On Tuesday night the Los Angeles Lakers faced off with the Dallas Mavericks, hoping that they would be able to extend their eye-opening three-game winning streak. It would ultimately be a failed endeavor, but the Lakers got off to a solid start, with guard Nick Young scoring the team’s first 13 points.
Just a few months ago no one would have thought that Young, who is known for his off-court antics as much as his play on it, would even still be on the team, and yet here he is, scorching the nets as part of Los Angeles’ starting five. It’s a shocking development, but then again, these are the times we are living in. The Chicago Cubs are champions of baseball, Donald Trump is the President-elect, and Swaggy P is the Lakers’ starting shooting guard.
Somewhere downstairs, the Devil is getting a little chilly.
It was only July when it appeared that Young’s status with the Lakers was in serious jeopardy. Coming off of the worst season of his career and with the drama of an infamous video still lingering, Los Angeles appeared to be determined to part ways with him.
A rumor persisted that if the Lakers couldn’t find a trade to get Young out of town, they would strongly consider waiving him, which illustrates just how bad things were. With one year guaranteed plus a player option for one more year after that remaining on his deal, waiving him at this juncture would have required the team to pay him the remaining $11 million left on his deal to NOT play basketball for them.
What a difference a few months makes. During that span, he not only convinced the Lakers to keep him around but also won himself a spot in new coach Luke Walton’s starting five, which no one saw coming.
Young’s Lazarus act has primarily been the result of improvements in two surprising areas, neither of which have historically been strengths of his: efficient scoring and defense.
On the season, Young is currently shooting a career-high 45 percent from the field, a whopping 11 percent increase over last year. It would appear that his shot has returned just when he needed it most, but if we dig a little deeper, we find that it’s more than just that.
Last season, under then-coach Byron Scott, 50 percent of Young’s shots came on pull-up jumpers, where he was thrown the ball and asked to create offense in isolation. His ability to take–and make–bad shots has always been one of Young’s more impressive talents, but last season, it proved to be his undoing.
This year, in Walton’s offense, Young’s pull-up attempts have plummeted to a much more manageable 33 percent. Even better, he has replaced these shots primarily with catch-and-shoot opportunities, which now accounts for 53 percent of his looks.
In other words, he is now playing in a system that allows teammates to help him get open shots, whether it be via drive-and-kick plays or Young running off screens, rather than having to make things happen all on his own.
But wait, it gets better: 49 percent of Young’s catch-and-shoot opportunities are coming from behind the arc, which has resulted in an increase in his three-point shooting from 32 percent to 35 percent and has the added benefit of providing better spacing for his teammates.
It also helps that he is drawing more fouls this season, with one more free throw per 36-minutes than last season. Not missing is a plus as well, as he is currently a perfect 22-for-22 from the line.
In total, through his own improvements as well as moving from Scott’s offense into Walton’s, Young is now taking just 0.9 more shots per-36 minutes than last season but is scoring a fantastic 5.5 more points per game. For years, Young was the antithesis of the NBA’s efficiency movement, but that may change if he can keep up this pace.
As impressive as his offensive refinement has been, the most shocking change has come on the defensive end. For years, Young has been known as something of a turnstile, whose disinterest on defense was only tolerable because he had such skill on the other end of the floor.
Walton, however, asked him to change the perception that he is a poor defender. At 6’7” with a 7’ wingspan, Young has the physical profile needed to be a steady defender in the league, but it was rarely an area of focus for him. Now, Walton has stoked that fire, and it has paid dividends.
Young has been noticeably more active, moving his feet well to stay in front of his man and using his length to challenge shots. In terms of counting stats, the most obvious indicator of his improvement is in blocks, where he jumped from 0.2 to 0.7 per-36 minutes. While that’s certainly significant, half a block per game doesn’t do Young’s defensive improvement justice.
Digging a little deeper, we can see just how much of an impact he has made on the perimeter. On two-point jumpers taken at least 15-feet out, Young’s defense resulted in a 3.4 percent decrease in his opponent’s shooting percentage compared to an average shooter. Last season, with Young defending poorly, the same situation yielded a 6.6 percent increase, which adds up to a whopping 10 percent drop in field goal percentage on jumpers with Young defending compared to last season.
And that’s not even the best part.
No, the most impressive jump has come in his three-point defense. To date, Young drops his man’s three-point shooting by 5.8 percent, when last season opponents shot actually shot a demoralizing 7.2 percent better than average against him.
Yes, it’s still early and the sample size is small, but that’s an insane 16 percent swing over last year. It’s no coincidence that as of this writing, the Lakers are leading the league in three-point defense, which is in part thanks to Young’s efforts.
No one who watched Young play over the past few seasons could have predicted this kind of a turnaround, and yet, here we are.
In fact, Young has been so good on the defensive end of the floor that Walton has often given him the task of being the team’s stopper, which has led him to guard the likes of James Harden, Eric Bledsoe, and Klay Thompson. He still isn’t a natural defender like Kawhi Leonard or Tony Allen, but during practice, Young’s teammates have taken to calling him Bruce Bowen as a nod to how difficult he has been to score on.
Chalk his scoring and defensive improvements up to a variety of motivating factors–a new coach, a desire to prove doubters wrong, a contract-year boost when teams are handing out huge deals Oprah-style–but the bottom line is that, against all odds, Nick Young is having the best season of his career.