For one year he was Kobe; he was the show. He was the price of admission. He was his team’s leading scorer and the offense ran through him. He played thirty one minutes, averaged seventeen points on 44% shooting and was efficient at the three, 38%. John Wall was a rookie and unable to control the pace, Gilbert Arenas was traded giving Nick Young the green light and it was all on display, his court swag and smile and lethal shooting. It was the only thing about the Washington Wizards worth paying attention to. But in the end it hardly mattered. The Wizards defense was terrible, the assists were non-existent, the shooting was horrendous. The Washington Wizards failed to make the playoffs, winning only twenty three games.
The Lakers are not asking for the moon or even for the show. Just sacrifice. Just commitment. Just desire. What they need from Nick are the basic things: his eagerness to share the ball, his commitment to defensive principles, an intense concentration. Already the coaches have complained that Nick is not attuned to details. The good teams have players that are talented. Great teams have players that are mentally prepared, disciplined and execute the game plan. It is the difference between losing by 5 or winning by 2, it is the difference between Nick in the game during critical possessions or Nick on the bench watching.
He is gifted enough offensively to silence a crowd. A pull up jumper here. A dribble hesitation there. At the elbow, a rise up and shoot. In the corner, a three and game tied. A catch and shoot, twelve points in a quarter. He can dominate with his offense. His swag on the court has become his personal statement. He exhibits fearlessness, confidence and arrogance as he refuses to hesitate when he takes an important shot but the secret about Nick Young hidden beneath his offensive excellence is there are too many times in a game when Nick is lazy, slow on defensive rotations, confused as to the situation. He is unaware if he is guarding a jump shooter who does not create or an isolation player who wants to take him off the dribble or a facilitator you can cheat off of. He is an offensive player that disengages from defense, that turns his head to leak down the floor when he is needed in the paint to scramble, rebound, fight. Often, he just does not think.
There are reasons beyond talent why stars are stars. Their careers are built upon the ethic of self- sacrifice. Fear of failure or just plain fear, they are in the arena two hours before game time putting up shots, intent on self-correction because they hate mistakes. It is purely mental what separates them from the rest of the league, a mind game, the ability to keep their composure when things look bleak, when they are down by twenty on the road, or when they are up by two and a call goes against them. Nick is not a star but he is a good player at times. He wears his emotions all over his face which is refreshing in such an impersonal world. But there are times when his emotions overwhelm his logic.
There is a theory that we repeat the same behavior over and again until we get right what needs to be changed, until we accept the truth of who we are. That is what this year is about for Nick Young. It is a proving ground, a truth serum. If he is changed as a talent, if he is improved as a player, there needs to be results. He is in his basketball prime and last year was truly terrible. Complicating matters, Nick is playing in front of his family and his friends. It is a magnetic pull to be sure, the prodigal son returning home, still, it is not without its own unique pressures.
When Kobe was drafted Nick was eleven years old; he does not know the Lakers without him. Nick is part of the circle now, a future recipient of Kobe’s relentlessness and drive, the death stare, the perfectionism, the whole nine yards and the best of Kobe, too, the Kobe who teaches and is constantly instructing. It’s been years since his USC days when Nick stole Kobe’s sleeve to wear in a Pac-10 tournament game, just because. Nick can ask for things now. He has come that far. If the preseason games are any indication of how he fits into this puzzle Nick should be the starting small forward this year. He is an additional creator, a scorer that has to be paid attention to, a fearless player who can go inside and outside. It is the small things though that matter here. Playing defense with his feet, not his hands. Getting in the paint to team rebound. Hawking an opposing player with his size and length. Contesting shots. Passing the ball to an open teammate. That is the Nick Young the Lakers need. That is the Nick Young the Lakers are counting on.