During the Washington Wizards Media Day back in September, a smiling Nick Young talked to reporters about how excited he was about his role in Flip Saunders’ offense. He had put up good numbers during summer league play; he had been receiving encouraging text messages from Saunders throughout the summer; and he had even taken time to work with assistant coach Sam Cassell on post moves, ball handling, and defense. But there was one name uttered during this session that made Young’s already wide smile stretch even more: Richard Hamilton.
Saunders wanted Young to master the art of catching and shooting, and Hamilton is one of the best at doing just that. Considering the fact that Saunders had spent three years coach with Hamilton while he was the head coach of the Pistons, this seemed like a logical fit–and Young was up to the challenge.
“They sent me a lot of film of Rip [Hamilton] so I sat in my room watching them. I watched them an hour a day, ” Young said while barely able to contain his grin.
During the first 35 games of this season, Young struggled to be the player Saunders hoped he would be. Young had gotten the opportunity to start 10 games, but there were also five other games when he never got off the bench. He’d play brilliantly on both ends of the floor, like he did against the Milwaukee Bucks (21 points, 5 rebounds); and then he’d have games like the one he had against the Indiana Pacers– he would miss shots early, lose confidence, and find himself on the bench for long stretches.
But injuries and suspensions forced Young back into the starting lineup on the night of January 12th, and it just so happened that his return would come against who else? Rip Hamilton and the Detroit Pistons.
The first time the Wizards and Pistons met on November 14th, Young received the dreaded DNP, and Hamilton was injured. On December 6th, when they met again, Hamilton was still hurt, and Young only played 18 minutes scoring only a single basket. This night would represent their first head-to-head meeting since Coach Saunders asked Young to mimic Hamilton on the court.
Before the game started, I wanted to talk to both players to get a feel for what they thought about each other and how they were going to approach the game.
I went to Nick Young first, and I tried to catch him before he participated in pre-game shooting drills.
“Sorry, man, I’m starting tonight, and I really need to get some shooting in today, ” said Young, who, for once, was without his customary smile. “But get me after the game. I got you then, man.”
Feeling a bit disappointed, but still very determined, I then ventured over to the Pistons locker room to pick Hamilton’s brain about Young. Hamilton had just walked into the locker room, and the PR guy for the Pistons asked me to give him a few minutes to get changed.
As I slowly backed away, Hamilton’s voice rang out: “Nah, it’s cool. What’s going on, my dude?”
I continued to make my way to his locker, and I explained to him that Young’s summer assignment was to watch tapes of how he came off screens and perfected the catch-and-shoot move.
Hamilton chuckled, and then gave me his assessment of Young’s game.
“Well, he’s definitely a talented offensive player,” Hamilton told me. “He seems to be able to put the ball in the basket whenever he wants. He’s very athletic and he’s a fine young player. And given his build, I could see why Flip would tell him to study me; that makes sense. But to be honest, I haven’t paid real close attention to him until right before this game, you know? But I know he definitely can play.”
Hamilton was drafted seventh in the 1999 NBA draft by the Wizards, and so I was curious to know who he was asked to study upon entrance to the league. It didn’t take long for him to respond.
“You know, no one really had to ask me to study any film or tapes because I already been doing that on my own,” Hamilton explained. “I watched everyone from Reggie Miller to Allen Iverson. I used to watch all the skinny guys so I could find out ways they got their shot off, and how they play off the ball and things like that. Even today, I still watch all kinds of players to find new ways to be better and to be more efficient. And to play a long time in this league, you have to be a student; you can’t just be caught up on what you do, like it’s the only way to succeed.”
The whole time Hamilton was talking, I was thinking that Young needed to hear this advice. Not only could it be beneficial to the struggling, inconsistent Young, but Hamilton’s words could also influence him to pick up some new study habits.
I decided to share this advice during my post game chat with Young.
Once the actual game started, neither player played particularly well. Young missed some early shots, had some defensive lapses, and seemed to lose confidence before the first quarter even ended. During one stretch early in the third quarter, he picked up a silly foul against Hamilton, then threw a bad pass on the other end of the floor, and then missed a layup. He finished with eight points, four assists and four turnovers.
Hamilton started off 2-for-9 after the first quarter, and 3-for-13 at halftime, and it was clear that he did not have the shooting touch. But unlike Young who clearly lost confidence early, Hamilton kept grinding and playing well in the other aspects of his game. He continued to play tight defense on Caron Butler, Randy Foye and Young, and when he did not have the shot, he seemed to make an adept pass for one of his teammates. In the second half, he found his shooting touch (5-for-10 from the field) and he helped the Pistons to a 99-90 victory. Hamilton finished with 19 points and seven assists.
After Coach Saunders’ post game press conference, I headed straight to Young’s locker for that conversation he promised earlier. I was initially concerned with how verbose he would be considering that he didn’t play too well in the Wizards’ loss; however, once he finished dressing, Young looked at me without me even saying anything.
“I’m ready, man. I’m ready.”
I asked Young how he thought he performed against the man whose game he studied so hard over the summer.
“Well, nobody is doing it better than Rip right now as far as coming off screen and catching and shooting, so he was the perfect person to play against right now, ” Young observed. “But I did alright. The shots just wasn’t falling even though I had some good looks, but that happens.”
At that point, the rest of the media swooped in and started asking Young questions about the Wizards’ injuries, and the team’s mind state during this tumultuous time due to the Gilbert Arenas situation. I patiently waited for the crowd to subside, and then I told him what Hamilton had said to me. I told him that Hamilton studied Miller and Iverson, and I told him that he also continued to study players even at age 32. I finished my mini-speech by telling Young what Hamilton had observed about his game and that he understood why Coach Saunders chose him to play the “Hamilton” role on the Wizards.
The whole time I was talking, Young was wide-eyed and flashing that smile that had been missing during our brief pre-game chat. And then he briefly responded.
“For real, he said that? For a player like him to look at me and see some similarities– it gives you a lot of confidence to go out there and play good basketball and stay focused,” Young said before gathering his things to leave the locker room.
I wanted to end the night by getting some final thoughts from Rip Hamilton. I not only wanted to tell him about Young’s reaction to his wisdom but I wanted to get a feel of what his thoughts were about Young’s game tonight.
As I walked into the Pistons locker room, I noticed that Hamilton was sitting down, and there was an older gentleman at his locker. Hamilton was listening intently, and the older gentleman was doing all the talking. The older gentleman’s name? Mr. Billy Hunter, Executive Director of the NBA Player’s Association.
Apparently Rip Hamilton’s earlier comments to me were right, sometimes you have to be a student.