CLEVELAND – When Larry Nance Jr. was a kid, after the Richfield Coliseum lived out its destiny as an abandoned lot, but before there ever was any evidence of “The Diff” on the scoreboard at the Q (now Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse), Larry Sr. would drive his son the 30 or so miles up I-77 to watch the Cavs. A Cleveland legend in his own right, Sr. would meet and greet with former teammates, talk to friends, snap pictures with fans, and if Jr. was lucky, go into the locker room.
On the drive up, they’d talk about whatever was on their minds. On the drive back, they’d talk about the Cavs. It’s a fiercely specific memory for Larry, but one relatable to many sports fans: going to the game with your dad, even if your dad wasn’t a Slam Dunk Contest champion who has his jersey hanging from the rafters of your hometown team.
Now, after a series of events that can best be described as serendipitous, Nance Jr. has that same opportunity, except he’s making the drive to wear No. 22 on his own. Following the trade that sent Jordan Clarkson and Nance to the Cavs from the Lakers during the 2018 season, Nance signed an extension with the Cavaliers, and is a key piece of the team’s rebuild after LeBron James went to Los Angeles. He calls himself (jokingly) the only person who lived in L.A. but vacationed in Ohio, and settled back in Bath, Ohio. It’s where he grew up, around the corner from LeBron’s Northeast Ohio home, and his dad is still right down the road.
“I don’t know how to put it other than the fact that it’s just home,” Nance says over breakfast not far from the Cavs practice facility as he watches snowflakes melt onto the pavement in early December. “It’s just comfortable. On occasion I’ll go swing by my dad’s house, and then drive to a game and me and him will both, we’ll pull into Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse together. I can’t put a price on it. Now I get to pick him up and drive to the games and sometimes now he’ll come to the back, he can come to the locker room. When he walks anywhere, it’s ‘Mister Nance.’ It’s crazy; if you’d have told me 15 years ago that, ‘Hey look, get ready. You’re going to be in that jersey.’ No, I mean, no. I had two Division I offers. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
Nance Jr. wasn’t recruited heavily out of Revere High School. He didn’t have a prestigious AAU career or a boatload of teams calling after him despite his family pedigree. Battling Crohn’s disease but not receiving an official diagnosis until he was 16, the affliction affected his weight and growth, and he was frequently fatigued. It wasn’t until he got on a program to manage it that his on-court numbers showed the potential for his future. He sprung up to 6’9 and gained almost 100 pounds. (He has dedicated his off-court time to a foundation to help those with the disease and raise awareness for Crohn’s.)
He had offers from Bowling Green and Wyoming, opting to play for Larry Shyatt in Laramie. Shyatt is a Cleveland native who went to Cleveland Heights high school, attended the College of Wooster, and got his Master’s at Akron. Nance liked that even though he was far from home, he had a tether to Northeast Ohio and a chance to make a name for himself as a Cowboy.
The lanky forward did just that from his sophomore season and on, becoming a double-double machine and winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year his senior season. The Lakers saw enough to take him 27th overall in the 2015 NBA Draft, and he quickly endeared himself to Los Angeles fans with his ridiculous dunks.
But he often found himself missing Cleveland, and didn’t quite connect to the people he met in L.A. He loved his teammates, and could appreciate the weather or his spot in Redondo, but it wasn’t home.
Nance played through Kobe’s retirement tour, when the team won 17 games, and grew up with players like Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers obviously wanted stars, though, and started making moves to get set for a big free agent. The youth movement was relatively shuttered, and coincidentally Nance was simultaneously moved to the Cavs for a championship push with LeBron and to help clear up space for LeBron in Los Angeles. Many players would’ve considered the result (a Finals loss, followed by a rebuilding team in a cold weather city) a prison sentence.
Instead, Nance doubled down. It was a dream come true, a dream he didn’t even let himself entertain growing up.
“To come back and play for the team that my dad had his number retired for and wear that same number is just kind of like…” Nance says before tailing off. “I was just happy to be playing college basketball. Just happy to get drafted to the Lakers, and then this wasn’t even a possibility. I hadn’t even, not even like, ‘Oh, maybe in free agency I can go to Cleveland,’ no. I hadn’t, no. Because that’s too much to ask, way too much to ask. I get to play in the NBA. I was thrilled with getting to play here once a year and you know, do an event, getting a suite for my family. But now it’s like, every day I get to put on that jersey. I had a Trajan Langdon [jersey] and a Terrell Brandon. I had a Lamond Murray poster in my room growing up. He was the man to me. And then Ricky Davis, I thought he was super cool.”
The NBA, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, and Nance Sr. allowed Jr. to wear No. 22, a number that’s still retired by the Cavaliers. The younger Nance doesn’t see any comparison between himself and his father, he only sees family.
