He has never looked past his career, past any one moment- the hero fable never applied to him. Nick Young took the other route. What was in front of him he accepted, city, coach, team. It was always a bargain, a negotiation of trust. You let me score and I will score. His talent for offense notwithstanding, Nick thought the game through only in rare moments. But he played it through without complaint. Three years ago, in January, his potential met his expectations, even as he was not the perfect player. He averaged 21 points on 42% shooting. He made 38% of his threes. He had a game in which he scored 43 points against the Kings. He had a game in which he scored 32 points against the Thunder. He had incredible resolve and heightened emotional intensity. And yet, the rhythms of the NBA hardly cater to one great offensive player. The Washington Wizards ended the month of January 2011 losing five in a row. They lost 11 games that month.
If nothing else, Nick is a paradox. He can be brilliant and deathly accurate and a pleasure to watch and his team can still struggle to keep their heads above water, as they are doing now. He can also try too hard, force things and be plagued by his emotions. Rarely is it one or the other, sometimes he is both. It has been nearly three years since his Wizards offensive outburst. Nick has reached back into that particular scoring well. He has been consistent with his fade away and pull up jumper and just plain clutch in his shooting. He is hands down the Lakers best offensive player and his usage rate in the month of December parallels Vince Carter in his prime. This month, Nick has averaged 19 points a game on 42% shooting. He has made 37% of his threes. He has scored over 20 points for four consecutive games. But the Lakers have lost 11 games this month. They have lost six in a row. They are 0-7 against teams with a winning record. They have won 4 games since Thanksgiving.
Fair or unfair, burdens are forced upon players as their flaws expand into public view. Nick will forever wear the wreath around his neck that he is just a scorer. He does not make anyone better. The 5 win month in Washington, the 4 win month with the Lakers, is evidence of his imperfections. He struggles when he dribbles into traffic, he occasionally misses at the rim and his defense is improving but far away from being consistent. He can be two men: one who plays as if he is distracted and one who plays as if the game is the most important thing he will ever know. And even taking all of that into account what you are left with is something you can build upon, a role player who can do special things with the ball. Without Nick in the lineup the Lakers probably would have gone winless this month. And they would be far less interesting.
The way he approaches the game feels as if Nick is his own reality show. His pride in being a Lakers is rarely hidden. Against the Warriors a few games ago, in the heat of a tense possession, he was dragged by the neck. But Nick just laughed about it a few seconds later as if it was nothing to have Marreese Speights hands around his throat. Against the Heat, Nick had a terrible first half of shooting and then came back, guarded by Lebron and guarding Lebron, and shot 60%. Against his former team, the hyper-athletic 76ers he kept the Lakers within striking distance but in the fourth quarter he missed a layup and two three pointers and turned the ball over twice.
If his career is testament to any one thing it is that he is never in a hurry. When Kobe was in the lineup and the energy and offense shifted, Nick continued at his pace. He averaged 17 points on 42% shooting, and 46% from three. With the injuries and the revolving door lineups of D’Antoni and the Pau Gasol pouting episodes and the point guard injury hex, Nick has been the one player D’Antoni can pencil in and expect to score. It is what Nick Young does best.
Of course it is just basketball. Basketball is a game. Not life. Life is where Nick grew up, surrounded by gang violence and its dire consequences. He survived- there is no other way to say it- a murder in his own family. Playing for the Lakers, starting for them, was the reward after a seven year career of dues paying. When D’Antoni decided to move Nick to the bench because of his early struggles as a starter, Nick was who you expected him to be, graceful stepping aside and then the second best bench scorer in the league. It is the gift of Nick Young, taking what is there and trying to make something out of it.
His best game of this very good month for him was against the Timberwolves. Nick made 64% of his shots. He made 66% of his threes. He had four assists and three rebounds and even though he turned the ball over 5 times only one of his turnovers led to points for the Timberwolves, a layup by Kevin Love. But there is the sense that even as well as he is playing the losing is beginning to drain on Nick, wear him down, even make him sad. It is not surprising. Losing is hard to swallow especially when weeks go by. Still, Nick is doing whatever the coaches ask him to do. If it is to take a charge, he takes a charge. If it is to block a shot, he blocks a shot. If it is to look for shooters on the perimeter that is what Nick does. If it is to watch film Nick forces himself to sit still for longer than he can bear. D’Antoni recently remarked that Nick is his favorite player to coach and the best teammate.
Last month GQ named Nick Young as one of the Top 20 Stylish Athletes. His nickname- Swaggy P- refers to his on court demeanor and his off court style which is flamboyant, outrageous, trendsetting and a head turner. He loves attention the same way a window loves morning light but not because Nick is terribly insecure and desperate to be liked. He just loves to celebrate himself, to show off who he is and what he stands for. He is not begging to be noticed or to be accepted but to be appreciated for how he sees the world, for the way he likes to have fun. He takes life as it comes. Yesterday it was the Philadelphia 76ers. Today it is the Los Angeles Lakers.
Nick Young once said about the Lakers, “We’re rock stars over here.” Comparing his team to a musical band that creates frenzy and pandemonium among the masses seems a little farfetched considering the Lakers record, their aversion to playing defense, their flawed coach, their absence of a starting point guard, their missing Kobe, their dim prospects of any sort of revival. And yet the Lakers name has always been more than a name, it is its own unique brand that has survived love and death, HIV and trades, injuries and luck. They survive when things are not great because they create their own loopholes, they recognize a player like Nick Young can be outrageous but he can also score the ball, he can fill the team with his infectious way of looking at the world- the world is simply a house made out of paper. If you mess up, start over.
Enter Nick Young. He does not have a vanilla type of game but that is not a surprise; he creates a splash. His impact on this now struggling team is not accidental either. He is the one player who is not reluctant to commit himself. Shoot if you have to, defend, take charges, rebound. It is the South Central in him; rarely does he concede, not on the court when he is coaxed into taking a thirty point shot, and not in life either. He is familiar with struggle. Besides, however dreary and desperate the landscape appears- they have lost six in a row- Nick is soothed because it could be worse.
He is playing at home, in Los Angeles, which seems to lift Nick to a different atmosphere, he covets geography now. Of course no one would ever mistake what he does on the court with heroism- and they shouldn’t. Nick is a role player, a good one. He is bound to the brothers on this team and by his ability to score the basketball when no one else can. That is when he is able to scale the heights of his own happiness. The next step for Nick is not to have a great month, he has done that before, but to have two great months, or three, or four. That is the next big thing for his career.