If Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Mike D'Antoni is known for anything in the NBA, it's his ability to turn marginally talented players into desirable commodities by virtue of a run-and-gun, freewheeling style of play.
There is no shortage of such players at Lakers training camp. Seriously over the salary cap, management went out of its way to stock the roster with inexpensive young, athletic, up-and-down runners and gunners in search of a second chance.
It's happened at each of D'Antoni's previous two stints as head coach, in Phoenix and New York. What's to stop it from happening in Los Angeles?
Remember Eddie House, Quentin Richardson, Raja Bell, James Jones and Leandro Barbosa? They all found their calling playing under D'Antoni in Phoenix. Landry and Williams both rose from obscurity to center stage, albeit briefly, playing for D'Antoni in New York.
With Dwight Howard gone, Kobe Bryant in total rehab mode and Steve Nash and Pau Gasol coming back slowly from nagging injuries, the rest of the Lakers have a golden opportunity to prove they belong and prove it on one of the biggest stages in basketball.
Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak explained the rationale behind the signings of players like Williams, Young, Henry and Johnson:
They’re very talented. They were drafted very high for a reason and maybe because of age or the makeup of a team or a coach, they didn’t get to grow as quick as they could have grown. So we have the roster spots, it makes for a healthy opportunity for players and they play the way [Coach] Mike [D'Antoni] wants to coach, so I think it’s good.
One of them may have his turn at stardom this season.
Probably the one most likely to star in purple and gold is the former USC Trojan Nick Young.
The 6'7" Young grew up in Southern California, played for USC, was drafted in the first round and then disappeared into the NBA as a run-and-gun shooter for the Washington Wizards.
Young had a couple of productive seasons for the lowly Wizards, his best being 2010-11 when he averaged 17.4 points on 44 percent shooting (39 percent from beyond the arc) in just under 32 minutes per game. He played last season with the Philadelphia 76ers, for whom he averaged 24 minutes and 10.6 points per night on 41 percent shooting.
Young has always been a threat from three-point land and has had a number of big-time performances during his six-year career. He also has his fair share of critics, many of whom complain that he shoots first and thinks later.
Heading into this season, ESPN Insider wrote this about Young:
Squint hard and Young can be an asset with his ability to heat up. He had big nights in Philadelphia, including a 30-point outing in a December win over the Lakers. But too often Young's teams are left with pull-up jumpers from just inside the arc off the dribble, and not enough of them go in. Young did show a bit more versatility last season, which explains why he rated better than replacement level for the first time.
D'Antoni's system is a good fit for Young, who will continue to jack up jumpers until Bryant makes his return and the former realizes who gets fed first. If he can learn to play in a system, Young may just have that breakout season in 2013-14.
This is a make-or-break year for the 28-year old swingman. His opportunity awaits.
D'Antoni told Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times, "[Young is] one of the best scorers in the league. We've got to get him to understand what we're doing in the sense of ball movement...but as an individual talent, there are not too many guys better."
Here is a player who can flat out play. If Shawne Williams can just get out of his own way, there's no telling how high his ceiling is.
Another common observation: Shawne Williams has barely missed a shot thus far. He’s a guy to keep an eye on.— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) September 30, 2013
Williams sat out last year with a foot injury and has had his share of minor scrapes off the basketball court. Yet, when you watch him make shot after shot in practice, see what tremendous shape he is in, and listen to his story, you come away thinking that Williams could be that under-the-radar star for the Lakers this season.
Williams does not have a guaranteed contract and is fighting for his basketball life this month as the preseason gets underway. He last played two seasons ago in New York under D'Antoni and has the utmost respect for his head coach in L.A.
Speaking with Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, Williams said:
I gained my respect for Mike was when I first got to New York. We had a meeting and he told me a couple things. I won't put that out in the public, but he told me some things. He told me the truth. And I respect him for that...Eighteen games in, I got a shot to play and I ended up doing alright and I was playing ever since. To me, I just feel like Mike's system is a great system. He's a great coach. He respects players. He knows how to coach players. And that's basically it. That's just my guy. I like him as a coach, a person. That's just it.
Which new member of the Lakers will star in L.A. this season?
D'Antoni also sees potential big things for Williams: "He's a tough guy. He was drafted 17th [in 2006] and never really got his footing. Hopefully he'll have a breakout year."
Next to the 7-foot Pau Gasol, the 6'9", 230-pound Williams has the biggest wingspan on the Lakers roster and could be more than just an outside scoring threat. He can play some defense and be a presence in the paint.
Much like Earl Clark last season, Williams can shine when given the opportunity. Williams did not play for the first 18 games after D'Antoni brought him to the Knicks, but when the forward finally got his chance, both he and the Knicks flourished. New York won eight games in a row and Williams made 15 of 28 shots along the way.
Wesley Johnson has been a relative bust on the offensive side of the ball. Yet L.A. brought him on board with a two-year contract. The former Syracuse star was the No. 4 player picked in the 2010 draft and, at age 26, is getting a chance with his third team to prove he can play with the best.
The 2012 winner of the Darko Milicic How Long Do We Have to Keep Pretending He's Good Award, Johnson started the whole season despite contributing virtually nothing, and it only seemed to further shatter whatever shards of confidence he had left. Johnson shot 31.4 percent on 3s and 32.4 percent on long 2s, and 70.6 percent at the line. He can't shoot, basically, yet nearly all his shots are jumpers because he's a terrible ball handler.
Johnson has never averaged more than nine points per game for a season and never shot better than 41 percent, which turned out to be last season at Phoenix. He has the athleticism to be a star in the NBA but so far has been a washout as a scorer.
Like Williams and Young, Wes Johnson will get extra playing time in October to prove that he deserves a bigger role when the regular season starts October 29 against the Los Angeles Clippers.
With Bryant at least a one to two months from getting back on the court, and Gasol slowly returning from his off season surgery, the Lakers will need strong defenders and scorers to keep them in games.
It stands to reason the Lakers will have a stronger bench than last season and players like Williams, Young and Johnson could provide scoring depth and more three-point shooting threats. Henry is known for his defense, while Landry can score, as evidenced by the 15 points per game he averaged in the Las Vegas Summer League, a performance that earned him an invitation to camp.
There are numerous unanswered questions for the Lakers heading into a new season, not the least of which is where will the team find points.
Nick Young, Shawne Williams and Wesley Johnson are working hard at providing answers. The odds are good that one of them may fill that role and finally fill his potential.