By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 8, 2009
When Flip Saunders informed Nick Young that he would get the starting shooting guard spot for the Washington Wizards' preseason opener on Tuesday, Young had to resist the initial urge to smile. His excitement gave way to shock, then nerves, but Young's attempts to hold back his emotions finally proved futile when Gilbert Arenas said something that forced him to let loose and chuckle.
"Gil was talking trash," Young said. Arenas told him, "Just as fast as they say Nick Young, they gon' say Nick Young's sub if you mess up."
Young entered this season determined that his name would not be preceded by the word "backup," stating before training camp that he hated sitting on the bench and was going after the starting job. That was a bold declaration coming from Young, who carried a happy-go-lucky demeanor his first two seasons in Washington. It also followed a summer in which the Wizards improved their back court with the additions of Mike Miller and Randy Foye, and DeShawn Stevenson returned from a back injury.
Young feels that he squandered an opportunity last season, when injuries provided an opening for playing time that he was unable to fully take advantage of. He didn't believe he had any more time to waste.
"I always wanted to be a great player. This is the year to get it rolling," Young said after scoring 11 points with four rebounds during the Wizards' 101-92 win against Memphis. "It's my third year. It's time for me to grow up and get my name out there. This is the game I love and I just want to get better every year. I didn't want to be forgotten."
Young made sure he stood out during the first week of training camp, and Saunders rewarded him with 18 minutes on Tuesday, when he shared the floor mostly with Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood. The performance helped provide a glimpse into the aspects of the game that Young spent the whole summer focused on improving -- running off screens, catching-and-shooting, and eliminating the unnecessary street-ball dribbling moves that used to get him in trouble. Young basically found a comfortable spot in the corner and waited for Arenas to find him. "There is going to be a lot of pressure on Gil, Caron and Antawn, so I got to be the guy to hit open shots in the corner and stuff like that," he said.
He also helped limit Memphis guard O.J. Mayo to just four points, although he tired in the second half chasing Mayo and coming off screens. Young understands his defense still needs a little work, as evidenced when Memphis reserve Sam Young made Nick Young look silly with a pump fake that sent him soaring. "That was a crazy pump fake," Nick Young said with a grin. "I think he got everybody with that one."
Saunders said he would likely alternate his starting shooting guard throughout the preseason, giving Stevenson, Miller and possibly Foye the opportunity to share the back court with Arenas. If Young doesn't start against Dallas on Friday, Saunders said: "It's not because he didn't play well [against Memphis]. It would be to give somebody else some time. I thought Nick did some positive things."
Young averaged a career-high 10.9 points and was the only Wizards player to appear in all 82 games last season, but there was a noticeable decline in his game after Eddie Jordan was fired as coach in late December. Young scored in double figures in the first eight games of the season but could not sustain much consistency.
"I went from averaging 15 to like, two points a game, just struggling. I was like: 'Is it going to be like this all year? It's going to be hard,' " Young said.
When the season ended, Young said he told himself: "I can't have another one like that. I felt like I could've done more, that kind of gave me the edge."
Saunders helped sharpen that edge by trying to persuade Young to smile less and make the game less complicated by focusing on scoring off the catch rather than the dribble. Young flew back and forth between Washington and his home town of Los Angeles this summer. He spent his time on the court running himself ragged around orange cones, and his time away from the court studying DVDs of Richard Hamilton and Reggie Miller for about an hour each day.
"He's a little more serious now," Butler said of Young. "He's aggressive as always. I think his approach is better. He's showing a lot of growth and maturity and that's what you want from a third-year player. It's time to show that."
But Young can't completely abandon his silly side. He kept his teammates in stitches the night before training camp began when a hypnotist got him to gallop around. He also did a standup routine during the team dinner last Friday. And, at times, he's been spotted dancing around after practice.
Young even provided some humor after the game on Tuesday. As reporters gathered around him, Young confused a small video recorder with a still camera. He looked toward the lens, folded his arms and leaned back, striking a pose. "Oh, I thought you were going to take my picture," Young said.