CHICAGO — In the place that Michael Jordan built, Kobe Bryant cast his eyes on an eager disciple outlining how he can make the next step toward greatness.
Nick Young wanted to learn everything from Bryant since he fulfilled a lifelong dream this offseason in becoming a Laker. After all, the former Cleveland High and USC product grew up idolizing Bryant through every championship and scoring feat he accomplished through his 18-year NBA career. With Young becoming the Lakers’ feel-good story in an otherwise dreary season with his clutch scoring and infectious enthusiasm, Bryant recently offered some timely piece of advice.
“When your shot is not going in, when you miss the last five shots or you’re down 15 points, that’s when you really need Swaggy P to come out,” Bryant said. “That’s when the team needs him the most.”
With Bryant still out of the lineup because of a fractured left knee, the Lakers needed Young. If not for a faulty inbounds pass to an open Taj Gibson that cemented the Lakers’ 102-100 overtime loss Monday to the Chicago Bulls at United Center, Young may have carried the Lakers to their third consecutive victory with moments that remind us all of Bryant’s clutchness.
Young posted a season-high 31 points on 11-of-23 shooting, made three foul shots to force overtime and a baseline jumper that tied the game, 100-100, with six seconds remaining. Once he weathered the frustration over a loss he called “heartbreaking” and relished what he considered his best game in his six-year NBA career, Young seized the spotlight by announcing what led to such growth
“Kobe has been a great mentor for me just telling me all types of things during this game,” Young said. “That’s been unbelievable for me this whole year, learning from the greatest player to play this game.”
That’s why Young cringed when a television broadcaster suggested that he’s morphed into Bryant.
“I can’t play like Kobe,” Young said. “There’s only one Kobe.”
Lakers forwards Chris Kaman and Jordan Hill then playfully jeered Young during his television interview.
Said Hill: “Kobe gets dimes. He gets assists.”
Said Kaman: “Kobe passes the ball and rebounds.”
OK, so Young’s team-leading 16.7 points on 42.7 percent shooting goes nowhere close to Kobe Bryant’s career average of 25.5 points. There’s no discussion on Bryant’s five NBA championship rings or his fourth place standing on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. But without Bryant, the Lakers have found Young as the most suitable replacement.
“They’re both really good scorers,” Gasol said. “They score in different ways. Nick is more of a crafty and herky jerky type of guy with step backs and pull ups. He’ll go to the rim every now and again. But most of his game is jumpers and not really turnarounds like Kobe. He doesn’t try to get to the post as much as Kobe. But they’re both really good scorers.”
They’re both really good, too, at seizing the moment.
“You find a leader who takes the ball and takes the shot, that’s Nick,” Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s a big-time scorer and can get a shot anytime.”
For the Lakers, that came through at critical times.
Young used what D’Antoni and Gasol have described as a “herky-jerky” motion, drawing a foul on Bulls forward Joakim Noah as he attempted a three-pointer with 4.1 seconds remaining. Young then calmly sank free throw after free throw after free throw to tie the game, 100-100, and force overtime.
“If I didn’t make those, it was over,” Young said. “I would hear it on Twitter and Instagram. Being in that situation, I know most people don’t want to be in that situation. It’s big. I went to the line thinking this is where big players step up. That’s what I try to do. It’s a blessing all three went in.”
It’s also a blessing for Young that he has a certain Laker guiding him through the process.
“Kobe is right there telling me, guiding me like a coach from that sideline and telling me what to do and keeping my head up,” Young said. “Kobe’s been a great mentor for me all season. Who wouldn’t want to learn from and have Kobe in their locker room?”
Well, Dwight Howard comes to mind. Howard often tired of Bryant’s demanding leadership style, while Bryant became irritated with Howard’s goofy personality. But even if Young remains eclectic with his fashion choices and his happy-go-lucky smile, he also remains eager to learn.
So much that he’s followed Bryant’s advice to watch more film. So much that Young has started making inroads toward reducing his sugar consumption, knowing Bryant shedding 16 pounds last season enabled him to play as if he was in his prime. So much that Young spoke up following his ejection in the Lakers’ loss last week to Phoenix where he criticized his teammates for not standing up for him in the scuffle.
Bryant likes what he sees.
“He’s getting there in the sense of the attitude he’s bringing to play,” Bryant said. “He’s bringing an edge to the game. He’s bringing competitiveness that’s been missing. Things have been cruising along and skating along, but the altercation in Phoenix brought things to a head to where ‘This is not okay.’ If you’re upset about something, you need to be upset about it instead of sweeping it under the rug.”
Young has his limits too in embracing Bryant. But nothing serious.
Young refuses to rename his self-given nickname “Swaggy P” to “Swaggy Mamba.”
“Nah, I’m Swaggy P baby,” Young said. “No Mamba. I don’t want to be a snake. I want the flash and jewelry.”
But underneath the flash and the jewelry, Young also wants to become a great player. Hence, he’s soaking in everything that Bryant tells him.
Follow L.A. Daily News beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at email@example.com