Panthers' Young Is a Slam Dunk And Then Some

Sam Young, a two-time All-Met at Friendly, is averaging 18.4 points for Pitt.
Sam Young, a two-time All-Met at Friendly, is averaging 18.4 points for Pitt. "He's playing like an all-Big East caliber player," USF Coach Stan Heath said. (Keith Srakocic - AP)
By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 14, 2008

The one quality that has always defined Sam Young as a basketball player, dating from his days at Friendly High School, is his athleticism, his ability to leap high for jaw-dropping dunks or gasp-inducing blocks. Last season, however, tendinitis in his knees robbed him of those powers, and the 6-foot-6 Pittsburgh forward couldn't jump off of one leg, couldn't push off, couldn't plant. He was frustrated.

"My athletic ability, if you take that away, that's like taking J.J. Redick's shot away," Young said. "If you take anybody's best quality away from them, they're going to be pretty uncomfortable."

But Young is now healthy and thriving, and the junior will lead the 20th-ranked Panthers (14-2, 2-1 Big East) against seventh-ranked Georgetown (13-1, 3-0) tonight. After two years of playing in a reserve role, Young is now starting and has emerged as one of the most improved players in the conference, more than doubling his scoring average to 18.4 points (fourth in the conference). And after shooting just 27 percent from three-point range as a freshman and sophomore, Young is making 52.6 percent of his long-range shots (20 of 38) this season.

"You see him this year, and you're saying to yourself, how in the heck was a guy like that playing a limited role [before]? Obviously he's gotten a lot better," said South Florida Coach Stan Heath, who watched Young score 22 points in a win over the Bulls last week. "His inside-outside combination, along with his athleticism, is very impressive. . . . He's playing like an all-Big East caliber player."

Young has worked hard to expand his game since he left Friendly in 2004. He was a two-time All-Met at the Fort Washington school, and during his final two seasons, he averaged 21.3 points, 13.5 rebounds and 5.5 blocked shots as the Patriots went 50-3 and won consecutive Maryland state titles.

He was a dunker, not a shooter; if he didn't get any dunks in a game (he averaged three), then he would try to get five or six in the next one, according to his coach, Gerald Moore. Young remembers making two three-pointers during his senior season; Moore remembers yelling at Young whenever he drifted out to the perimeter, because the Patriots needed his presence inside.

"He was not an outside shooter in high school. If he said he had two three-pointers, they must've been at the end of the game from half court," said Indiana (Pa.) Coach Sam Lombardi, who recruited Young while an assistant at Pittsburgh. "That was a question mark for some people, because could that translate out to perimeter play?"

Young worked hard to answer those questions. He spends a lot of time in the gym playing pick-up basketball -- he's known for playing one-on-one against Pittsburgh's managers, and his coaches have tried to curtail some of his playing in order to save his knees -- and uses that time as an opportunity to try out new things.

"Shooting wasn't my strong point, and I didn't take many because I wasn't confident," said Young, who was 4 of 21 from beyond the arc as a freshman. "Now I'm taking threes off the dribble. That's kind of a big step."

Young is candid, almost to a fault. On Saturday, for instance, he told reporters that the Panthers are ready for "a little revenge" against the Hoyas, who won two of the teams' three meetings last season, and that "I feel like we're the better team until they prove otherwise." That tendency toward frankness is one reason why Young had a self-imposed media ban last season. He was frustrated because he wasn't healthy and he was playing behind senior Levon Kendall, who averaged 5.7 points and 5.5 rebounds.

"I felt like I was outplaying a guy in front of me, and I could've produced more than what he did," Young said. "If I talked to the media, I might've said something I wasn't supposed to say, and it would get all messed up. The best thing for me to do was if I didn't have anything positive to say, don't say anything at all."

But Young is doing plenty of talking and plenty of playing this season. The Panthers have had to rely on him more than ever after losing two starters -- wing Mike Cook (knee) and point guard Levance Fields (broken foot) -- to injuries. In conference games, he's raised his average to 22 points, and he has made 5 of 7 three-pointers.

Young still prides himself on his athleticism, but he now takes satisfaction in other parts of his game. He's become a better defender, and his coaches praise his basketball smarts.

"I think now he appreciates those compliments as much as the ones for a dunk," Pittsburgh Coach Jamie Dixon said. "I think he understands they're more important, too, and have more of an impact on his production and his game and his future than one dunk."

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