Over there is the teacher. He is the one all in black, in the expensive suit. He is the one with the wisdom and experience and fractured knee. He is the one who knows every defense, every adjustment, every trick- after eighteen years not much gets by him. Kobe Bryant is the one who knows how to slip through screens and get to the rim or pump fake an overly aggressive defender or jab step and hit a baseline jumper. But more importantly than his biblical knowledge of offensive basketball Kobe knows the grit of basketball as well, how to think his way through adversity and possessions and double teams. And if he misses one shot or if he misses twelve shots it is all the same. The earth does not tilt. His miscues do not affect everything else.
He teaches. Kobe Bryant’s eighteen years of basketball mercy and skill are funneled through continuous messages while he is a caged lion on the sidelines. The recipient of his instruction, the free- wheeling student, for the most part, as the teacher has said, has skated through his career. Nick Young has not taken it too seriously. But he is listening now as he, not the teacher, is the center of attention, he is the one on the court. He is the one who dropped 31 points against the Bulls on Monday night. He was the one who with all of the pressure upon his shoulders sank three clutch free throws to send the game into overtime. He was the one who pulled up for a jumper to tie the game in overtime. He was the one who hit three clutch free throws against Toronto to seal the game the day before. He was the one who had to sit in the hotel room, restless, while the rest of this team battled Boston and came back from a fourth quarter deficit. He was the one who was in the fight in Phoenix, helpless, as his team left him out to dry. He swung and was suspended. But the teacher is the one who is proud of him now. The teacher says for the first time in his career Nick Young is competing. He is showing fight. He is being tough. He is playing in a lot of ways like the teacher used to when he was playing. There is something about Nick Young that reminds you of Kobe Bryant.
Of course Nick can’t play exactly like Kobe. Kobe is one of the top six players in NBA history and Nick has never even been an All Star, he has never been to a Conference Finals. Nick, a 42% career shooter, is not polished enough as a scorer, not skilled enough offensively, there are holes in his game. His career assist average is 1. His career rebound average is 2. Nick does not possess the array of shots and moves of Kobe. He is too streaky. He is not driven enough, not willful enough. If he was never as talented as Kobe he also was never as committed. None of this is breaking news. Nick knows he is not Kobe. He said as much after the loss against the Bulls. But he also said that Kobe has mentored him this year. Kobe’s advice, what he sees in Nick’s game and what he sees in Nick himself, has been the difference this year. It is amazing what happens when someone believes in you, especially someone of Kobe’s ability, with his intellect and his success.
Perhaps this seemed unthinkable when Nick signed with the Lakers. He was a scorer but nothing else. Not much more was expected. But Nick’s game has expanded and grown in four months. He is going to the rim more. He is looking for his teammates. He has developed his mid range game. He is passing the ball, rebounding, taking charges. He is the Lakers leading scorer, the center of their offense, the one who they rely on. Kendall Marshall said, “We get to the end of the shot clock, where’s Nick. Give him the ball.”
Nick Young was always confident but confidence without achievement is just wasted effort and it has nothing to do with wins. Before this year Nick could always be counted on to laugh his way through games, to have a good time. But he did not necessarily compete. He did not leave everything on the court because he did not do everything on the court. He had flair, everything about him vibrated when he scored. He has an effect on the crowd. Everyone loves Nick. But in terms of being a player who could be depended on, who could carry a team, who was the difference between winning and losing, there was little evidence of that outside of isolated events here and there. Until this year. Until he earned Kobe’s trust. Until he took his career seriously and then Kobe took him seriously.
Something happened to Nick since the fight in Phoenix. In fact something happened to the entire team. A situation that could have fractured the group into pieces- how often was that the narrative of last year- has brought them to a greater understanding of themselves. It is like looking in a mirror but instead of seeing their own reflection they are seeing one another. The Lakers were at their best when they all banded together and fought against the odds, when they depended upon each other and shut out all the external noise. The fight in Phoenix exposed what had happened to them over the past twelve games, how disconnected they had been, they had lost their soul. Everything they were in November had been put to sleep, drugged and was now comatose. The aftermath of Nick standing alone surrounded by Phoenix Suns was the bucket of cold water the team needed to shake them up, to get them to pay attention to each other.
And so now they look like a NBA team again. The season no longer feels like a root canal, there is hope, and it has nothing to do with the playoffs or the lottery, that will take care of itself. Either they will continue to get better or they won’t. But the Lakers are playing with a purpose and with a hunger. They actually believe they can win.
Nick’s last two games since the fight are why the similarities to Kobe are reigning down upon him. He has been unstoppable. In back to back games he has scored 60 points on 50% shooting, 61% from three. The last time Kobe had similar numbers in back to back games was in 2012 against the Nets and Clippers. He scored 55 points on 65% shooting, 58% from three. And yet in those games Kobe had 12 rebounds and 9 assists. Against Toronto and the Bulls Nick had 7 rebounds and 2 assists. It is why he says “there is only one Kobe”, which was echoed by Jordan Hill who laughingly said, “Kobe gets dimes, he gets assists, he gets rebounds.”
The first half of the season behind him, the real lesson for Nick is that no one expects him to be anything but himself- and for that self to improve upon his weaknesses. Before this year he used to drift through games, awake when it was time to score, half dazed the rest of the time. Perhaps he didn’t realize how this was a risk to his career in the long term and in the short term it compromised his ability to win games, to have success.
So it is only fair, Kobe as a teacher, Nick as the student. Kobe’s nature is to challenge and push. Nick’s nature is to play a generous game. But there is middle ground. Nick can get better, especially at the small, little details that lead to winning ballgames. He does not have to change, to be Kobe or to imitate him. He just has to listen to what he is hearing, believe it is true and go out and play.