Nick Young may never quite be the same effervescent player he was for the Los Angeles Lakers three years back. Too much water has passed under the bridge and time has a habit of adding a layer of shade or two. But the fact that he’s still with the team is one of the most unusual storylines of the nascent season.
The happy-go-lucky shot-chucker has always been a one-trick centaur, charging into the thicket of opposition—head thrown back and legs churning forward—with the chief objective of putting the biscuit in the bucket. And that task completed, romping back without a care in the world other than the hope of doing the exact same thing again ASAP.
As Michael Bauman wrote years ago for Liberty Ballers: “Nick Young may be the least rational player in the NBA. His game is a love song to the impulsive, the hedonistic, the do-what-feels-right-now-and-damn-the-consequences.”
After burning through the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers, the native son of West L.A. managed to land a minimum salary test drive with the Lakers for the 2013-14 season. Young was a welcome glimmer of light during a difficult time under then head coach Mike D’Antoni. It was a team that personified the beginning of the end as management awkwardly bundled league rejects and ill-matched veterans around the oft-injured Kobe Bryant and an unhappy Pau Gasol. And the toll of the death bells began.
But there in the middle of all the misery was Swaggy P, unrepentant and incandescent, averaging a career high in points off the bench as the team plunged to a 27-55 record. Young wound up with a sweet four-year deal and the coach that had championed him was nudged out the door, replaced by Byron Scott—keeper of the glowering sideline stare and practitioner of creaky basketball principles.
Young quickly galloped into the crosshairs of Scott’s blunderbuss and the rest is part and parcel of two years in the toxic mire. There’s no need to delve much further into that mess—it was a crappy era in a myriad of ways and Young became an untradeable albatross and social media error that seemed intractably destined for the waiver wires.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Luke Walton was hired as the new Lakers head coach and the sun came out from behind the clouds again. Seedlings were watered and systems were modernized and a pariah was treated like any other baller on the team, with some simple guidance—play both ends of the court and you can let it fly to your heart’s delight.
The motivational therapy was doled out over a series of practices and games with Walton voicing encouragement about Young’s newly discovered defense, leading to further effort, more minutes and more praise, culminating in a glowing overall summation.
“He’s earned more playing time,” Walton said after practice Saturday. “He’s been phenomenal throughout training camp and preseason games. We all know he’ll score the ball. But the thing I’ve said has been most impressive is the way he’s defending people and even playmaking for teammates when he draws double teams or gets into the lane.”
Young ended the preseason with 12.4 points, 2.6 boards, one assist and one steal per game—certainly not mindboggling numbers except that he also shot 48.8 percent from beyond the arc and generally looked like a cat who’d been handed another lifeline.
Of course, Young isn’t actually the basketball wizard that his new coach’s dialogue might imply. And, he certainly isn’t a panacea for all that has ailed the Lakers in recent years. But that’s not really the point. Examine Walton’s remarks about almost any player on his roster and you’ll find a smorgasbord of affirmation and little in the way of public criticism—corrective teaching moments won’t be aired out like dirty laundry.
Beyond good cheer and clickbait, what does this all this actually amount to? First, Walton has managed to jump start Young’s trade value from pushing up daisies to something that actually exists. If this trajectory continues the Lakers might have a healthy beating heart to barter with by the deadline. Conversely, Young’s resurgence could lead to the trade of another player—Lou Williams, for instance.
But perhaps the best answer lies right before our eyes in uncomplicated terms. Young is doing what he does best again after too long in the wilderness and he’s doing it in a more efficient manner. The degree of difficulty on his shot attempts isn’t as great and he’s scoring more off catch-and-shoot opportunities as opposed to his typical dragon-like advances in the general direction of the enemy.
Maybe a guy who had two feet unhappily out the door becomes a useful cog in the kind of free-flowing offense that would naturally seem to fit his skill set. Maybe an older and wiser player can serve as an unlikely example to a younger generation. Because if the rechristened “Uncle P” can set a pick, snag a rebound or deal a dime, than anybody can.
“There’s joy out there,” Young said recently. “And I think that’s one of the main things. It’s playing, having fun and being able to be myself out there.”
He is a piece in the puzzle, an infusion of light, a reminder to teammates that exoduses are not necessarily imminent or absolute, that good things happen when you share the rock and share the joy.
And if a player who had been so relentlessly dog-housed to the point of being untradeable can find his way back to relevancy again, than surely a team largely defined by the bloom of youth can as well.
Snapshots fade as summer turns to fall, rifts heal in the heat of a gym, a rocking horse rears back and drills cold fire. And most improbably, Nick Young is back in business.