By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 19, 2009
LAS VEGAS, July 18 -- The lanky guard who trotted onto a mostly empty Las Vegas basketball court this week and shredded the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA Summer League team was hardly recognizable to Wizards fans who had followed the first two years of his career. This Nick Young wasn't dribbling the ball between his legs or attempting pogo-stick dunks. Instead, this Nick Young was scurrying around screens, finding open creases in the defense, rising up for jump shots and mostly connecting, to the tune of 36 points. And this Nick Young was also unrecognizable to, well, Nick Young.
"I didn't feel like Nick," the 2007 first-round draft pick said after that game Tuesday. "I felt like somebody else. I don't know, I felt like I was just a shooter, just strictly shooting."
His coaches weren't complaining. Through the first three games of the Wizards' Summer League schedule, Young's catch-and-shoot jumper has been among the biggest surprises on this veteran-heavy roster. Young was averaging 25.3 points per game, second in the league to that point. (He scored 19 in Washington's 74-64 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Saturday night, which improved the Wizards' record here to 2-2.)
And while Young is averaging 16 shots a game here, they're the kind of high-percentage shots that Flip Saunders wants to see from his scorers. Those were the shots that made Richard Hamilton such a star under Saunders in Detroit, and Hamilton's name is quickly mentioned by just about everyone associated with the Wizards when judging Young's potential.
"I told him he looked like Rip Hamilton the first game, how he was coming off the screens," point guard Javaris Crittenton said.
"It looked like he has pretty good footwork coming off the pin-down screens and the curls, and in our offense, that's what's there a lot of the times," veteran center Brendan Haywood added after Young scored 23 points Friday against the Timberwolves, including 11 in the first quarter. "If you go back to what Flip did in Detroit, those were the plays he ran for Rip Hamilton, so if Nick can mirror what Rip did, I think we'll be very successful."
To be fair, Young is several hundred regular season jumpers away from justifying that comparison, especially because playing time is hardly a given on the Wizards' suddenly guard-heavy roster. To get him ready for training camp, Saunders and his assistants have primarily worked with Young on moving without the ball in his hands, something he rarely had to do in former coach Eddie Jordan's Princeton offense but something that is mandatory in Saunders's half-court sets.
"He's getting better at reading situations and getting open, because people aren't gonna let him just catch and shoot the ball," said Washington assistant Don Zierden, who coached the team on Friday. "So I think he's been very good at being efficient and using screens and getting open. He's still got a ways to go, but I think that's been one real positive thing for him here in Vegas."
Young said he has tried to make 400 or 500 jump shots five days a week in the offseason before playing in pick-up games on the weekends, but his new job description as a shooting specialist has been a disorienting experience. He said he had never come off as many screens in his life as he did in last week's game against the Cavaliers, joked about how tired he was after all that off-the-ball running, and said he's been watching old tapes of Reggie Miller and Hamilton to prepare for this role.
"Eventually [the freelancing] is gonna come back, but I'm doing so good with this, I'm gonna stay with this for right now," he said Friday evening. "This is what they want me to do, I shouldn't change it. I've been working all summer on this."
And while Wizards coaches said that moving without the ball will remain Young's challenge over the next few weeks and heading into training camp, they repeatedly used the word "efficient" to describe his Las Vegas performance. After shooting worse than 40 percent in his two previous visits to this circuit, he's now made 50 percent of his shots through Washington's four games. Teammates laughed about his shoot-first and ask-questions-about-his-scoring-average-later mentality -- he scored 69 points before recording his first Summer League assist -- but there have been few crazy drives or out-of-control spin moves into the lane.
"He's not doing nearly as much of that stuff any more," Saunders said. "Rip would score 22 or 23 points and you wouldn't notice; efficient players, that's what they do. Nick is being extremely efficient."