Thad Young has never heard of the honor. Was it a team accolade? One reserved for individuals?
“I said, ‘We have a Hustle Award?’” the Chicago Bulls forward chided when asked his reaction to being named winner of that title for the 2020-21 NBA season. “I was just like, ‘Oh, OK. That’s cool.’”
After a quick explainer, Young came around quickly.
“I never really get overly-excited,” he said. “But I'm definitely appreciative of the award and hyped that I'm able to get an award that symbolizes who I am.”
It’s hard to blame Young for not being initially acquainted. The NBA first introduced the Hustle Award, which honors the player who mostly notably provides energy and effort to their team in a given season, in 2017.
Since then, Young has finished top nine in balloting every year. Past winners include Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Smart, Amir Johnson and Patrick Beverley — company Young said he is excited to join, even if he called him and Johnson the most “laid back” of the bunch.
As for criteria: This is not a distinction voted on by peers, fans or the media. Contrary to hustle players’ reputation of transcending the box score with their contributions, this award is handed out based on an empirical formula: The sum of one’s “Hustle Stats,” which include deflections, loose balls recovered, charges drawn, screen assists, box outs and contested shots. While once upon a time these qualities were visible only to the keen observer’s eye, the league began tracking them for public consumption during the 2016 playoffs.
On a per-minute basis, Young this season finished first among qualified players in charges drawn and offensive loose balls recovered, ninth in offensive box outs, 15th in deflections, 18th in screen assists, 26th in contested 2-pointers and 30th in contested 3-pointers. He trailed only Montrezl Harrell, Kemba Walker, Blake Griffin and Kyle Lowry in total charges drawn with 19.
“I've always prided myself on that (hustle),” Young said. “I think my career indicates exactly this award. Just going out there and doing all the hustle things for the team — from taking charges to getting on the floor for loose balls to blocking shots, getting steals, covering for other guys and just helping on either side of the basketball and making sure I'm always there.”
This season marked 14 workmanlike years in the NBA for the Young, and it was one of his best. After missing the Bulls’ first four games due to a leg infection, he appeared in 68 straight contests. Despite averaging his fewest minutes since his rookie year, he posted assist numbers that blew previous career-highs out of the water.
"Every single game I came to work, I came to play," Young said. "Got into a groove throughout the course of the season and was very happy that I could go out there and be able to play at a high level and help the team win."
And of the significance of taking home the honor in Year 14: "It says that I'm still competing to play this game at a high level, that I could still continue to play this game at a high level, which is extremely amazing for me moving forward with the confidence that I am still going out there and doing things that's recognizable on the stat sheet. Especially with not playing over 30 minutes a game and playing less minutes than I played probably ever in my career since my rookie season, it says a lot of what I'm going out there and accomplishing in the time that I'm actually getting."
Perhaps most impressive was Young's ability to maximize his minutes while deftly oscillating between roles — including, at 6-foot-8, often being asked to anchor the team on both ends from the center position before the arrival of Nikola Vučević. Invariably, the Bulls, who finished the season 31-41, were better with Young on the floor than off of it.
Bulls: Thad Young on floor
Bulls: Thad Young off floor
Remember all those charges?
“I know I'm not an elite shot-blocker. So the next best thing is to jump straight up or take the charge,” Young said. “It's just the mindset of knowing my capabilities and what I bring to the table, and how I can use my smarts and intelligence to get us an extra possession.”
It's no wonder Zach LaVine at one point termed Young the MVP of the team, and upon hearing Wednesday's news, called him "the best teammate you could ask for."
Beyond those aforementioned smarts, Young cited his leadership ability as integral to his contributions. He also noted his hustling nature comes into play in his personal life — in addition to his on-court and family responsibilities, Young manages an extensive investment portfolio, sponsors an AAU program and just in January purchased a minority stake in an Australian basketball team with ex-teammate Kevin Martin.
This latest notch in the belt, Young says, is simply a product of a job well done.
“All of it is a part of the category,” Young said of his versatility. “It's just a matter of me going out there and getting the job done and whatever comes with it comes with it.
“For me I'm willing to go out there and play whatever position is needed to be played and try to play it at a high level and try to do everything I could in my power to try to help the team win."