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Welcome back, Nick Young

A string of preseason highlights has helped Swaggy P win back the hearts of the Laker faithful.

NBA: Preseason-Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Throughout the offseason, a favorite pastime in Lakerland was guessing when the front office would finally cut ties with Nick Young. After a miserable two seasons both on and off the court, it seemed a matter of when, not if, Young would no longer be on the Los Angeles roster.

And yet, in the Lakers’ new era of good feelings, even Swaggy P has been able to repair his image. During the preseason, Young has made a convincing case to not only make the 15-man roster, but also to earn regular rotation minutes. It’s more likely that Young emerges as the team’s starting shooting guard than it is that he gets cut before the start of the regular season.

The question is, how did we get here?

Perhaps no one’s reputation took as much of a hit as Young’s did during the Byron Scott era. The nine-year vet’s production fell off a cliff after his best season in ‘13-14, during which he posted career highs in points, steals, assists, and true shooting percentage.

Although many of the Lakers’ woes in the past two years were discounted because of the coaching situation and the Kobe Farewell Tour, Young’s decline took on a life of its own. Even as the salary cap spiked this summer, the two years left on Young’s 4-year, $21 million deal seemed like an albatross rather than asset. It seemed plausible that Young — now 31 — was past his peak, and his off-court issues only worsened his declining stature in Los Angeles.

Fortunately, Young has come alive once more and his best qualities have re-emerged under head coach Luke Walton’s tutelage.

First there’s his shooting. Young is knocking down a sizzling 56 percent of his long-range shots in the preseason. Small sample size be damned, but Young has made 37 percent of his threes in his career and should see an uptick in that number in a free-flowing offense. Take for instance how he expertly uses a Julius Randle screen and a stepback for an in-rhythm three-pointer:

Young leads the team with a 73.7 effective field-goal percentage in the preseason, which means he hasn’t taken many bad shots. He will never be a great — or likely even good — passer, but the threat of his scoring creates some gravity that he can leverage into better looks for his teammates.

Further, Young will always be on the floor with a capable ball-handler and won’t have to do much playmaking. He simply needs to catch and shoot. He should see many of those opportunities in transition, like this one against Portland.

On the other side of the floor, Young was credited with a “spectacular” defensive effort against the Denver Nuggets. The numbers don’t exactly support that line of thought, as Young’s defensive rating is 113.2 over five games, the third-worst rating on the team. But good habits eventually pay dividends, and Young’s desire to fight through screens, stay alert, and use his length in the passing lanes could make him a tolerable defensive player.

It’s important not to get too caught up in Young’s five-game hot streak. This is the same player who shot 33.9 percent from the field last year while averaging .6 assists and 1.8 rebounds per game. He endured a long and hard fall from grace, and substantial improvements will be needed to make him even a league-average player.

By all accounts, however, Young understands the path ahead of him. He’s still the microwave-scorer capable of dropping nine points and a surprise assist in four minutes against the Trail Blazers, and he has worked hard to become a player the Lakers can use for floor spacing or even as trade bait for wing-starved contenders.

Nick Young was a breath of fresh air on the Lakers before two years gone wrong. Now, the newly-christened “Uncle P” may be back in form, starting the next chapter of his career. It’s nice to have him back.

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