AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Nick Young lay on the ground and darted his eyes anxiously toward the official.
The Lakers forward then furiously kicked his legs up in the air and yelled at the top of his lungs. Young had just drawn a charge on Detroit forward Josh Smith. And though Young’s ensuing free throws ensured the Lakers’ 106-102 victory Friday over the Detroit Pistons at the Palace, his defensive play helped turn the tide.
With Young establishing a shoot-first, play defense mentality through six NBA seasons, even his longtime friend struggled processing it all.
“I was amazed. That was the play of the game,” Lakers guard Jordan Farmar said. “I think that was the first one in his life. I’m happy for him.”
Young sure was, too.
“This ranks high. I’m the defensive player of the year now,” Young said. “It goes down in the books. Hopefully I can see this on a highlight coming into the game. I need to see that charge on the highlight reel.”
So why didn’t Young provide this defense before in his six year NBA career?
“They just didn’t watch us. At Washington, all you saw was guns and we losing,” Young said, referring to his four-year career with the Wizards that included Gilbert Arenas for his 66-game suspension in the 2010-11 season for bringing firearms into the locker room. “You don’t take the time to watch us. Being on the stage like this, I’m focusing in, you can see what we’re all about.”
Young has still scored plenty on the Lakers.
But as he wore a splint on a sprained ring finger in his left index finger, Young only went 3 of 12 from the field against Detroit. So Young compensated elsewhere by forcing two steals, drawing a charge and showing engagement on team defense.
“I told Nick I’m going to say something a coach has never said. Nick Young won a game on defense,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s been watching tape. He’s been trying and listening to everything we say.”
How did D’Antoni convince Young to buy into such a mindset?
“It’s the players. I would like to say something. But he won,” D’Antoni said. “Maybe he’s back home in LA. But he’s been unbelievable about everything. I asked him to go to the bench and started off a little slow and he’s fought right through it.”
Young initially struggled with his scoring too, averaging only 9.5 points on 33.3 percent shooting through six games as a starter. But as he’s assumed a bench role, Young has posted 16.9 points on a 49.6 percent clip.
That doesn’t seem surprising considering Young’s scoring mentality has always involved stretches where he either makes stepback floaters with ease or with utter failure. But D’Antoni’s preseason assessment that Young takes plays off on defense fit the perception all too well that he sees defense as a waste of energy better used for scoring.
“I always knew I could play defense,” Young said. “But being around a winning atmosphere, things start to change a little bit.”
So much that Young, unprompted, divulged he’s trying to teach backup forward Xavier Henry how to have the proper mindset between scoring and defending. As Young uttered those words, Henry burst out laughing as he stood at a nearby locker stall.
“You see how he throws me under the bus?” Henry said. “He shoots 22 times. I shoot 2 and I’m in the same boat.”
But this isn’t the first time Young has shown a stronger commitment to defense.
Young’s two steals in last week’s win against Golden State propelled the Lakers to a key third quarter run that ensured the victory. For the past two weeks, D’Antoni has raved about Young’s effort level improving. That’s why Young couldn’t help but pour out his emotions after making the defensive stop that won the game. That image itself shows how Young has taken a new attitude toward something he once rarely took seriously.
“That felt good I did that for my team,” Young said. “I was in a situation I was forced to do anything to win.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org