January 31, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Nick Young (0) reacts after shooting a three point basket against the Charlotte Bobcats during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Young: “We Got Swaggy Back, Don’t Worry!”

When a player like Nick Young is the stable one, the one who isn’t going anywhere, you know it’s a changed world for the Los Angeles Lakers. Here is a player who has never been an All-Star. He has never been on an All-NBA team. He has never started a playoff game.  And yet Nick Young got the prime free agent deal this summer, in terms of length.  Jordan Hill has a one year deal. Xavier Henry has a one year deal. Ed Davis has a two year deal. So does Ryan Kelly. But Nick Young who has been back and forth and around the NBA, snagged four years out of the Lakers.

Apr 14, 2014; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward Nick Young (0) reacts during the second half against the Utah Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena. The Lakers won 119-104. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday on 710ESPN Nick Young expressed how important it was for the Lakers to make him a priority. “I feel the love”, he gushed over the airwaves.

It’s been a drawn-out career for Nick Young though if feels like yesterday when he was the dynamic, effervescent, always resilient USC scorer. But NBA time can be dog years. Nick is 29 years old and the Lakers are his fourth team. Drafted with the 16th pick by the Washington Wizards Nick lingered and hung on through the Gilbert Arenas gun year in Washington where his maturity was delayed and listless.

Nick was traded to the Clippers and distinguished himself in a playoff game. The Clippers were trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by 23 points in the 4th quarter and Nick led the charge in a heroic comeback. He made three 3-pointers in under a minute to cut the lead to three. The Clippers would win the game by one.

Nick then signed with Philadelphia and it was a bloodthirsty year, one that included Nick being benched. Philly and its callousness was not Nick’s kind of town. He wasn’t defiant enough nor was he ruthless, something that is a badge of honor for 76ers fans who looked at Nick’s game as some sort of pretty boy Cali hybrid. That year basketball did to Nick what war does to innocent children in the path of bombs, it changed him. Nick was sullen and not himself as his game was dissected, criticized, rebuked and for the first time in his basketball life Nick Young seemed sad.

When he signed with the Lakers last year it was a dream come true, particularly on opening night. Walking through the tunnel, he actually had chills. He was back to being Nick Young the one everyone loved and Nick Young the one everyone cursed because he took Nick Young shots.

But then in the middle of his narrative Nick Young did something stunning and unexpected. He matured. He blocked shots. He took charges. He got pissed when he wasn’t protected in a fight. Nick Young defied all of his critics because Nick Young grew up.

“Don’t count us out” Nick told Mark Willard and Andy Kamenetzky on ESPN710 Thursday morning. He compared this coming year and the team to the 2013-14 Phoenix Suns. The Suns entered the year without expectations and they barely missed the playoffs; they surprised a lot of people. “I think we’re ready for much improvement from last year”, Nick promised. But of course Nick didn’t offer much in the way of specifics. Improvement on defense? In ball movement? In intensity? In rebounding?

May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant (35) celebrates after scoring a basket against the San Antonio Spurs in the second quarter in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

At USC, Nick was a charismatic figure. Whatever the Trojans needed from him he gave. Need a three to win?  He hit a three. Need free throws? Nick did that too. In a 2007 NCAA game against a Kevin Durant Texas team, Nick Young had 22 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal. It was the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Trojans, pushed by Nick Young and freshman Taj Gibson, rolled over the Longhorns (despite 30 points by Kevin Durant) to get to the Sweet Sixteen.

But obscured by the victory, by the decisive USC butt kicking of Texas, was time passing the way time often does. It had been a year since Nick’s cousin, Ryan Francis, the Trojans point guard, was murdered in Baton Rouge in a drive-by shooting. (His killer was sentenced to life in prison six months after Nick’s game against Texas.) The entire year of Nick’s sophomore crusade as he was draining shots and scoring buckets and guiding the Trojans to their biggest victory in school history against the National Player of the Year Kevin Durant, Nick Young was also brokenhearted.

His next year, his junior year, Nick shot 52%, 44% from three. That was the Nick Young that entered the NBA draft.

And it was that Nick Young that was his blessing. And it was that Nick Young that was his curse for seven years. Nick could always score- he had a fade away jumper down pat. He perfected a catch and shoot. He could trick defenders and create 4-point plays. But it was everything else about basketball that he was slow to embrace. He averages 1 assist per game. His defense is not James Harden bad but it is not far off.  He doesn’t use his length to affect on-ball defense, when he dares play it. As athletic as Nick is he doesn’t drive to the rim and he doesn’t finish through contact. He is not physical nor does he show any interest in creating off the dribble. And he has zero post up game.

So in essence Nick Young has been a one dimensional scorer whose in game maturity ebbs and flows.

“I’m in the gym now. I put a lot of pressure on myself.” Those close to Nick marvel at how much he has grown since becoming a Laker and they attribute a part of that to his relationship with Kobe who has taken on the role of teacher, motivator, coach and critic. Perhaps to Kobe it is all about basketball and nothing more but to Nick, a child of South Central and all of its culture and all of its randomness and vices, the extra attention from the one person Nick watched as a kid, is earth shattering. Nick knows it is special, even if the rest of the basketball world is dismissive.

“Don’t do that to the Lakers (count us out). You can’t do that when you have Kobe and Swaggy on the floor”, and Nick was 100% serious.

One of the more entertaining moments of last year came not on the court but in the TimeWarner Studio when Byron Scott, working as an analyst for the Lakers cable station, imitated Swaggy P.  Of course Byron had no idea that a few months later the person he was making fun of would be the person he was going to have to motivate and perhaps punish. Nick, in awe of Byron’s toughness and attention to detail and defense, is already preparing for what he is going to face. “Byron is a hard nosed type of coach with an emphasis on defense”, he admitted. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

But then he added, in a way that makes Nick Young the gift that keeps on giving, “that’s the fun part.”

 

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