. “He understands spacing. He just knows how to play the game. He knows when to pass the ball, he knows when to cut and things like that, which aren’t easy. Those guys that are cutters are really important. It’s a feel thing, and that’s a really vital part of your offense. Obviously, he’s got the experience. He’s been in the league a number of years. He’s played in a lot of tough games. That helps, but he is very intelligent. I mean, a lot of coaches say that he has been here a few days and he’s asked three really good questions in the last 48 hours, you know, going over coverages and game plans and things like that and really playing the role that we wanted him to play.”

The Raptors have something of a panopticonical system in terms of organizational design. Coaches engage in self-study every few weeks to ensure their values and philosophies are correct. They pay attention to the questions that new players are asking, judge them on their engagement: assistant coaches reported to Nurse that Young has been asked pertinent questions. That’s a significant insight into how the Raptors run their organization. It also shows that Young has been passing these subtle tests with flying colours. But that’s off the court. Against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he passed the test with flying colours on it, as well.

He attacked rotations off the catch and finished with reverse layups on two consecutive possessions. He blocked a shot at the rim. He slung a dime from the post to a cutting Precious Achiuwa for the dunk. He found multiple 45 cuts when Pascal Siakam occupied the defense’s attention, catching the ball and plopping it in for points. My personal favourite play was when Gary Trent jr. had the ball, and Young made another 45 cut, diving towards the rim from the weak-side wing. Not only did he not get the ball, but Trent drove directly at Young — generally a no-no because Young just drew a defensive crowd to the same area. Young identified this and downloaded the information. He read the cultural signs and diagnosed the solution in a fraction of a second: turn and screen his own man to create space for Trent’s drive. Layup, and no box-score number for Young, but entirely created by his familiarity with an offensive in which he’s never played. Translation: Bene Gesserit witch.

The Wolves, by the way, are a wonderful basketball team. They have a host of uber-athletic shooting bigs, from Karl Anthony-Towns to Naz Reid, Jarred Vanderbilt to Jaden McDaniels. They had a comparable record with the Raptors coming into the game, while the Raptors were missing their All Star in Fred VanVleet. The Raptors needed every inch of production from across the roster, and Young delivered.

My dog frequently finds her way home with mud-caked paws. I used to find them impossible to clean — towels, water, cloths, scrubbing, nothing worked — and had to vacuum seemingly every day, but then I discovered a tool called a Mud Buster. It’s a plastic container filled with bristles, and I fill it with water and dunk my dog’s paws inside over and over until the water is black and the mud is gone.  Young is popularly referred to as a dot connector, but anyone can connect the dots: it’s a child’s game. No, Young is the Mud Buster. When an offense gums up, sticks, cakes with debris and remains unmoving, gears unturning, Young is the bristle that eats the mud and spits out rapid decisions and correct choices. He turns gunk into gold, like a tech bro’s climate change-solving dream.

Don’t get overexcited. Young will probably cap out at 20 minutes played in any given game, which was the mark he hit against the Timberwolves. He may look like all the other forwards on the roster, but because of his passing and finishing, he offers a unique skill-set unique to Toronto’s bench. Nurse said after the game he didn’t even know what position Young was playing. It will be tough to find time for Young in games, but it’s already clear that he’s going to be a plus when he gets in.

The Bene Gesserit, of course, were not assured success by the Missionaria Protectiva. It represented a tool, a map written not on paper or screens but in culture, in prayer. Young seems to be equipped with the same map. The Raptors can trust that whenever Young gets on the floor, he’ll at the very least know what’s going on. That’s a strong foundation upon which to build.

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