A couple of hours before Nick Young posed for the photo you see to the left, I sat down with him in a hotel lobby and talked about his life leading up to the ’07 NBA Draft.
Nick Young has been through a lot. When he was five, his oldest brother was killed in a case of mistaken gang identity. In the aftermath of that tragedy, another of Nick’s brothers suffered a mental breakdown and was committed to an institution. As a teenager, Nick flunked out of two high schools before finding a home at Cleveland H.S. in Los Angeles, where his senior year and struggles to get into college were documented in a film called Second Chance Season. And while Nick was at USC, teammate Ryan Francis was murdered during a visit to his hometown Baton Rouge.
“I’m tired of going to funerals,” Nick told me before the Draft. You wouldn’t know about all this just by looking at him, though, because Nick is always smiling. He told me he keeps that smile on his face because he feels blessed, and because it’s his way of coping. As they say, laughing to keep from crying.
After Nick dropped 36 points in a summer-league game last night, he was described in Smack as somebody who can have a breakout season for the Wizards: “A cross between J.R. Smith without the rough edge and Jason Terry without a conscience.”
As it turns out, the Wizards want to do something about that edge. From the Washington Post earlier this week:
Coach Flip Saunders has challenged the talented shooting guard to ditch the smile and develop a mean streak. He wants Young to play with a chip on his shoulder, like he has something to prove.
“Nick is a very happy-go-lucky guy and he smiles a lot. I think as a young player, you don’t always need to smile,” Saunders said. “You’re better off having a little of that nastiness. You never saw Michael Jordan smile. The only time he smiled was when he was kicking your butt.”
Saunders has also been working with Young to help him become more effective shooting off screens and making plays for others. The coach may have more success with that, though, than getting Young to stop grinning.
“It’s been kind of hard. I can’t not have fun,” Young said, sporting a freshly cut mini-Mohawk while flashing a grin, after the Wizards concluded minicamp yesterday. “When I have fun, I smile a lot. He told me, ‘Just go out there in kill mode.’ I’ve been trying it a little bit, but at times, I catch myself smiling and joking. That’s natural for me. But if they want me to change, I have to change a little bit.”
Young contends that his playful nature shouldn’t be confused with him not taking basketball seriously. “I feel like I’m serious,” he said. “I just happen to smile all the time. I guess that’s something people think is a weakness, but it got me here.”
During one of our inter-office arguments about Nate Robinson yesterday, I put together a half-thought-out list of the best scoring guards off the bench in the League, and Young cracked the Top-10. He’s got the size (6-7, 205) and skills to be a lethal offensive weapon — he averaged 10.9 points last season and had 12 games where he scored 20-plus — and should benefit from spending more time on the court with Gilbert Arenas.
He’s progressing at a good pace so far, so I wonder if he even needs to develop the mean streak — or just the perception of a mean streak — that the Wizards are talking about. Young says he takes the game seriously and isn’t giving an inch out there, but his smile alone gives opponents another idea.
Does a player need to have a visible mean streak to reach his full potential?