SAN ANTONIO - In the course of his rookie season, 19-year-old Thaddeus Young has introduced himself to NBA legends Bill Russell and Julius Erving. Now, little by little, he is introducing himself to the league.
He hasn't taken the 76ers, or Philadelphia, by storm, but that was never the plan when he became the No. 12 overall pick in last June's draft. The Sixers' scouts and personnel specialists saw the strong possibility of a star in the making.
Still, with the Sixers struggling far more than they had anticipated, there has been some recent media speculation that coach Maurice Cheeks was about to force-feed Young into the starting lineup. That didn't happen Friday night against the Chicago Bulls in the Wachovia Center, and it is unlikely to happen tonight against the defending champion San Antonio Spurs in the AT & T Center.
Asked before the 100-97 loss to the Bulls whether he was anywhere close to placing Young in the lineup, Cheeks said "No."
But Cheeks has been trying to find more and more time for him within the substitution rotation. Young, averaging 12.8 minutes in 29 games, was on the court for 22 minutes in the Jan. 4 blowout loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, for 25 on Jan. 6 against the Denver Nuggets, for 14 in the Jan. 8 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks and for 28 in the Jan. 9 loss to the Toronto Raptors.
In that stretch, he shot 22-for-37 from the floor, scored 47 points and took 24 rebounds. In each performance, he showed glimpses of his exceptional athleticism. He was much less effective in the loss to the Bulls (four points, three rebounds, 1-for-5 shooting in 20:07), but that comes with the territory for a developing player with only one season of college experience at Georgia Tech; it didn't hurt that he had to go head-to-head with the rugged Andres Nocioni.
"I think he gets it," Sixers veteran guard Kevin Ollie said. "He knows what spots to be in; I don't know whether it's innate or what, but he gets it on defense. On offense, he stays within his limitations and it makes him look good.
"No plays are being called for him, but he seems to be part of the game. That's going to make his learning curve even shorter. From the first day of training camp to now, it's like, 'Who is this kid?' He's just grown. He works hard, he listens, he absorbs what you tell him. And he works, which is a good quality for any young player. It's nice that his cup isn't already full, because it leaves room for him to absorb more. You get some [young] guys, and you can't talk to them."
Young introduced himself to Russell, the Boston Celtics' Hall of Famer, during the rookie transition program. He sheepishly presented himself to Erving, the Sixers' Hall of Famer, after Erving and Clint Richardson spoke to the team at a recent shootaround at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
"Mr. Russell gave me some advice, Mr. Erving told me I'm doing well, that he was very surprised I'm picking up things very quickly," Young recalled.
During the game in Toronto, Cheeks mentioned to his assistants that, "It's hard to keep [Young] on the bench; he continues to do things that are right for a rookie."
"He rebounds, he scores, he opportunity scores," Cheeks said later. "We don't really run a lot of plays for him, and he doesn't know a lot of things. Just the way he plays keeps him on the court."
Progress, Cheeks said, comes incrementally.
"I looked [at film of] a play in Denver where somebody ran at him," Cheeks said. "He pump-faked [allowing the defender to run past him], stepped inside, then stepped back and shot a three. Before, he wouldn't have done that."
At first, Young understood that his only specific assignments were to play defense and rebound. Now, Cheeks and the players have been telling him to recognize opportunities and take open shots.
"I'm much more comfortable now, with the help of the guys, especially K.O. [Ollie], taking his suggestions on aggressive defense, running the court," Young said. "Lou Williams has been telling me, 'Once you get the ball, don't play with it, just go.' I told my brother, my goal is to play hard enough that [Cheeks] is going to have to put me in the game."
In training camp, Cheeks repeatedly mentioned that, at some point, the game begins to slow down for the rookies. That's when they're able to see the whole court, to grasp the concepts of time, score, shot-clock and situation.
"Right now, [Young] is playing on raw talent, and that's getting him by," Andre Iguodala said. "Once he picks up the mental aspect, the part of the game where he doesn't have to [depend] on his athletic ability, that's going to help him out a lot."