Dec 16, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Nick Young (1) shoots a jump shot during the first quarter against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Lakers defeated the Sixers 111-98. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Continuing Education of Nick Young

April 11, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Los Angeles Clippers shooting guard Nick Young (11) during pregame warm ups against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-USA TODAY Sports

There is no prize for last place. For never winning. Or for losing with grace. Blame it on fate that you crashed. You resemble a former NBA player. You look like Nick Young used to look once upon a time when everything was normal.

There are experiences that teach you. There are experiences that shame you. Nick Young was supposed to be an offensive spark for the 76ers. It was not supposed to end in a blizzard. But it turned into one of those bad relationships you cannot wait to escape. Because it was a brief affair followed by an annulment there were the typical slights. He was not in the lineup against Cleveland. He did not play against Detroit. He scored zero points against the Pacers and Wizards. In April, Nick Young was a missing person.

The reasons that it failed had everything to do with his own flaws, his own underachievement. Often when he can’t make a shot to save his life, he hangs his head as if mourning something. This part of his identity is heavy to watch, the internalization of regret. Or the off-balance shot that clanks to the earth. Or his less than enthusiastic defense. It is in that moment you calculate his performance through a sentimental lens: no one ever said he was great.

In basketball time there is a threshold, a window. You start out young. Then it changes. For Nick it has been a seven year curve. There has always been something about him that seems both happy and boyish and because miracles do exist you expect it to explain the erratic nature of his game. Perhaps. But most things in life run true to form. You are what you are. Men are small. Situations are huge. Innocence has an age limit. Over his career mental lapses are what plague Nick. There is a laundry list. He doesn’t think the game through. His mind wanders almost as if he is bored. He doesn’t rebound or block shots or fill the passing lanes. Nick does one thing well: he scores. And that doesn’t particularly make anyone better, not even himself.

Nov 18, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Nick Young (1) holds his head as he walks to the bench late in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers defeated the Cavaliers 86-79. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 18, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia 76ers guard Nick Young (1) holds his head as he walks to the bench late in the third quarter against the Cleveland Cavaliers at the Wachovia Center. The Sixers defeated the Cavaliers 86-79. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

But if Nick knows the truth of this it doesn’t show. Nick comes from a complicated part of the world. Nick was a South Central kid in a family in which grief was the most important member. Nick’s older brother, Charles Jr., was murdered when Nick was five. The murder, by a gang member, was a layered crime. One shot, multiple victims and a ghost. In the shadows of sorrow Nick played basketball as a release and then later as a way to get somewhere. He played basketball in the same way he expressed joy. His family’s grief had no ceiling and Nick’s talent had no humility. Then in Reseda, California he attended a high school that dug out the best of him and during his senior year when his talent and desire and skill were particularly polished, Nick averaged 27 points and ten rebounds. He shot 57% from the field, 46% from three. He had 48 steals and 41 blocks. He was one of the best guards in the country.

But neither high school nor college should be why you are remembered. In both places Nick had a compelling career; his talent was unquestionable but his habits fluctuated between desperate and lazy. Last year when the Lakers came to Philadelphia there was a theory about Nick Young. He was a streaky shooter with a wandering mind. As labels go it was stunningly accurate but on that chilly December night, a Friday, Nick was a believer in his own potential. It was a prolific game for Nick, his best of the season. When he was matched up against Kobe and the Lakers it was a reminder of his own past, where Nick came from and whom he idolized and the team he dreamed about. That night it was a packed house. There was an energy in the building that Nick fed off of kind of like when he was in high school. Jrue Holiday was injured so next man up Evan Turner was moved to the point and Nick started at the two guard. He had four offensive rebounds, that was how greedy he was from the onset, like he was ten feet tall. He was six out of twelve from three. He shot 52% from the field and scored thirty points. His counterpoint, Kobe Bryant, was just as nasty. While Nick had a plus/minus of -9, Kobe’s was +10. Kobe shot 57%, scored 34 points and had six assists in a game the Lakers won. Still Nick had the sort of performance the 76ers had been counting on when they signed him as a free agent.

But there is something about Nick’s game in which more translates into less. Perhaps it is a flaw in his basketball character or just speaks to his destiny, his capacity to keep changing the lead. Gaps persist when you expect gaps to close. And he just isn’t that tough. After the Laker game he was all over the map. He shot 71% against the Grizzlies in a 76ers win and he shot 29% against the Warriors in a 76ers loss. Jrue Holiday was back in the lineup so Nick went back to his role as sixth man and he came into Staples Center on New Years Day having scored just seventy one points in the seven games since he played the Lakers in Philadelphia. This time though, Nick was barely there. He took three shots and missed all three, he had two turnovers and scored one point and played only fourteen minutes. Even though the 76ers won the game on the excellence of Evan Turner and Jrue Holiday, the 76ers would continue to struggle and in the month of February they lost eight out of eleven games and Nick was terrible. He had a plus/minus of -4. He scored twenty nine points against the Clippers and then he didn’t score at all against the Knicks and once the month was over so was the 76ers season for the most part. Nick played in only eight more games. He scored over 10 points, twice.

Oct 6, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young (0) dribbles to the basket during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Oct 6, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young (0) dribbles to the basket during the first half against the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The question every player must answer: What are you willing to sacrifice? What reward do you seek? Are you willing to give up everything? Of course accomplishment is subjective. Everyone cannot be great. Everyone cannot be very good. But everyone can leave it all out there on the floor and maximize their ability. They can self-sacrifice for the benefit of the team. Perhaps when Nick signed a contract for one year with an option, the least amount of money he has ever been paid since he became a professional, he understood he was pursuing something far more valuable than scoring. He has something to prove. It is personal. This is a particularly daunting stage as other free agents have discovered when they have come to Los Angeles trying to resurrect something and leave confused. But Nick is different if only because his tragic story did not make a casualty of him. Nick made it to the NBA on his own merit. Regardless of where his career took him this has always been his city, this is his home, we are his people. We want him to be redeemed. But it has to be a choice Nick has to submit to. He must adhere to certain rules: to finally commit himself to defense, to improve his effort, to sacrifice. It is possible to be determined and loyal, it is impossible to be indifferent and loyal.

Nick was a magical child this city raised. The child of trauma has been replaced by a man in his basketball prime. He will be asked to score and he will be asked to defend and he will be asked to do so much more. To meet the expectations. To achieve. To become who he was supposed to become all along.

 

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