Is the new Nick Young for real?

Is the new Nick Young for real?
February 1, 2013, 11:15 pm

Maybe it’s me. Maybe I was wrong. It’s happened before. It will happen again.

In the last week, I’ve had no fewer than four conversations with four different people about Nick Young. They’re all people I respect. Some of them work at Comcast SportsNet. One had a long career in the NBA. Another (rhymes with Harshall Marris) is such a huge Young fan that I suspect he has Swaggy P footie pajamas at home. The lot of them think Young has improved significantly, that Doug Collins has turned him into more than the selfish shoot-first, ask-questions-never gunner that he’s always been.

I wasn’t buying it. But perhaps I should. Perhaps Young has suddenly evolved from selfish to selfless.

“[Young] has really listened as we’ve tried to teach him,” Collins said. “He’s focused and I told him when we got him that my goal as his coach was to make him a more polished player. Not ‘Swaggy P’ and the act, but a player. He’s guarding now, he had four assists and he’s getting in there and making plays for our guys. He’s earned the trust of his teammates and, more importantly, he trusted the coaching staff when he came here.”

Young played well in an 89-80 over the Sacramento Kings on Friday night. (It was the first time the Sixers have won back-to-back games in more than two months, by the way). The shooting guard scored 20 points on 6-for-12 shooting from the field. The crowd loved it. You could hear the fans in the upper reaches of the Wells Fargo Center merrily chanting “Swaggy P” with almost every shot he made.

It’s become something of a trend lately -- Young playing good basketball, while adoring fans applaud his every move. His major metamorphosis has been swift and surreal.

For much of the season, Collins brought Young off the bench. That changed a few games ago when the head coach altered his lineup and replaced the injured Jason Richardson (knee) with Young.

“We’re going with a starting lineup that gets us off to better starts and two of our offensive guys are starting and we have a defensive bench,” Collins said, explaining the move. “I have to make sure I have enough scoring on the floor when [I go to the bench].”

That part made sense. The Sixers have had a lot of slow starts this season. Collins needed offense to begin games. Young can score. It was the obvious move.

The rest of it, though? The rest of it was harder to understand. Starting Young is one thing, but trusting him to play 33 minutes against the Kings is something else. Or 35 minutes against the Wizards is another matter. Or 33 minutes against the Grizzlies. Or 41 minutes against the Knicks. Or 32 minutes against the Bucks. Or 31 minutes against the Spurs.

It wasn’t all that long ago -- about two weeks, actually -- when Collins had soured on Young to the point that Swaggy didn’t P(lay) at all against the Houston Rockets. He got a DNP-CD that game. As acronyms go, that one is about as bad as it gets in professional sports. It’s slightly less humiliating -- but only slightly -- than stamping a giant “U” for “useless” onto a player’s forehead.

And you know what? Collins wasn’t wrong to do it at the time. By his own admission, Young hadn’t put out nearly as much effort on defense as he did on offense. He’s still not great on defense, or even very good, but at least he’s trying. That’s something he didn’t always do in the past.

He wasn’t a willing passer in the past, either. His overall game was so laughable for so long that he became an easy target for quick-witted hoops fans. That has recently changed as well. Entering this season, Young had managed to post four or more assists just 12 times -- in 357 games. This season, he’s already had six games with four or more assists, including three in the last two weeks. It’s been a rapid, surprising transformation.

Young’s PER (player efficiency rating, the metric used to factor in all good and bad plays at both ends of the court) still isn’t great, but it’s risen considerably over the last month. Entering Wednesday’s game, Young was 210th in PER -- by far his best mark of the season. Barely a month ago, Young’s PER was around 235.

“The big thing is, he’s earned that time,” Collins said when asked about Young’s increased minutes. “This year, he’s worked very, very hard to do things on the defensive end, rather than just being a streaky shooter. I want him to be Swaggy P and walk around being a damn good player, not just be a guy who comes in and maybe throws up some points or whatever and you have to get him out of the game when the game is on the line.”

When Collins said Young has earned the time, he meant it. No one laughed, either.