Sam Young Looks to Prove Himself (Again)
Sam Young was not signed by the Pacers to be a LeBron Stopper, and he doesn’t claim to be one.
But it would be a boost to their aspirations if he could be a LeBron Limiter now and then.
Young is perhaps the best physical matchup the Pacers have for James, and if they’re going to challenge the Heat for the Eastern Conference title as they plan to do, it would behoove them to prevent James from spraying them with stat sheet-stuffing numbers.
The concept of finding a defensive matchup for a superstar harkens memories of Ruben Patterson, who claimed to have successfully defended Kobe Bryant during practice as a Los Angeles Laker. Patterson later played for Portland, and was dubbed Kobe Stopper by teammates. That didn’t go well for Patterson or the Blazers, though, which probably is why Young and the Pacers don’t want to make threats or promises.
Young knows the Pacers’ braintrust had images of James in their collective mind when they signed him over the summer, and was told so “in so many words.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” coach Frank Vogel said. “The more wing defenders you have, the better.”
It would be difficult to find a credible analyst who doesn’t believe that James, the 6-foot-8, 250-pound freight train, has become the NBA’s best player, one as close to unstoppable as Michael Jordan had been. Young is a mere 6-6 and 220, and still trying to secure a spot in the league. But he doesn’t shrink from the challenge.
“I’ve played LeBron pretty decent in the past, and I pride myself on my defense,” Young said. “When the opportunity comes, I’ll take on the challenge. I’ll love it and embrace it. I felt I could have slowed him down last year if I was here.
“You just have to try to contain him. Make him take outside shots. Just make everything tough for him. Just play him tough. Make it known that he’s going against a competitor on the court.”
Vogel doesn’t believe Young to be the team’s best small forward defender. Paul George, who is longer, quicker and younger, gets that nod. Danny Granger will get opportunities as well, although defending James hardly seems an “opportunity.” Young, however, will be called upon, particularly when opponents go with smaller lineups and he can defend the taller forward.
“If you need one of your wings to guard a ‘four,’ he’d be your guy,” Vogel said.
Through the first week of training camp, Young stood out for his physical play, most notably by drawing charges. “And,” Vogel said, “he’s shooting the ball better than his reputation.” Young’s reputation is that he’s not much of a perimeter shooter, but he did hit 47 percent of his shot attempts, including 34 percent of his three-point attempts, in his best NBA season, his second year in Memphis, and he is a career 77 percent foul shooter.
The early expectation is that Young will not be part of the Pacers’ regular rotation. George and Granger will start on the wings, and Gerald Green and Lance Stephenson will back up. If that turns out to be the case, it should be a reflection of the Pacers’ bench strength that someone such as Young will be available to back up the backups. Because he’s been there, done that, and surely can handle this job description.
A second-round draft pick out of Pittsburgh in 2009, Young appeared to have established himself by that second season with Memphis. He averaged 7.3 points in the regular season, and in the 46 games that he started the Grizzlies went 30-16. He averaged 10.6 points over the final 36 games, when he started in place of Rudy Gay, including 22 points in the final regular season game in Los Angeles against the Clippers. The eighth-seeded Grizzlies upset top-seeded San Antonio in the opening round of the playoffs and he played a meaningful role in the uprising, contributing 17 points in Game 2 and 18 points and six rebounds in Game 5.
Whatever momentum he was taking into last season died before it even began. He suffered a badly sprained right ankle in a pickup game in Washington D.C. early in December when he landed awkwardly after a blocked shot attempt. Unable to get medical attention from the Grizzlies because of the NBA lockout, he sought treatment at a hospital after a couple of days and tried to treat himself. He never did completely heal. Although he scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds in an early-season game against Sacramento, he was traded to Philadelphia for the draft rights to Ricky Sanchez after 21 games. He couldn’t find a place in the 76ers’ rotation, averaging just 2.9 points in 14 appearances.
All in all, he played just 35 games, averaging 3.3 points on 35 percent shooting. It was a lost season, and now he finds himself having to prove himself all over again—a surprising development, given his success two seasons ago.
“Just bad luck, man,” he said. “I guess that’s the name of the game. Injuries happen all the time. I’m ready to come back this year.”
Young had interest from other teams, particularly from Brooklyn, but chose the Pacers because he sees a city-uniting scenario similar to the one he experienced in Memphis. The Grizzlies upset the Spurs two seasons ago and led Oklahoma City 2-1 in the second round before losing in seven games. The Pacers defeated Orlando last season and led Miami 2-1 before losing in six games.
“This is an established team,” Young said. “They just needed a couple of pieces to be pretty good. I felt like I’d be a great fit here.”