By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 13, 2009 7:44 PM
Since joining the Washington Wizards two years ago, Nick Young has always been the carefree California kid who is prone to wearing skinny jeans, a flannel shirt, a wacky hairdo -- and a megawatt grin, whether he was slumping or on a hot streak.
He cracks jokes and pulls off nifty crossover dribbles and flashy dunks with the same vigor. But as Young gets ready for his third summer league with the organization, Coach Flip Saunders has challenged the talented shooting guard to ditch the smile and develop a mean streak. He wants Young to play with a chip on his shoulder, like he has something to prove.
"Nick is a very happy-go-lucky guy and he smiles a lot. I think as a young player, you don't always need to smile," Saunders said. "You're better off having a little of that nastiness. You never saw Michael Jordan smile. The only time he smiled was when he was kicking your butt."
Saunders has also been working with Young to help him become more effective shooting off screens and making plays for others. The coach may have more success with that, though, than getting Young to stop grinning.
"It's been kind of hard. I can't not have fun," Young said, sporting a freshly cut mini-Mohawk while flashing a grin, after the Wizards concluded minicamp yesterday. "When I have fun, I smile a lot. He told me, 'Just go out there in kill mode.' I've been trying it a little bit, but at times, I catch myself smiling and joking. That's natural for me. But if they want me to change, I have to change a little bit."
Young contends that his playful nature shouldn't be confused with him not taking basketball seriously. "I feel like I'm serious," he said. "I just happen to smile all the time. I guess that's something people think is a weakness, but it got me here."
The Wizards are still waiting for Young to make the next leap. After an uneven rookie year and an up-and-down second season, Young remains a bit of a tease. He is capable of catching fire and going on a dazzling shooting spree, as he did at one point last season when he scored 103 points over a four-game stretch. Young, however, has struggled to grasp schemes, often looks lost defensively and sometimes plays with blinders when he has the ball.
"He's got very good skills. I think at times, as I've talked to him before, he showed maybe a little bit undisciplined offensively and he took some bad shots," Saunders said. "I think he can flourish in that type of situation where he knows where he's going to get shots and where he doesn't have too many decisions to make. I think it's a matter of being able to pick up defensive concepts. And just playing in the flow."
Young heard his name mentioned in several trade rumors this summer and said he was "shocked" when President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld acquired Randy Foye and Mike Miller before the draft -- and not because it crowded the back court. Young initially thought he was part of the deal. Young said Grunfeld called him recently and assured him that he was in the team's future plans.
Young averaged a career-high 10.9 points and was the only player to appear in all 82 games last season, but he was disappointed in his overall performance.
"With Eddie Jordan, I started to play more minutes. Then with the coaching change, it kind of put me off track a little bit," Young said. "I found myself in a hole. I kept trying to dig myself back up. I got a fresh start. I got to make the most of it."
With a new coaching staff and more competition for minutes, Young said won't put more pressure on himself. "I'm not really worried about it," Young said of the competition for playing time. "If I'm out there playing and do what I'm able to do, I think I'm going to be all right. I'm ready for my breakout year. I hope this is the year, right here."
If it is, that smile really isn't going anywhere.