LOS ANGELES – The chuckling became as frequent as Nick Young’s productivity. This time, his smile had reasons other than his personality, a strong performance or eagerness to play in the game.
Young’s laughter also stemmed on who Lakers coach Luke Walton asked him to substitute for late in Sunday’s game against the Clippers at Staples Center.
“You coming in for me?” Lakers forward Luol Deng asked.
“I guess,” Young said, smiling.
The two exchanged some more laughs because of the obvious implications. Deng insisted the lineup change was “cool,” and he was just “joking around” with Young. Yet, very few ever imagined Young ever playing at the power forward position.
But with forward Clippers Blake Griffin out with an injured right knee and center DeAndre Jordan out late in the game, Walton considered Young at that position for different reasons. He matched up with another wing player in Clippers forward Wesley Johnson. Young has remained both a consistent shooter and defender. And Walton wanted to give Deng some rest after already logging 34 minutes.
All of which made a difference in the Lakers’ 111-102 victory over the Clippers.
“I try to do it all out there,” Young said, grinning after posting a team-leading 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting and two assists in 30 minutes.
After Young went in for Deng with 7:07 left in the fourth quarter, it did not take long for the matchup to work. While Young operated along the baseline, he drew a double team and threw the ball out to D’Angelo Russell for an open 3-pointer. Johnson went scoreless the rest of the game. And Young prompted Walton to change his game plan by playing him the rest of the way because of strong chemisty with Russell, Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle.
“He’s our biggest guard,” Walton said of the 6-foot-7, 210-pound Young. “He does a good job fighting in the post when bigger players try to post him up.”
Do not expect the Lakers (12-22) to use much of that option against the Utah Jazz (18-13) on Tuesday at Staples Center. After all, the Jazz boast plenty of size with 7-foot-1, 250-pound center Rudy Gobert and 6-foot-10, 250-pound forward Boris Diaw.
“You will not see a steady diet of it,” Walton said. “But if the opportunity presents itself where we can get Nick, JC, Lou and D’Angelo together, as many as those guys on the floor and not be overmatched physically, then yeah, we’d love to do that.”
Walton could not help but laugh about his coaching decision. But it also revealed insight on how he has tried to embrace small-ball lineups to adapt to the modern NBA.
He credited his innovative thinking first toward former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, whose triangle system requires players to make reads instead of locking in at certain positions. The offense lacked a traditional point guard and called for the first person to get to the post to become the center. Walton observed that “is why Kobe [Bryant] used to run down to the post so much.”
As an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors for the past two years, Walton saw other ways players thrived without playing in traditional positions. He liked how former Warriors small forward Harrison Barnes guarded bulky power forwards. The undersized albeit athletic forward Draymond Green often defended at the center spot. Warriors guard Klay Thompson and Warriors forward Andre Iguodala frequently matched up against a wide range of point guards, shooting guards and small forwards.
“I want basketball players that can guard multiple positions, have talent and can score,” Walton said. “I don’t need a big man at my 4. If you have guys that can play and are talented, you can take advantage of it. The things you have to do the most and the most important way to have success, you have to be able to defend. You can’t go positionless if you don’t’ have guys willing to fight.”
Surprisingly, Young has fit that job description this season.
“My thing was coming in and bringing energy no matter what,” Young said of playing at power forward. “Missing shots, making shots, just trying to make a difference out there.”
But as a whole, the Lakers rank nearly last in all defensive categories. They also are without reserve forward Larry Nance Jr. for four weeks (left knee), who has become one of the team’s more consistent defenders. Hence, Walton has spent most of his practices emphasizing defense. That will stay the same until further notice.
Until then, Walton discovered an unorthodox lineup combination that could work. That left Walton, Deng and Young laughing over the experiment.