LOS ANGELES – This is how it was supposed to work.
Fun-loving, talented guy dogged by a reputation for not being a mature winner arrives. He energizes everyone with an irrepressible spirit and infectious smile.
Who knew Nick Young could possibly be the man heaven-sent to Lakers fans to eradicate the Disease of Dwight?
Lakers head coach Mike D’Antoni sure didn’t.
I asked D’Antoni late Friday night, straight out, if he was surprised by who Young is—this supposedly selfish gunner that D’Antoni now describes as “a joy to coach and be around.”
“Yeah, I would say so,” he said, nodding. “Yeah, it’s a great surprise, too.”
Young delivered an inspiring, enthusiastic 25-point outing Friday night in a victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, one day after the Lakers lost Bryant (knee) for another six weeks.
The Lakers needed a lift, and all season long, Young has been the guy to make the joke, take the ribbing or hit a shot to help everyone feel better. He has scored in double figures off the bench in 12 consecutive games.
“I could not ask for a better human being, player and teammate,” D’Antoni said about Young.
Just the kind of rave reviews D’Antoni gave Dwight Howard last season, right?
D’Antoni has tried to take the high road and not put a public label on Howard, but he added another little brick in the wall between him and Howard on Friday night. When feeling really good about the community these low-expectation Lakers have built this season, the coach can’t help letting little comments that indict Howard seep out.
D’Antoni has referenced having to back Howard through his free-throw failures because the Lakers were trying to re-sign him. He has brought up the refreshing camaraderie the Lakers have this season by noting: “They don’t go in and get a stat sheet.” (D’Antoni held a team meeting last season after Howard went around the locker room, pointing out his limited shot attempts on a stat sheet.)
In trying to put Young’s lightness of being into perspective, D’Antoni said Friday night without mentioning any silly people by name: “It’s not a silly energy—and sometimes you have that. It's a good, positive fun.”
Young has been even been winning in what has become regularly entertaining communication with Lakers legends James Worthy and Byron Scott, both TV analysts for the team's regional network.
Then there are the smiles and digs during Young’s regular pregame shooting competition against Jordan Farmar that make abundantly clear their friendship dates back to childhood.
After the game Friday night, Xavier Henry from the next locker over was joking with Young during his postgame interviews, prompting Young to say to Henry in his unique drawl with a faux hurt tone: “When did you become a hater? You’re the hater of the year!”
Henry proceeded to smile and profess his love for Young.
Despite all that, Young has had no better connection than in his ongoing comedic banter with Lakers backup center Robert Sacre. Here’s how Young complimented Sacre’s fine defense after the victory in Charlotte on Saturday: “He was scaring people with his bald head out there.”
But it was Sacre who delivered one of the season’s best lines—surveying Young’s piled-high curly hair, considering his wacky personality and referencing TV’s infamous Saved by the Bell geek by saying to Young in front of reporters: “This is the Screech of basketball.”
Sacre also cracked Young up during a live postgame interview on Time Warner Cable SportsNet two weeks ago by asking him: “Did you shave my armpits and put it on your head?”
Not exactly highbrow humor, but somehow very different than Howard’s juvenile antics that came across as distracting—especially to the guys from whom Howard was eager to take shots away.
Gasol looked all lit up inside Friday night as he mimicked Young’s scoring celebration of three fingers on each hand pointed down. And this was just one game after Bryant had done the very same thing after swishing his game-sealing three-pointer in Memphis.
Gasol said he thought the fun the Lakers shared on the court Friday night—climaxed by Swaggy Pau making “Swaggy P” laugh with that gesture—was “important for our team” after the demoralizing news of Bryant’s latest setback.
“It was fun. It was,” Gasol said. “When I turned, he was right there in my face. He kind of got me going, and I appreciated it, so I gave him a little bit of his celebration when he hits shots.”
This is how it was supposed to work last season: Howard’s big personality bringing out more joy on the court from Gasol, Bryant’s work ethic and knowledge downloaded to Howard the way Young has been listening to Bryant’s advice.
“Kobe's been helping me out with it,” Young said. “Me just learning, getting older, finding out how to do everything out there on the court.”
Young is 28, the same age as Howard. Lamar Odom, whose child-like sweetness grew into him being an invaluable team connector, was 28 when the Lakers began their run to three consecutive NBA Finals.
Phil Jackson’s estimated age of full maturity for anyone? It’s 28.
It didn’t come together for Howard with the Lakers, but Young is having his fun and earning others’ respect.
The difference? Young is, at the most basic level, trying.
D’Antoni actually cracked pregame Friday night that Young’s improvement on defense is rooted in “trying.” But Young is trying to help the team with more defense and passing, not just helping himself. He is trying to laugh for everyone’s benefit—not just at his own jokes to reassure himself he’s so funny.
“He rubs off on me,” D’Antoni said. “He makes me happy.”
D’Antoni was so happy Friday night he actually said the following about Young, nicknamed “Swaggy P.” It is not your typical coach-speak, but it sums up how the Lakers coach feels about the intangible worth of the Lakers’ surprising unifying force.
“He’s ‘swaggy’ out there and feels it,” D’Antoni said, “and he starts swaggin’ or something.”