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Lakers season preview: Nick Young's encore performance

After serving a critical role as a stopgap on last year’s undermanned squad, what part will Nick Young play in the future of the Lakers?

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s signing of Nick Young was met with shoulder shrugging from Los Angeles Lakers fans. It was a nice story of a hometown kid making good and coming back to play for the franchise he’d idolized as he was growing up, but that seemed about it. At the veteran’s minimum, the consensus was that he was a good financial deal with upside, but it was unclear how much. Although his role had quite a bit of a positional overlap with Kobe, what did the Lakers have to lose, anyway?

Young was coming off a pedestrian season in Philadelphia, scoring 10.6 points per game on 41% shooting and 35.7% from downtown. He never posted an above average PER and averaged more turnovers than assists as an NBA player. At that point, he was mostly known for being an insanely confident gunner off the bench and one of the pieces that had been shipped out of town to reboot a toxic Washington Wizards culture. Nick Young has always had an NBA body, good athleticism, and the ability to shoot, but he was equally known for ball-stopping and awful shot selection. I was mildly optimistic, but dubious that Young was a "missing piece" for a return to the playoffs.

Swaggy P was THE reason people were still watching the Lakers by the end of the season.

Fast forward to last April: Swaggy P was THE reason people were still watching the Lakers by the end of the season. He had a career year that addressed his haters and then some. Swaggy P averaged a career high 17.9 points on 43.5% shooting (including 39% from deep) to go along with 1.5 assists, 2.6 rebounds and nearly 1 combined block/steal per game. Despite setting a career-high for usage rate, his increased efficiency also landed Young his first above average PER in the NBA.

The eye test confirmed his much improved statistics. Swaggy P actually tried on defense and his effort was obvious every night. He played his tail off trying to work within the Lakers' system. Even as the go-to offensive weapon in a team bereft of talent, he played within D’Antoni’s principles and was much less of a ball stopper than anticipated. He passed and scored within the flow of the offense. In the process, he became the Lakers’ most consistent performer, as well as its most electric.

Emotionally, his impact was infectious. Swaggy P brought a great attitude each and every night. In a season filled with injury and deflated expectations, this was an absolutely critical role. Every time Young smiled, it felt like it eased the burden on the rest of the team. When asked about Nick, D’Antoni said that "It was a great surprise, he is a joy to coach." In terms of pure entertainment, Swaggy P had the highlight reels too – dropping 41 points on Utah and 40 on Portland at times when most Lakers fans had already considered 2013-14 a lost season.

In June, most of us at Silver Screen and Roll believed that Swaggy P was on the way out, destined to be overpaid elsewhere. There were simply too many roster needs to fill and paying him more than $3-4M per year wouldn’t be the optimal allocation of precious salary cap resources. In the end, Kupchak rewarded Swaggy P’s career year with a four-year, $21.5 million deal and an option to opt-out before the 2017-2018 season. It’s a bit higher than I’d have liked, but I’m also happy to have Swaggy P in my life on a nightly basis.

Now that he is back, what should Lakers fans expect? What must Swaggy P deliver for the Lakers next year and beyond?

Offensively, it’s more of the same from Nick Young. The Lakers will need him to repeat his Sixth Man of the Year-caliber performance off the bench. That means his discipline and efficiency need to carry over, particularly from three. Given that Kobe will be back (knock on wood) and there will be more scoring threats in the frontcourt, Young will get more open looks than he did last year. If he can nail those and make opposing defenses pay from deep, that will help the flow of the offense considerably. He’ll also be asked to lead the offense when playing with the bench, which is a major role.

Given Kobe’s health and how thin the Lakers are at the swingman position, a solid contribution to the team defense would be immensely helpful as well. The Lakers project to be a defensive mess next year and need to plug a ton of holes. Young will have to team up with Wesley Johnson to guard many of the league’s elite 2’s and 3’s, particularly with Xavier Henry’s questionable knee to start the season. Young may never be an elite ball hawk, but he needs to stay within the team’s defensive schemes and make his man work to score.

At 29, Swaggy P’s 2014-2015 season is likely to define his future as an NBA player. Will he revert to being a talented but frustrating "me first" player? Will he continue his growth as a leader and a player? His best case scenario is to become a perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his 30’s (like Jamal Crawford) as well as one of the most likable players in the league.

Here’s hoping we see another step forward in the development of Swaggy P. And that he keeps up his strong Instagram game.

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