“My dad was ridiculous,” Nance says. “I mean, three-time All Star. Yeah, he’s the man. So, I grew up all my life with, ‘Oh, are you going to be your dad? Are you going to be all this stuff?’ And it’s just like, ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know. I don’t necessarily care. I’m on my own path. The fact that I’m getting to the NBA is, what are the chances of that sh*t? Whether the people do or don’t compare that’s on them, but at the same time, whether they do or don’t, it doesn’t affect me in the least bit. Because this is all me.
“So obviously, thanks for the genetics, dad,” Nancy continues. “But, that’s one thing that just never got to me. I love my dad. He’s super cool. I’ve never met anybody with anything bad to say about my dad. So I love my name, more than likely when I have a kid, it’s going to be a Third. I feel like both me and my dad have done right by it and so, there’s going to be a Third. And it’s just something that I’m super proud of.”
Dad has to be proud of the way Nance Jr. has settled in with the Cavaliers during the 2019-20 season. Jr. has worked on his range, and is shooting a career best 34 percent from three on a career-high 2.9 attempts per game. He’s averaging 8.4 points and 7.2 rebounds as a bridge between the youth movement and the veteran holdovers from those Finals teams.
“I left Cleveland twice last summer for under five days each,” Nance says. “I spent my entire summer here working my ability, catching and shooting and shooting threes. I think I ended up shooting about 20,000 threes that summer. That’s a ton. That’s probably the most work I’ve put in ever. Coaching staff, from the second they got hired, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we need this. We need this from you.’ I could always shoot, I always had touch but just never really had the desire to shoot threes, never really had the care to. I’m super good around the rim. That’s how I got in the league, that’s how I’ll stay in the league, that’s what I do. But they kind of gave me the green light and they’re seeing how much work I’ve put into it. And the fact that in practice I shoot the hell out of a ball — preseason wasn’t great for me, and so it took a little time, but then once we got to the regular season, I started finding these are the shots that are going to be open, and seeing where they’re going to come from every game.”
The soon-to-be 27 year old (he’s a New Year’s baby, after all) relishes the opportunity to help be an adult in the room, although he has to laugh at the fact that he’s considered a vet in just his fifth season in the league. That’s how fast these rebuilding projects go, and he’s committed to seeing it through in ways he wasn’t able to in Los Angeles with the core that he’d been drafted as a part of. He looks often to Tristan Thompson, who he’s commended for his leadership especially over the past season-plus. Thompson represents one group in the locker room; the new draft picks are another. Nance, who finds himself in between those two groups, has to find ways to connect the dots on and off the floor.
Coach John Beilein appreciates the tone that Nance sets, especially on the defensive end of the floor.
“Really just gritty, tough winner,” the first-year head coach said of Nance following a Dec. 6 loss to the Magic. “That’s all you can see. Even when the ball wasn’t going in. He’s a guy, when he isn’t doing well on offense, he will take it out on his defender and come out and play better D. Some people won’t do that, when the offense isn’t clicking, they’re still thinking about it at the other end. Larry is just such a key part of this team, of this culture, of our future.”
That future includes guards like Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Kevin Porter Jr., who have taken some time settling into the speed and precision of the NBA game. As a huge soccer fan, Nance sees and communicates everything through angles, and stresses the importance of acting rather than reacting in certain situations.
“It’s playing with a smart big that sometimes a guard needs to see like, ‘Oh, it’s not about being a shooting show,'” Nance says. “It’s not about pounding the ball into the ground. It’s about literally angles. Angles. So if I tell you this is the arc, and you’re coming off the pick and roll from here, and they keep forcing you down, then start here. It takes a second to learn, you’ve got to be around it. Sometimes if you have somebody who is grabbing you by the hand and saying, ‘check this out,’ they start to see it, and it gets them open. Once they start scoring, it gets me open. Once it gets me open, it’s all there.”
It’s all part of the crash course that is being a rookie guard in the NBA. Having said that, Nance is excited for what the future holds for Cleveland’s young backcourt trio.
“They’re ridiculously talented,” Nance says of the young guards. “You can see it in practice every day. But again, it takes awhile to learn. It’s angles, it’s inches, that gets you open.”
Once those guys settle in, and the team gets a bit more talent around them, they can grow together. That’s what Beilein was brought in to do, even there’s a bit of an awkward stage in Year 1 with some of the older players who are used to things being a certain way. Nance wants to see it to the finish, and that was a big part of why he signed his extension heading into last season.
The way he sees it, so few players get to take their future in their own hands and truly play where they want to play. Nance is lucky to be one of them, and as an added bonus, he gets to play at home, for the team his dad played for, while wearing his dad’s number. There’s power in that for Jr.; there’s honor in seeing kids wearing his jersey, even if he’s not putting up 25 points a game.
And if he has his way, he’ll be here for good. He’ll be the Mister Nance taking Larry the Third into the locker room someday, driving home down I-77 talking about the game.
“There’s a certain level of comfort that you just can’t get anywhere else other than home,” Nance says. “If we can work something out, I’d love to sign an extension again. I would love nothing more than to be Cleveland’s Udonis Haslem. It would be awesome.”