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Thad Young – 2021-22 Season in Review

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The following is part of Raptors Republic’s pieces reviewing the seasons for the Toronto Raptors. You can find all the pieces in the series here.

In a vacuum, the Song dynasty accomplished incredible advances in human history. The dynasty pacified smaller kingdoms and states, bringing unification to the region, while the nation shifted from a more bellicose system to one based on merit and art. Legal reforms dramatically improved the day-to-day life of the average citizen, while poetry flourished, especially among women. Practically every field of academic study saw incredible leaps, including printing, mathematics, and engineering. Yet in many ways the Song have a smaller place in historical consciousness than is deserved, largely because of their fall to the headline-grabbing Mongol-led Yuan dynasty.

All this to say: nothing exists in a vacuum because perspective is everything.

Thad Young was a successful Toronto Raptors. In a vacuum. Before he even joined the team, it was clear he would fit the team perfectly — with his incredible wingspan, high IQ, below-average shooting ability, ability to force turnovers on the defensive end, and positional designation as a power forward. In fact, it’s a wonder the Raptors didn’t acquire him earlier. (They tried, apparently.) Though it took him some time to adapt his game to the Raptors’ system, particularly on the offensive end, he ended up being a clear positive on a roster full of players whose bodies looked suspiciously like Young’s own.

Defensively, Young ended up one of Toronto’s most potent weapons. He enjoyed the second-highest on/off differential for opposing turnover rates (behind OG Anunoby), which means he unlocked Toronto’s philosophical dependence on transition buckets like few other Raptors. Because he was also terrific at forcing misses, Young actually finished with the best defensive on/offs on the Raptors.

Offensively, Young tried stuff in a way few other bench players did. He drove and flung bounce passes and launched triples, all of which worked much of the time. He actually shot 39.5 percent from deep with Toronto, which would have been the best mark for a single season in his career. He may have seemed superfluous on a roster full of power forwards, but he added unique skills, particularly among the non-stars.

The climax of Young’s brief Raptors stint came in the playoffs with Toronto down 0-3. The Raptors didn’t go out sad, and Young was a huge reason why. The Raptors lost the first quarter, but Young in many ways dragged the team back in the second. He did everything, diming up a cutting Chris Boucher, attacking the offensive glass, collecting defensive stats, and scoring on pell-mell drives. He finished the quarter with four points, three rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. The Raptors were never going to win a championship last year, so Young didn’t move the needle on that front. But he helped the team, undoubtedly, and success in the NBA is never so binary as a simple championship-or-bust mindset might pretend. Young helped.

Perhaps the modesty of Young’s statistical contribution belies his real impact with the team. The Raptors lacked a veteran presence (Khem Birch and Chris Boucher were the oldest non-Goran Dragic players on the roster before the addition of Young, and each had played in only four NBA seasons. Hardly seen-it-all veterans.) And unlike any other Raptor, Young’s best basketball was behind him, and similarly his largest monetary contracts were in the rearview, which meant his individual goals were a shade different from his teammates’. Precious Achiuwa perhaps most of all needed a big man mentor, and it’s impossible to say from the outside if Young fulfilled that role, but Achiuwa’s outrageous turnaround to his season sure coincided in part with the addition of the former Spur.

But of course nothing exists in a vacuum. The primary asset Toronto dealt in order to acquire Young was its first-round draft pick in exchange for San Antonio’s second rounder, meaning the Raptors fell from 20th to 33rd, which is a sizeable drop. Toronto ended up picking Christian Koloko, a near-perfect fit with the team for a variety of reasons. And without an accidental photo of Toronto’s draft board leaking, it’s impossible to say if Toronto would have taken Koloko at 20th. But if, say, Peyton Watson (selected 30th) ends up popping into an All Star-level player and Toronto would have selected him higher than Koloko, then the trade for Young starts to look iffy.

It’s not just Watson that Koloko has to outplay. If any of the players selected between 20th and 33rd end up contributing more at the NBA level than Koloko, the what if will always lurk. It’s not certain that the Raptors would have taken the (whomever it might be, if anyone) would-be star, but it’s always a possibility. Thus not only will Koloko find himself being compared to Malaki Branham, Christian Braun, Walker Kessler, David Roddy, MarJon Beauchamp, Blake Wesley, Wendell Moore jr., Nikola Jovic, Patrick Baldwin jr., TyTy Washington jr., Watson, Andrew Nembhard, and Caleb Houstan, but so too will Young find himself compared to the same group.

In a straight mathematical sense, for Toronto’s gamble to pay off, Young and Koloko have to end up contributing more to the Raptors than any single player selected from 20th to 32nd. That’s extremely possible, but it’s also completely unknowable, especially taking into account whatever mentorship, leadership, and cultural impact Young might have brought to the team. So we end up valuing Young, acknowledging that his value doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but admitting that we can’t judge the Young trade even if we take into account the environmental context.

All this really to say, the Song dynasty deserves better than historiography offers. Context may belittle the Song into a relative footnote, but paying attention in a vacuum shows the incredible contribution to human advancement and enjoyment. That’s where the Raptors find themselves with Thad Young. Sure, maybe the trade for Young was good, and maybe it wasn’t. But forget that and look at Young alone, without the natural thievery of comparison as a filter. He accomplished much, and that’s a meaningful end in itself. Now he gets to add a whole new chapter to his legacy in 2022-23.

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