Thad Young has been reborn under Billy Donovan

Here's how Donovan has turned Young into one of the best big man passers in the league

Thad Young has been a revelation this season. He’s shifted from a lousy floor-spacing role last year under Jim Boylen into a playmaking small-ball five under Billy Donovan. 

Young has always been a solid player, but where did this version come from, at the ripe old age of 32? 

No coach has used Young as effectively as Donovan in his career, and both deserve big credit for what has happened this season. Young came into the league as a combo forward, shifted almost exclusively to power forward early in his career, and has now shined closing games at center. Donovan has him playing a role similar to that of Draymond Green on the Golden State Warriors. 

Green has made a career playmaking out of the short roll and using Steph Curry’s gravity. Teams like to double Curry on ball screens, and that leaves Green with an advantage when he gets dump-off passes. 

That same Green-Curry chemistry is starting to develop between Zach LaVine and Young. The Bulls haven’t had a great counter for teams that throw two defenders at LaVine in years past. Now, Young is finding ways to beat blitzing defenses with his playmaking.

Young has also thrived by being used in Chicago action, also commonly called dribble weak. Credit to Nekias Duncan of Basketball News for originally pointing this out and inspiring this story. 

(Side note: Nekias is going to be a star in this industry. Go follow him!)

We are going to go deep into Chicago action, because it’s extremely common around the league and worth recognizing. 

The action is simple, yet effective. The two main parts are as follows:

1) An off-ball down screen

2) Into a handoff.

Here’s a video of the full play:

There are a lot of reasons why this action is so powerful. It creates two staggered screens that a ballhandler’s defender has to get through. It also allows the ballhandler to generate momentum before receiving the ball. And there are a bunch of counters in the action that essentially turns the game into a chess match. These counters are where Young has racked up the assists, thanks largely to Donovan’s designs. 

The Bulls ran Chicago action a lot against the Knicks, with Young as the dribble handoff man. Here’s one example where they used the standard design. Remember those two steps:

1) A down screen for Markkanen, set by Coby White

2) Into a handoff for Markkanen

Young doesn’t do anything too special on this play, other than reading if Markkanen is open to receive the handoff. But the counters are where things start to get really juicy.

It is extremely difficult for defenses to navigate through so many screens, so they will start cheating in anticipation of what is coming. This is where slipping a screen becomes a powerful weapon.

Here, rather than going into step 1, a down screen for White, Markkanen faked the screen and slipped out of it into a dive to the basket.

That’s a Nikola Jokic-level pass thrown by Young, and it’s made possible because of all of the previous times that Markkanen paused in that same setup to set a screen.

Here’s another beautiful counter that Donovan drew up during a timeout. The Bulls again deviated from step 1, that initial down screen.

This time, instead of coming off White’s screen, Patrick Williams changed directions and dove to the basket. Williams’ defender, RJ Barrett, was so fooled by this counter that he almost fell into his own bench.

Note the dummy action too on the weak side to occupy the help defense. Oftentimes in Chicago action, those two players will set up a simple exchange of spots or screen for each other to prevent help at the rim.

Donovan has been a massive upgrade in his ability to draw up successful ATOs, as pointed out by coach Adam Spinella. This one was a beauty that led to a wide open dunk, thanks to an entire game of setting up the Knicks with Chicago action.

That simple three-man game has led to Young’s extraordinary passing numbers and a beautiful Bulls offense. The Bulls run it a lot, as do their opponents. But Young’s intelligent passing is what has made it devastating.

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