Keepers are sometimes found in unlikely places.
For the Los Angeles Lakers, finding heroes and future assets in remote locations has become common practice this season. Injuries have forced them to upend every rock, and scour every nook and cranny in their vicinity for valuable contributors.
Their expedition has led them to Ryan Kelly, their second-round draft pick and floor-spacing guru, and Kendall Marshall, their short-term answer for a depleted point guard corps turned long-term solution.
Then there's the always-colorful Nick Young, who was plucked from a dwindling free-agency pool at a discount. His time in Los Angeles has been entertaining, productive and, more importantly, exactly what the Lakers needed.
Exactly what they'll continue to need, too.
Nothing about the Nick Young of today is especially different from the Nick Young most of us came to know before now.
The shooting guard still boasts questionable shot selection, and there are times when his decisions incite hair-pulling, emphatic sighs and ear-splitting yells.
Shooters shoot. And miss. Young is no different. And yet, he seems different.
Young is averaging 17.1 points per game, the second-highest mark of his career. These aren't necessarily empty points, either. Los Angeles isn't winning games, that's for sure, but its offensive rating is more than six points higher with Young the floor.
|Lakers...||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.||Net Rtg.||AST/TO||TS%|
Most will still turn green at the sight of his defense. Some will even slam their fists on the nearest table, wall or Swaggy P-shaped punching bag when he refuses to pass out of double-teams. But the Lakers need Young.
They need the energy he provides; the No. 1 option he gives them on the offensive end. They need that go-to scorer late in games who can create for himself, like Bryant usually does.
Young's no Bryant, of course, but his late-game heroics against the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 20—when he drew a foul beyond the three-point line and sank all three free throws to tie the game—were certainly reminiscent of a certain Mamba.
The Lakers eventually lost that game, so it doesn't matter. But it does.
"If there's somebody that wants to take the ball and hit a shot, that’s Nick," Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said afterward, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin. "No doubt about it. He’s a big-time scorer and he can hit a shot anytime, or get fouled, as we saw."
This Lakers team isn't supposed to be great or, let's face it, even good. Young has given them that unabashed shooter they don't currently have, rendering himself a bright spot amid a dark season.
Honest, unadulterated energy is underrated.
For nearly two decades, Bryant has exuded a will unlike any other, an immeasurably fierce competitor who had few peers. One of those equals is Young. Not in terms of championships or statistics, but effort. Drive. Will.
Young isn't about to lay or bow down to anyone. He says what's on his mind and leads through his transparency.
"What I'm mad about is just it was one on five," Young said after being tossed for tussling with Phoenix Suns rookie Alex Len in a 121-114 loss on Jan. 15, via the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan. "I felt like if somebody would have got in the middle, it wouldn't have escalated that much."
Reads like something Bryant would have said.
In so many ways, you want to knock Young upside the head. Demand he be more serious and hold himself accountable. Then you realize the Lakers need his candor.
The chemistry in Los Angeles isn't overpowering. Players are still learning the ropes and adjusting to one another. Outspoken leadership—something soft-spoken veteran Pau Gasol doesn't provide—is a necessity. Someone like Young, jovial and honest, brings teammates together, however new to each other they are.
That quip prompted a team meeting, and that meeting sparked discussion. Now, everyone is on the same page.
"We just talked about everything. We're all on the same page now," Young said of the Lakers' team meeting, per Bresnahan. "Once we talked, we aired everything out. We're all good."
Camaraderie is difficult to create and subsequently sustain during a season like this. Losing stings, and the injuries and rotational instability start to take a toll.
Just not on Young.
"We all know we've go to get a little more gritty out there, get a little tougher", Young later added of Los Angeles' closed-door confab, per Bresnahan.
Because of Young, they know they need to be tougher. Work together.
Los Angeles Strong
Emotions come into play here; it's unavoidable.
Young took a pay cut to play in Los Angeles, and his loyalty has never once wavered. He could sulk knowing he's still coming off the bench despite Bryant's latest injury. He could hang his head low through the losing. He could stop believing.
Instead, he chooses to have faith.
"We all have faith and think something can happen," he said after the Lakers decided not to trade Gasol, via the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina.
Can we honestly discount his prevailing optimism, when the Lakers are seemingly trapped in an inescapable foxhole? Or his pious loyalty?
Or his respect for the franchise?
Comparisons to Bryant have started to surface with each basket he makes and every responsibility he assumes. Not as a living legend, but a leader, both on and off the court.
Nick Young: "Kobe’s been a great mentor ... That’s been unbelievable for me ... learning from one of the greatest players to play this game"— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 21, 2014
Young will entertain such good-natured bantering for a while, before acknowledging the obvious: Bryant is not his equal.
"I can’t play like Kobe, man," said Young, via McMenamin. "There’s only one Kobe."
There's only one Swaggy P, too; only one festal leader with an uninhibited motor and animated taste for the moment, whatever that moment is and whenever it comes.
This same leader, this surrogate chief of sorts, will have decisions to weigh come summertime. Young has a player option he can exercise worth slightly over $1.2 million, or he can explore unrestricted free agency where, courtesy of his performance this season, he will net substantially more.
Should the Lakers keep Nick Young beyond this season?
Financially, it would make sense for him to become a free agent, capitalizing off his production and transformation. Then again, few things about Young make sense. From his haphazard shot selection to his decision to join the Lakers in the first place, he's become a pleasant enigma.
Should he decide to hit free agency, the Lakers should be waiting with open arms and a reasonably priced offer, ready to welcome back their most important of misfits.
"I think we’re getting our swagger a little bit back" D'Antoni told reporters after the loss to Chicago, via McMenamin.
Now that the Lakers have their swagger back, along with the player largely responsible for its return, they'd be smart not to let either of the two go.