Welcome to an NBA Lockout Series that will draw cinematic and/or literary parallels to present Wizards personnel. The lockout is long, and subjects to write on have become increasingly spare. Prepare for basketball-flavored gruel, and that is as close to an apology as you're getting.
Without further ado, the fourth edition of Off-Topic Theater will take a look at Nick Young through the lens of Charles Dickens, and the tremendous struggles he's overcome to make it in the NBA.
Basketball fans easily embrace the duality of the NBA; made up of only truly elite athletes, physical freaks, yet trapped within an impossibly well-defined hierarchy. As I'll paraphrase from the movie "Gattaca", the elite suffer from the burden of perfection. As the protagonist tells a character trapped beneath that weight:
They've got you looking so hard for any flaw, that after a while, that's all that you see. For whatever it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible.
Themes like this speak to the human inside us, that believes in the truly amazing, that we can be better versions of ourselves with enough hard work and an inconquerable spirit. That's why the underdogs inspire us, why players like Dirk Nowitzki, who transcend themselves and become seemingly invincible after always falling short make the most compelling storylines.
It's why Lebron James has never been a particularly interesting story for me. Anointed early, insanely talented, it's impossible for me to see how he has ever doubted himself like I doubted myself, like probably all of us at one time or another. For players like Dirk, like Steve Nash, you could/can see a weariness following the most recent playoff exit, explaining what went wrong to the media, much as we explain such things to ourselves when we fall short. When those players succeed it is our success. We stand with them and their joy is ours because they never knew and maybe stopped believing, but they made it anyway. I believe Nick Young has it in him to be such a player.
We're going to work with some of the generalities from Dickens' classic as they apply to Nick. At some point he must have known that Division I ball was coming, and the NBA. In contrast, Pip, Dickens' protagonist, is abruptly placed in the world of Satis House with only a cursory explanation and left to interact with the girl of the estate. If that sounds strange, it's no stranger than the premise of the story. Of course, there is certainly no literal Miss Havisham giving our boy to a literal Estella to manipulate and break his heart.
However, I believe the burden of perfection up and coming NBA players assume as they attempt to develop complete and elite games is all too capable of the same thing. Both Nick and Pip faced tragedy in their lives, if you've never seen Second Chance Season, I suggest you do so. Jake's review is here. Nick's burden of perfection was levered onto his shoulders while both he and his family struggled to deal with their grief and its consequences, an onus that would have crushed a lesser man, and one he shouldered as a teenager.
Both Pip and Nick 'made it': Pip becoming the beneficiary of a mysterious patron, Nick earning his way into the NBA. Yet the struggle was not over for either and both seemed to lose their way once they 'arrived'. There are sophomoric claims Gilbert Arenas led Nick astray which are hard to prove or disprove conclusively. It isn't a stretch to say Nick's game over his first few seasons was characterized by a lack of progress exarcerbated by a lack of focus.
I'm willing to chalk part of that up to the relief of a guaranteed first round contract and the rest up to a mild neglect from the incumbent Wizards coaching staff. For both Nick and Pip, the revelation of their dreams becoming not only achievable but inevitable was too much at first. Choices were made that ultimately made/are making our protagonists wiser men. Pip severed ties with his past, both fell into the social scene of their new environs with abandon, temporarily losing the spirit of indefatigable perseverance that had defined them.
More is demanded of both young men as time presses on: Pip's benefactor comes forth as a convict he helped as a child, a forgotten man, while Nick faces the possibility of becoming a marginal NBA player. They rise to the occasion, their responses indicate an awareness (conscious or no) that their lives have been defined by the weight of the expectations on them. Pip grows to care for the convict who made his fortune in Australia to make the boy who helped him in extremis a gentlemen. Nick worked with the coaching staff to tailor his game to John Wall's and put forward defensive effort, resulting in his best season to date. As they face the reality of their respective situations, they show signs of growth all the more apparent for the stagnation they are leaving behind.
That's precisely what's most frustrating about the recent Drew League MVP flap; while we don't attach too much significance to it, it's the kind of thing that we hope Nick has grown beyond. Personally, it looks like a growing pain, an experience that will add to his maturity and remind him of the dangers of Twitter. (Remember kids: It's just like having a microphone in your face! Before you post, imagine a reporter holding a microphone on the other end, if a little voice shouts, 'Beware!', refrain!)
As Pip grows, he confronts the consequences of his past choices and makes the calls that illustrate his decision to live up to the highest standards he can possibly achieve. When the climax of the story arrives, he meets Estella again, his great white buffalo, so to speak. At this point, she has become a sadder and kinder person and they come together at last. Estella functions here as a metaphor for Nick finding his place in the NBA. Nick has been talking about his desire to improve his ball-handling in the off-season, adding to his versatility as a scorer, or embracing his role/limitations/whatever-you-like.
Nick has been chasing Estella in a sense, ever since he has come into the league. I see that initial reputation as a ball hog and think of a young player who has to be 'The Man'. To grow out of that while focusing the skills initially leading you to a dead end on being successful in a team environment means fully embracing your dream, but having the maturity to achieve it while accepting your limitations.
To my mind, this is what makes Nick Young such a potentially inspiring figure in the NBA, one of those great storylines. I'm not suggesting he'll become a Dirk Nowitzki or something equally ridiculous. But a student-athlete who put a deep, jagged family tragedy on his shoulders, made it to the NBA, went through an extended maturation that left him with little credibility, and finally embraced the tenets that would enable his success at the highest professional level in the world is inspiring enough for me.
Nick's carefree demeanor has often become fodder for heated discussion usually ending up with one side painting it as one logical reason for labeling him a conscience-less gunner. The story Second Chance Season reveals is most likely the principal formative experience in Nick's life. Thus, I see that carefree demeanor as a result of how his life perspective adjusted to that travail. He always could have he become a dark and angry young man, I know which Nick I'd rather have.
It's difficult to be patient when your expectations are great, and harder still to redefine your plan to achieve them when the first option fails. He has risen to the challenges in his life, and if he hasn't grown as fast as some of his fellows, he's definitely had a longer road to travel. When it comes to Nick Young, the best is yet to come.