BOSTON — Nick Young enters this offseason with a sore left knee and uncertainty about where he’ll sign a free agent contract — or when he’ll be able to sign, with the NBA appearing headed for a lockout once the collective bargaining agreement expires on July 1. But Young said he is confident this will be a summer of change, if for no other reason than he plans to get a haircut.
“I’m cutting it off on my birthday. June 1,” Young said recently of his oversized Afro.
At the urging of his mother, Young decided to let his hair grow out this season, and in many ways, it has served as a symbol of his growth from being a reserve with the potential to come off the bench and go on a scoring binge to being someone who could consistently carry the team offensively and hit clutch baskets.
“Coming in, I really didn’t expect this, but I’ve been waiting for this opportunity. I feel good how everything went for me,” Young said. “I was consistent, played hard on defense, I put the ball in the hole, competed with the best, had big challenges with big-time players and I stepped up. I’m happy how things turned out, but from a team perspective, I feel we lost some games we should’ve won. Next year will probably be different. I like how the team’s looking now. I really can’t complain.”
After starting the season unsure about his role in a back court that already possessed John Wall, Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich, Young eventually emerged as the Wizards’ leading scorer, averaging a career-high 17.4 points, and as a candidate for league’s most improved player. Wizards assistant Sam Cassell playfully called him “MIP,” since Young had the second-highest scoring increase from last season (8.8 points), trailing only Dorell Wright of Golden State.
“I don’t know if he’ll make it, because I think, if I had a vote, I’d go with Kevin Love for most improved, but I think he’s going to be one of the top five guys in there,” Coach Flip Saunders said. “He emerged as a go-to guy, a big shot maker.”
Young averaged 19.9 points in 40 starts — a position he snatched control of when Arenas was traded to Orlando on Dec. 18 — and appeared to perfectly time a breakout campaign as he approached the summer as a restricted free agent. But in logging more minutes per game than his previous three seasons, his body broke down and he suffered a bone bruise in his left knee.
“When the opportunity came I was prepared, but that was a lot of minutes on me,” said Young, adding that he will take a month off to rest his leg and focus becoming more agile by taking yoga this summer. “As a rookie, I was thinking, ‘Dang, how do they do that? 82 games? Bringing it every night? That’s something I learned I could do.”
His best season, though, was also his shortest, as he’ll finish playing just 64 games and missing 16 of the final 22 games. The Wizards (21-57) will play the Boston Celtics (54-23) at TD Garden on Friday.
And, in his absence, rookie Jordan Crawford took the reins at starting shooting guard and become a revelation, developing great chemistry in the back court with Wall and averaging 21.6 points in 14 starts. Young recently referred to Crawford as “Mini-me.”
Young shoots a better percentage, but Crawford averages more rebounds and assists. With Crawford still under his rookie deal, he would be a cheaper alternative to Young, but President Ernie Grunfeld said he would like to come back next season with both players. “We have a nice group of young players that we want to work with and continue to grow with, and hopefully Nick can be part of that going forward,” Grunfeld said. The current rules allow the Wizards to have first right of refusal with any deal Young signs.
An Eastern Conference scout said Young should attract some interest in free agency, but wasn’t sure how much. “He can score the ball. I guess it’s what you’re looking for, because I don’t know what he gives you at the other end,” the scout said on condition of anonymity because he is not at liberty to speak on behalf of the team. “I don’t know if he’s a starter. I think it’s such a bad team, I don’t know what you have or not, to be honest with you.”
When asked how he would approach free agency, Young said he would be “open. I love the Wizards, but you never know. I held my own this year, so I’m not worried.”
But Young is concerned about how and when the owners and the players union reach a compromise. “It’s something I’ve been preparing for all year,” Young said, adding that he has been saving in expectation of a lengthy lockout. “You just got to stick with the union. But it’s scary, not knowing what’s going on, not knowing when things are going to happen.”