It used to be easy for Nick Young to hide.
If he was having a bad game on the court, it was no big deal because Caron Butler, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and even Brendan Haywood were there to pick up the slack. After the game, if he wanted to dip out of the locker room early, it was no big deal because in his mind, the important players (Butler, Arenas, Jamison and Haywood) were still around to face the media. And, if you did catch happen to catch Young in the locker room, he could be seen joking around with his best friend on the team, Dominic McGuire. Young would try to answer a question, then McGuire would say something to make him laugh, and then they’d play off each other.
But a suspension and Ernie Grunfeld’s attempt to get the Washington Wizards under the salary cap directly affected Young’s comfort zone. Arenas was suspended back in January, then, last week, Butler and Haywood were sent to Dallas, Jamison was sent to the Cavaliers, and McGuire was sent to Sacramento.
Just like that, Young went from being comfortable with his role in the Wizards hierarchy to being placed in an unfamiliar situation. With all the new faces now on the team, he would now be held more accountable for his play on the floor. Instead of just putting on his clothes and leaving the locker room in a rush, he would now be the person the media went to for a quote. And he could no longer joke around with McGuire before, after and during interviews.
Friday night, when the Washington Wizards took on the Denver Nuggets, it represented the first game Young played without his “crutches”, and, on the surface, his performance was nothing special. He wasn’t in the starting lineup, and in the 22 minutes he did play, he scored just scored 12 points. But a closer examination of his play on and off the court revealed a slight change in the third year player.
Young was diving on the floor for loose balls, he stayed confident even when he missed a shot here and there, and he played tight, fourth quarter defense on Denver guard Chauncey Billups. With 1:47 left in the fourth quarter, after Billups had just cut the Wizards’ lead to five with a long jumper, he came back down the court and aggressively tried to drive to the basket. Young stepped in front of Billups, took the charge, then pumped his fist as his teammates cheered. That play alone robbed the Nuggets of any momentum, and they did not score the rest of the game. The Wizards won 107-97.
“That was a big (confidence) booster for me,” Young would say after the game. “He’s a smart player, and, you know, he’s a veteran.”
Even Wizards head coach Flip Saunders noticed something different in Young.
“When’s the last time you saw Nick Young diving on the floor for loose balls and stuff?” Saunders asked the media after the game.
When the final buzzer sounded, Young did not just jog back into the locker room, like he had in so many other games. As Caron Butler would occasionally do after victories, Young took a few minutes to thank and high five some of the fans who were sitting at courtside.
“That was just spontaneous, man. I was just pumped up that we had played so well and beat a great team, and the fans were right there, so I just slapped a few fives,” the smiling Young told Hoops Addict after the game.
The “new” Nick Young was even more apparent once the media came in the locker room. Nearly every camera and microphone in that Wizards locker room were directly in Young’s face.
Still, he answered every question that came his way, and he even addressed the new attitude in the Wizards locker room.
“Great group of guys, big time players, big time energy players, and when you see guys out there playing hard, you can’t do nothing but join them, ” Young observed. “So that’s what we’ve been doing.”
After the initial wave of reporters were gone, I asked Young if he spoke to his best friend Dominic McGuire before he was traded. Not only had Young talked to him, but he had some pointed advice for his friend as well.
“Oh, hell yeah, I talked to him. I just told him that he has a new start, he gets to go back home to California, and he has to go out there and play hard,” Young told me. “Plus, he has family support out there, so he’ll be just fine.”
Right before I left Young’s locker I brought up the charge he took on Billups.
“Yeah, like I said before, that play was for Dominic. He played hard every night, he got on the floor, he took charges and all of that, you know?” Young said with a rare serious look on his face. “So, now that he’s gone, I can’t just be known as a shooter, I have to pick up the slack for Dominic and be that hustle player, too.”
As with all transitions, I’m sure there will be times when Young reverts to his old behavior and ways, but on this night, it certainly seemed like he was on the right track.