Before the season began, I several positional previews for this very site. Most of them predicted doom and gloom, more than a little tinged with negativity. However, nothing I wrote came close to the gnashing I gave to new Laker Nick Young. For reference, here are a few choice blurbs summarizing just how dour I was on the ester while Swaggy P:
Here we are, in his seventh season, on his fourth team, a veteran's minimum contract and another poor season away from a ticket to the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball League.
If he doesn't show an ability to stay in the Lakers rotation this year, especially with the starting small forward spot gifted to him, his career could be in jeopardy. All that is because he has been, for lack of a cohesive term, a disappointing bonehead for the majority of his career.
Young is the most offensive type of defender: capable but apathetic. Not having seen every minute of his defense, I'd venture to guess that most of them, like the sample size I've witnessed, would show Young with his hands at his sides in one-on-one situations...or him halfway down the court feigning disappointment that he didn't get back on D.
It goes on:
Offensively, don't be tricked by his gaudy averages, which include four of his six seasons in double digit scoring. He's notched league average PERs his entire career, which is probably a symptom of the fact that he's a career .427 shooter from the field and one of the most emphatic ball-stoppers in all of basketball.
And the parting shot:
In a word, he is selfish. He only cares about how Nick Young scores the ball, all other facets of the NBA game be damned. Hopefully he will benefit from playing alongside consummate professionals like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Steve Blake. Young will undoubtedly be an offensive weapon to them, but only as a finisher on set shot plays. Other than that, he could be disruptive on both sides of the ball. I can't imagine him being anything besides incredibly frustrating and disappointing this upcoming season. But at least in that way, he'll be consistent in some regard.
To quote a the great Cher Horowitz, "That was way harsh, Ty". Yet, I don't regret writing any of it.
That's who Nick Young has been his entire career. A ball-stopping guard who is infinitely more comfortable dribbling between his legs, pulling up, fading away even when it's far from necessary and shooting the rock. He's not a great defender, but one that could improve into an excellent one for his position if ever he wanted to. I used to believe that he was just an unwilling ball sharer, but as I've watched him this season, I find that it's less of a question of desire than it is of ability: he's a truly horrid passer. Sometimes, I'd actually prefer he'd take a pull up jumper with three guys on him rather than try unsuccessfully to make a play for someone else.
A lot of this has applied to Nick Young this season. He's still a ball stopper who has tied his career-high in assists per game at .a towering 1.4. He's made leaps and bounds in his defense and has gone from "awful" to "adequate". He's second on the team in shot attempts, 22 less than Pau Gasol for the season. He's upped his efficiency to career high levels, shooting almost 40% from three, which has buoyed a career best 55% true shooting percentage. This is the best Nick Young can be, which in itself is still a truly flawed player capable of so much more.
That being said, this Nick Young is absolutely perfect for this iteration of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The former USC Trojan has surpassed almost all of my expectations for him when he agreed to a veteran's minimum salary contract in the offseason. Again, I've found that his non-passing is actually a blessing considering his ball-sharing limitations. He's a fantastic three-point shooter who is doing more than just living off his reputation--he's actually hitting from long. Young still isn't the defender he could be, but coach Mike D'Antoni has gotten him to care more than I could ever imagine. To sum it up, there's a word I can identify Swaggy P with that I never even fathomed would be a match: effort. He's been a source of energy and hustle that I couldn't have imagined Young giving the team night after night. Young has been on the floor scrapping for loose balls, running back on defense and, even to his own shock and amusement, taking game-changing charges.
But more importantly, he's been the consummate showman to entertain the Lakers fanbase even as the team languishes at the bottom of the Conference standings. His exuberance is contagious, which you can see on the faces of his teammates and coaches. He's a catalyst every single game, lighting an emotional fire in the bellies of many of his stoic teammates. Hell, Young has even gotten Pau Gasol to put down his six shooters while running down the court. The crowd absolutely loves him and aside from Kobe Bryant, there's no Laker in STAPLES Center that can get the audience to their feet quicker than Swaggy P. He's always been a player that could keep him team light and the fan base thumping during his heat checks, but this year he's doing all of this while competing on almost every possession. I never dreamed I'd be writing this about Nick Young at any point of his NBA career.
Secretly, the best part of Swaggy this year has been that like the rest of the team, he's helping satisfy short term goals while keeping the long term viable. He's an energizer and crowd favorite, yet, he's the team's second best player--and on some nights, its best. Young keeps fans into the game and still, if he is one of the Lakers three best guys, they are probably not winning games. He's perfect for Los Angeles right now: playing hard enough in an entertaining fashion to make fans invested, but simply not good enough to carry them to a winning season. Young is the essence of the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Lakers.
I'm as stunned as anyone that I'm writing these words right now. But after watching Young pound away at the Miami Heat on Christmas and essentially giving them as much of a chance as any player in the game to win against the defending champs, it all came to me.
Nick Young is the perfect Laker for the now and also for the future. In three years of stunning developments, this ranks right up there with the strangest of them all.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino