The Lakers have been a pleasantly surprising team as a whole this season. But no aspect of the purple and gold has been as shocking as the resurgence of Nick Young.
Young was shunned by the previous regime in Los Angeles and looked like a surefire candidate to be waived before the season began. Then, he became the starter for a potentially borderline playoff team and his absence due to injury has been close to tragic for the Lakers in the past few days.
Young’s renaissance as a very solid player and a favorite teammate of every player (including D’Angelo Russell despite the unfortunate fallout between the two last year) has been perhaps Luke Walton’s finest handiwork in his first stint as a head coach.
On Wednesday, Walton appeared on the Vertical Podcast with Adrian Wojnarowski and spoke about what Young’s resurgence has meant for the Lakers:
“Obviously as a coaching staff we’re not going to call him Swaggy P, but some of that swaggyness, or whatever you would say, makes him what he is and makes him so valuable to us. When he got into training camp we told everyone people are going to earn spots, people are going to earn minutes. Let’s get after it, let’s compete, and before that I talked to Nick about ‘the opportunities will be there for you, but you’ve got to be committed to the defensive end. We need to be a better defensive team.’ And to his credit he has really stepped up on that end… he deserves a lot of credit, but with the success he’s had, we want him to still have that confidence.
When he does some of the antics that he does, it lights up our crowd, it lights up our team. His teammates, they all love Nick. He’s been a phenomenal teammate in the short amount of time that we’ve been here. So we still want him having that type of fun while he plays, we just closely monitor it and he’s naturally going to do some crazy stuff in practice and say some crazy things and lose focus, but as long as we’re on it, it’s as simple as ‘Nick,’ and give him a little look, and he acknowledges it and mentally locks back in. It’s been a very nice surprise, and we’ve missed him a lot since he’s been out.”
Walton’s biggest skill may be his ability to understand individual traits and needs. He spoke about learning the triggers of every player at a different point in the interview and it’s apparent that it is a very important tool for him.
In Young’s case, Walton has been able to encourage the fun-loving guard to continue playing basketball in his usual brand of enjoyment. However, he has also been able to get him to focus and buy-in on playing within a team concept (his true shooting percentage of 62.2 is by far the best of his career) and to play with heightened intensity on the defensive end.
Nick Young has been a legitimate asset for the Lakers just two months after being considered a sunk cost. Walton’s work with him (and the rest of the team) has been arguably his best success story yet, in a season full of them.