It feels like a lifetime ago, but in reality, only a few months have passed since the infamous tape recorded by D’Angelo Russell of Nick Young talking about his extracurricular activities outside of his relationship with rapper Iggy Azalea was released. At the time, it appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back; the final event that would ultimately cause the Los Angeles Lakers to severe their ties with the role player known as “Swaggy P.”
Throughout last summer, rumors persisted that the Lakers were diligently working to trade Young, and if they were unsuccessful they would consider waiving him. Young’s contract is guaranteed for the 2016-17 season, and then he has a player option for the following season, so it’s no surprise that the NBA’s cap-obsessed franchises weren’t interested in bringing him on board.
Add in the fact that Young, who hangs his hat on putting the ball in the basket, shot just 34 percent from the field last year and 36 percent the year before that, and it’s clear that the chances of a team taking his deal are slim; at least without attaching a valuable asset to act as incentive.
No one wants the man wearing the smile.
“I just want to be out there, so whatever it takes to get out there on the court, that’s what I gotta do.”
(Quote via Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters)
It wasn’t always this way. Three years ago, Young, who played his college ball at USC, arrived back in Los Angeles as an instant hit. His “Swaggy P” persona hadn’t yet become an irritant, and his ability to make seemingly impossible shots kept fans enthralled. There was always a chance that Young would do something crazy and jester his way onto “Shaqtin’ A Fool,” but his averages of 17.9 points on 44 percent shooting and 39 percent from three made it all tolerable.
Then a new, long-term contract came his way. Offensive wizard Mike D’Antoni was shown the door, and no-nonsense head coach Byron Scott came into power. Somewhere along the way, Young lost his, well, swag. The team brought in the similarly-skilled Lou Williams, and Young found himself buried on the bench.
To illustrate just how bad Young was under Scott’s regime, consider that waiving him and stretching his salary (as the Lakers were rumored to do) may have helped with cap space, but they still would have owed him the remaining $11 million left on his deal including his player option for next year. It’s an oversimplification, but essentially, waiving Young would have been the equivalent of paying him $11 million dollars to not play basketball for them. Even for a team with deep pockets like Los Angeles, that’s a difficult pill to swallow, but he was so poor that it was a realistic option.
The Lakers, like most teams, don’t like dead money on their books and ultimately opted to keep Young around. After all, his contract becomes slightly more tradeable as time passes and less guaranteed money remains, but it’s still clear that Young is on thin ice.
Now, with his welcome seemingly worn out and his job in peril, could we, against all odds, be witnessing the resurrection of Swaggy P?
He carries loads of baggage with him, from his problematic contract and off-court drama to his suddenly clanky jumper. If he is looking to right the ship, though, there is one thing, and one thing only that can turn it all around: winning.
Or, perhaps more accurately, winning and playing well.
Across any sport, the trick to being a good bench player is to always be ready. You may not play a second for weeks, months, maybe even longer, but when that opportunity finally comes you have to be ready to capitalize on it.
For Young, the opportunity came via an injury to starting small forward Luol Deng. In the two games since Deng’s departure, Young has shot a combined 7-of-12 from the field, including hitting 50 percent of his threes. Additionally, in his one start against the Denver Nuggets, Young greatly impressed defensively, which was surprising given his history of disinterested play on that end. If there is one way to stay on the floor, it’s by playing stellar defense.
“I thought Nick Young was spectacular on the defensive end. Obviously, he’s going to make shots, but defensively fighting over screens and playing one-on-one.”
(Quote via Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters)
Of course, the sample size here is ridiculously small. 12 good shots and 32 minutes of solid defense do not equate to a comeback; it’s simply far too likely that we witnessed an aberration and that sooner rather than later he will regress to the mean.
Still, there is some reason for optimism here, and it primarily stems from the Lakers new head coach, Luke Walton. Young thrived three years ago in an up-tempo offense, and while Walton won’t employ a carbon-copy of D’Antoni-ball, it’s certainly much closer than Scott’s bogged-down sets were.
While he is still installing much of his offense, we have already seen a ton of off-ball screens, generating on-the-move, catch-and-shoot opportunities that a tough shot maker like Young happens to excel at. At 6’7,” Young can play either wing position, and while he will be behind Brandon Ingram as the first swingman off the bench, he could potentially beat out sophomore Anthony Brown to be next in line.
Brown is a fantastic defender and better shooter than what he showed last season, but he can’t create offense the way Young can. If Young’s defense can be consistently solid, he might create a positional battle that no one saw coming just a few weeks ago.
The odds may still be against a resurgence from Young, but the arrival of Walton has, at least, created an opportunity. What Swaggy P does with it will be entirely up to him, what better place to come back from the dead than the City of Angels?