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Commentary: Is Nick Young Capable Of Evolving?

In a recent meeting with Philadelphia’s press, incoming Sixers guard Nick Young was asked about the Most Improved Player trophy—as in, his new head coach, Doug Collins, had previously said it should be Young’s goal, and was he interested in winning it? The answer was an interesting one:

When I first saw this press conference, it intrigued me. The prospect of Nick Young wanting to be the NBA’s Most Improved Player is an interesting one because if in the unprecedented case he were to find himself in the running at the end of the season, it wouldn’t be due to an incredible scoring average or improved shooter’s touch. In order to win the award, Young would have to correct his largest flaw: an inability to pass. It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

Imagine yourself hearing that the stingiest person you know has begun donating $500 a month to a local charity. You’d be shocked, right? Being cheap is in the fabric of this person’s being. It’s their identity. It’d be beyond bizarre to have this person evolve for no apparent reason, taking on a wider world view that directly contradicts who they’ve been their entire life.

The first sentence of John Hollinger’s player profile for Nick Young is scathing: “You can’t score an emptier 20 than this guy,” and, well, nothing else really needs to be written. If the NBA had an All One-Dimensional Team, Young might be its captain. Last season, his assist rate in 22 games with the Clippers was 4.27, lower than Tyler Hansbrough, JaVale McGee, and Serge Ibaka.

He’s a gunner of the automatic weapon variety, first and foremost, catching the ball, then shooting the ball. More times than not, he creates this action at least 10 feet away from the basket, and even though the ball’s probability of falling through the hoop is slightly less than that of a nickel landing on heads, no teammates are involved, and no positive action is created.

Playing for his hometown Clippers in last year’s playoffs, Young averaged six three-point attempts per 36 minutes, making a scintillating 51.5% of them. That stat is basically the reason Philadelphia is paying him $6 million to help replace the loss of Lou Williams; it explains who Young is at his best. (By my count, two positive factors exist in Nick Young’s game—the other being he hardly every turns the ball over. But that’s probably explained by the miniscule window of opportunity he gives mistakes by aiming for the basket before the ball ever hits his finger tips).

As far as different roles go in today’s NBA, Nick Young might be the worst at fitting basketball’s most overrated: the hot shooter off the bench, an increasingly useless skill set that showcases individual ability but does very little to help the four guys around him get better, or help his team come out on the winning end. (The role is popular because almost every championship contender has one, but every championship contender also has a superstar, so take from that what you may.)

Ironic as it is, most head coaches love guys who climb aboard holding a one sentence user manual. Nick Young’s playing style can freely adapt to any five man unit in the league because on the offensive end he operates in his own phone booth. Sure, it’d be nice to surround him with an elite offensive rebounder or two, but no man has the internal engine to continue the pursuit of Young’s errant shots for 20 plus minutes in an 82 game season. It’d probably be easier to just have him take fewer attempts. And this is where Young’s comments come into play as interesting (or scary, if you’re a Sixers fan). The thought of him needing to be more “aggressive” on offense is proof of a guy who may be in for a rude awakening.

As Hollinger points out, Young doesn’t get to the basket or the free-throw line all that often. In 22 games with the Clippers last season, he attempted 1.4 shots at the rim and barely cracked 50% on the conversion rate. That’s awful. (He made 0.7 shots at the rim per game, which is lower than J.J. Redick). He also averaged a fetid 0.2 free-throw attempts per every shot from the field. To Young, being aggressive means shooting more, which is a recipe for complete and utter disaster—especially taking into account that it’s a contract year.

Still, after all the negative things that were just said, let’s look at what could happen in a new city, with a new coach, and a new type of franchise player by his side. Here are two facts about Nick Young’s career: 1) He’s never played beside a dominant center, 2) He’s never had a stable head coach. With Andrew Bynum and Collins (who will be Young’s sixth head coach in six NBA seasons), we have two ingredients that could turn Nick Young into a more complete basketball player. If Collins tells him to do what he does, taking the possible good with the proven bad, then fine, all the power to the both of them. But if all of a sudden we see Nick Young begin to make the extra pass, or crash the glass three to four times a night ON TOP of shooting 37-40% from the three-point line, we might be witnessing an individual’s bare evolution. And that’d be pretty awesome.

Statements made in a mid-September press conference are a universe away from actual production on the court, but the possible transformation of one of the league’s most identifiable games could be one of the more interesting big picture story lines of the season.

Categories: Commentary

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