The Curious Case of Nick Young’s Inability To Pass
Nick Young is one of the most unique players the NBA has ever seen. Now in his fourth season, his numbers improved from his rookie to his sophomore year, then took a dip across the board last season, his third. Now, this season brings dramatic improvement from any Nick Young we’ve ever seen.
He’s found confidence to go along with his offensive talent, has vastly improved his jump shooting and does the other little things he needs to do to keep himself on the court. His stats, thus far this season, certainly would have kept him in the Sixth Man of the Year conversation, had it not been for the trade of his friend Gilbert Arenas to Orlando, thrusting Young into Flip Saunders’ starting lineup (assuming he starts more than he comes off the bench — right now, out of 28 Wizards games, Young has appeared in 27 and started in four).
But none of this exactly makes Young unique. What makes him unique is that he could be one of the worst passing guards the league has ever seen. Ever.
Let’s start by plugging some of Young’s stats this season in the historical database at Basketball-Reference.com. This season, Young is averaging 25.8 minutes per game, 20.4 points per 36 minutes and 0.9 assists per 36. His per game averages are 14.6 points and 0.6 assists.
First, the players who have averaged at least 25 minutes per game, over 20 points per 36 and less than one assist per 36 for an entire season. And I realize that this is a limited judgement of Young’s passing ability, especially in a sense that I’m predicating it on how much he’s able to score, but I do feel that part of the assessment is how much offense one creates for themselves versus for others. Also, there’s probably only a handful of non-NBA/team employees who have watched as much or more of Young’s game over his NBA career than I have. Essentially, let’s be real, not only does Young not pass, he’s bad at passing, and I’m simply illustrating how bad with numbers.
Now, the returns from Basketball-Reference: six players and no other guard aside from Young: Yao Ming, Alonzo Mourning, Chris Gatling, Bailey Howell, Eddy Curry and Mike Mitchell are their names. For fairness sake, I ran the per game numbers through BBR — over 25 minutes per game, over 14 points per game and less than 0.75 assists per game — and the return was even fewer players. The five others aside from Young were Chris Gatling (same season as before), Moses Malone, Gheorghe Muresan, Eddy Curry (same season) and Armen Gilliam.
As you can see, these are some historical, non-assisting numbers. Now let’s get more historical.
Through last night’s game versus the Spurs, Young has played 5,113 career minutes. He has accumulated 2,487 points and 223 assists. Plug the career requirements for those who mostly played guard into Basketball-Reference — at least 5,000 career minutes, more than 2,400 points scored and less than 250 assists and you get two players ever: Nick Young and Martell Webster.
Webster has mostly been more of a specialty player, a long-distance shooter. And Young is similarly developing into a niche-type player. He’s being used as a scorer, not a play-maker. Young does have that ability to put the ball on the floor, he’s just never used it effectively for his team.
In his assessment of the Spurs game, the Washington Post’s Michael Lee wrote: “Nick Young failed to score at least 20 points for the first time in six games, as he was limited to just 10 points on 5-of-19 shooting. It was the first time in weeks that Young had looked so hesitant and indecisive.”
Young may have had 22 points in the Wizards’ 87-80 loss to the Chicago Bulls on December 22, but it wasn’t the type of 20-plus points that Flip Saunders desires.
“Even Nick, Nick’s been so effective, we talk about him catching and shooting. Tonight, he’s trying to do a lot off the dribble,” Saunders said after the Chicago game. “When you start doing that, that’s more individualistic than it is team-wise. And it’s easier for good defensive teams — that’s what [the Bulls] are, they’re second in the league in FG% — to lock into you. The referees were letting them grab, hold and do those things, and so you don’t put the ball on the floor and try to beat guy soff the dribble doing that. You beat them with the pass.”
Beat them with the pass, a dimension that the one-dimensional Young can’t do right now. He followed up that performance against the Bulls with a 5-19 effort against the Spurs that was heavily inspired by the disturbing play of Manu Ginobili.
After that Bulls game, I asked Saunders about Young’s passing/assist ability.
“It’s probably situations as far as what he puts in. You know, everyone has, as far as a role. He’s going to learn, you know … right now he’s our best scorer, the guy’s shooting 54% from the field. You’d rather him shooting than most other guys,” the coach said.
“Will he evolve as far as having more assists? Right now, he’s a scorer with a lot of tunnel vision,” Saunders continued. “And sometimes scorers and shooters are like that, especially early. We’re trying to limit his decision-making process and let him be aggressive as far as coming off screens.”
As suspected, Saunders is maximizing Young’s current potential while limiting his decision-making. And well, the coach’s methods have worked. I still recall Saunders speaking about how he loved to teach not long after he was hired. No other Wizards player has blossomed as much as Young has under Saunders.
Changes come slow and changes come drastically. Just yesterday, it seems, I was thinking Young could be out of the league soon … and I know that sentiment wasn’t unique to me. Now, Young is a piece for rebuilding. He’s a threat. His seemingly rapid, painstaking development over the previous three years has meaning. His growth, thanks to his own hard work and that of his coach, now provides more promise than ever … promise that he’ll one day shed the tunnel vision, and the horse blinders, and become a complete player. Nick Young, historically horrendous passing for now be damned, is finally becoming an NBA man.