Wednesday July 23rd, 2008

Want to know why the 76ers are so excited about the future? Meet Thaddeus Young.

Want to know why they'll have to be patient in the meantime? You needed to be in Las Vegas last week while Young shot 3-of-13 from the field for eight points and had four turnovers in a victory against the Lakers at the summer league.

"You can't talk to him,'' 76ers coach Maurice Cheeks joked with a straight face as I spoke with Young after the game. "He was terrible.''

"I was horrible tonight,'' Young answered, "but all that counts is that win.''

The 76ers obviously hastened their post-Iverson turnaround this month by inserting Elton Brand next to Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala to create instant hopes of home-court advantage and advancement to the second round or beyond. But the latent promise of this team resides in the 6-foot-8 Young, an ambitious 20-year-old who surprised everyone by starting at power forward during Philadelphia's surge to the playoffs over the second half of last season.

Brand's arrival will shift Young to small forward next season. Young has the raw makings of a taller version of Iguodala, a versatile athlete who plugs into the Sixers' full-court style at both ends of the floor. But it will be asking a lot of him to make that transition as quickly as next season -- and without the fulfillment of his potential, the 76ers will have trouble challenging more experienced contenders like the Celtics, Pistons, Cavaliers or (if healthy) Wizards.

As the No. 12 pick, from Georgia Tech (where he averaged 14.4 points while shooting 41.9 percent on 93 attempts from the three-point line), Young was expected to learn from the bench last year. But that changed in December when new president and general manager Ed Stefanski traded Kyle Korver to Utah for the twin goals of clearing cap space (which led to the signing of Brand) and creating playing time for Young and other young talents as the 76ers embraced their new full-court identity. Young responded with an impressive 8.2 points and 4.2 rebounds in 21.0 minutes overall. He shot 53.9 percent by scoring in transition and off the glass while playing within his means.

"It was much easier to play the 4 last year because all you had to do was set a lot of screens and go out there and bang and try to contribute,'' Young said last week. "Now they're looking for a little bit more this year and that's the hardest part, to see if you can step up to the test.''

The 76ers believe he can handle it.

"He's going to make some mistakes and I've told him, 'Go ahead and make those mistakes. Play in the flow and don't be concerned about turning the ball over and taking shots,' '' Cheeks said. "And he's been great.''

The attitude has been great; the production has lagged predictably. Young shot 38.6 percent in five summer league games while trying to create his own shot from the perimeter. He committed 4.4 turnovers per game, but that number will shrink next season as the Sixers limit his responsibilities with the ball.

Cheeks noted that Young isn't entirely new to the perimeter.

"He was playing like that in college,'' Cheeks said. "This past year we had him at the 4 where he had his back to the basket a lot. He has to get used to playing in the open court now.''

In the short term, the Sixers can start Young at small forward with orders to defend, rebound and run the floor. But they can't yet ask him to create his own shot or make decisions off the dribble. Brand alone can't elevate Philadelphia to contention because he joins point guard Miller and backup power forward Reggie Evans as the only players in their rotation who have reached their peak. Everyone else -- Iguodala, Lou Williams, Sam Dalembert, Willie Green, rookie Marreese Speights -- is, like Young, young.

The hope in Philadelphia is that Iguodala and Williams re-sign as restricted free agents (though retaining Iguodala will be neither easy nor inexpensive) and that the youngsters mature into reliable winners over a couple of years. Young is a good bet there: He's a hard worker who exceeded expectations last season, and he has the stroke to become a perimeter shooter.

"He has a mid-range game now,'' Stefanski said. "The next step is getting that three-point range. It's strictly a matter of strength and getting used to shooting the three.''

The 76ers need to find perimeter shooting to open up their half-court offense. Unless a surprise trade falls their way, they are planning to improve their perimeter offense by developing players like Young and Williams, whose jump shot has improved tremendously during his three NBA seasons. The Sixers are building a long, up-tempo team, and they don't want to break up the mix by importing a shooter who can't survive athletically.

"You could go to all 30 rosters in the NBA and say, 'When that kid came to the NBA, he wasn't a good shooter,' '' Stefanski said. "If he's a good kid and his shot's not broken and he's willing to work at it, he'll get better. Where we are financially, we have to have some of these young guys become better players.''

That's why Young represents the measure of this team. As he improves, so will the Sixers' chances. His first goal is to be the starter at small forward coming out of training camp.

"That's my main goal, ever since we got Elton Brand,'' Young said. "I told Ed Stefanski: 'I've got to have it. I want it, so I'm going to work for it.' He said, 'That's the attitude I like to hear.' And I'm definitely going to go do that because I'm going to work.''

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