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“Be You”: The Full Nick Young Experience Hits Golden State

The Warriors have everything … except back-to-back titles. That’s why, in an era when standing pat means losing ground, the defending champs got serious about taking a chance on one of the NBA’s silliest players—and are actively encouraging Swaggy P to look for his shot.

Five shots of Nick Young Getty Images/Ringer illustration

One of the craziest offseasons in recent history has not only shaken up the league’s hierarchy, it’s altered the path for several prominent teams and players heading into the 2017-18 season. For Golden Opportunity Week, the third of four weeklong series leading up to the tipoff of a new NBA year, we're taking long, hard looks at the most intriguing situations in the league—and what comes next for everyone involved.

On the third day of the Golden State Warriors’ training camp, Nick Young stands with his hands in the marsupial pouch of a black sweatshirt from his “Most Hated” clothing line and laughs. Young pretty much always laughs, and to be around him is to receive an instant mood and confidence boost. Ombre lightning bolts that look like the Gatorade logo shoot down both of his sleeves; the garment he’s wearing retails for $125 and is sold out online. He’s waiting his turn to be interviewed on camera by Ethan Wacker, a teen from the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, who will later post an Instagram with Steph Curry and the caption “BEST. DAY. EVER.” One day earlier, both Young’s new head coach, Steve Kerr, and a number of his new teammates gave him a piece of unfamiliar advice: take more shots. “I don’t want Nick out there thinking,” Kerr told reporters. “He’s one of the best shooters in the league.”

Young laughs, poking fun at himself. “When coach tells you to shoot?” Young says in a laconic, smiley, Southern Cali drawl. “I’m not used to that really too much.”

NBA Preview 2017 Golden Opportunity Week

Throughout his 10-year NBA career, Young has rarely needed a reminder to put up a shot. Last season, with the Lakers, he was tied for 11th in the league in 3-point attempts per game, averaging seven, and one of those shots was particularly illustrative of his on-court persona. There’s a concept in hockey called the “Gordie Howe Hat Trick”: a goal, an assist, and a fight all in the same game. What Young pulled off against the Oklahoma City Thunder last November should be similarly named forevermore after him: an interception of a pass from one teammate to another; an uncalled travel; and a ballsy game-winning 3, all in the same sequence. The only question, really, is what the preferred nomenclature should be.

Since his days on the Washington Wizards, four teams ago, Young has been known mostly by the goofy-chill alter ego “Swaggy P.” But when Warriors general manager Bob Myers signed the free agent to a one-year, $5.2 million deal in July, he remarked to reporters: “We’re not calling him Swaggy P. His name is Nick Young.” The Warriors’ newest pickup smiled, as usual, when asked that day about Myers’s comment. “Nah, I don’t think I could drop that,” he said. Whatever Young goes by in Oakland, this season represents a fresh start for the 32-year-old shooting guard. “He’s been a really good player in his career,” Kerr said at his media day press conference, “but he’s played on a lot of bad teams, frankly.” Now Young is the latest intriguing addition to the NBA’s most freewheeling and formidable team.

Over the past three years, the Warriors have gone 207-39 in the regular season; won two championships; and employed two-time league MVP Curry, two-time executive of the year Myers, and coach of the year (and of our hearts) Kerr. Even their high-profile problems speak to their status and their success: a feud with the president about a ceremonial White House visit; a dispute with the city of Oakland about the cost of championship parades.

But the Warriors know better than just about any other team how fragile and fleeting dominance can be: One minute you’re a 73-win team up 3-1 in the 2015-2016 NBA Finals; the next minute you’re watching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers lift the trophy. The Warriors have everything … except back-to-back titles.

In the increasingly top-heavy NBA, where a small handful of almost-contenders are constantly wheeling and dealing and assembling wannabe superteams—most of them with the express purpose of unseating Golden State—to stand pat is to lose ground. Which is why, this offseason, the Warriors got serious about taking a chance on one of the NBA’s silliest players.

When Young played for Byron Scott on the Lakers, he complained that “the atmosphere was so stiff, there was no life, we were all just working machines.” He now joins a team where the opposite is true; if anything, the Warriors seem to encourage their players’ enthusiasms to shine through. If the NBA folded tomorrow, Klay Thompson could be ambassador to China; Curry could make a tidy living on the professional golf circuit; and Andre Iguodala could be the newest Shark in the Tank.

Last season the Warriors raised eyebrows when they signed Young’s good buddy JaVale McGee, another former Wizard with a history of whimsical miscues who was joining his fifth team. But surrounded by the Warriors mythos and ethos, McGee found his niche, won a championship, and by the summer was happily haunting supermarkets while wearing a bathrobe, as one does. “They embraced me,” McGee said at media day. “They accepted me for me and they figured out exactly what they need me to do.“ This wasn’t lost on Young. “He really had some highlights,” Young says of McGee. “He made a big transition from where he was to now.” Young hopes he can do the same with Golden State. “This core has been together for a while,” Young says. “They just won a championship, and now they took me in.”

The Warriors took in Young for reasons both unexpected and obvious. Young has not exactly been lauded for his defense in years past, but Golden State felt that, recently, that part of his game has grown underrated. (Former Warriors assistant and current Lakers head coach Luke Walton described it as a “pleasant surprise” to Kerr, Myers said this summer.) They also sought Young’s offensive efficiency. Last season, with the Lakers, he hit more than 40 percent of his attempts from behind the arc. “He’s one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the NBA,” Thompson told reporters at training camp. He would know: He, Curry, and Young were the league’s top three last season in that realm. “He shot a phenomenal percentage last year,” Thompson continued, “so he’s going to help us tremendously.”

Early in training camp, though, “I found myself passing a little more than normal,” Young told the media. “You look to your left and your right, you got Steph, KD, and Klay. It’s crazy.” Which is why Kerr and Iguodala were among those reminding Young to shoot the ball. “Listen, man,” Iguodala told reporters, summarizing the advice he gave Young, “you’ve gotta shoot. Be you.”

In the summer of 2015, Young got a tattoo of Tupac Shakur on his right arm that took close Swaggy P watchers by surprise. The tattoo wasn’t the issue, but its placement was: The year prior, Young had made it clear to his fans that while his left arm was free to be inked up—with his initials in the shape of the New York Yankees logo; with the words “In Swag We Trust”—his right arm was “strictly for buckets.” He would later explain the reversal in personal body art policy in a tweet. “The right arm its not limited no more,” he wrote. “It was mad I put limitations on it.”

Young has never been one to appear limited on the court, where he possesses a unique knack for blending ridiculous mishaps with lovable, earnest, genuinely exciting play. When he isn’t putting up long-range shots, he delights crowds, if maybe not always his coaches, with 360 dunks and 360 reverse layups—although when those go badly, they go horridly. He inspired my colleague Chris Ryan to opine that “[saying] he had zero assists would be like saying Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a story about a guy who needs a lift. There’s so much more to it than that.”

Call it the Nick Young Experience. His recurring appearances on “Shaqtin’ a Fool,” the blooper-reel segment presented by Shaquille O’Neal on TNT’s NBA studio show, are the stuff of legend: Against the Nuggets, Young threw a baseline inbounds pass off teammate Pau Gasol’s back, gift-wrapping an easy layup for Denver’s Nate Robinson. Playing the Heat, he committed a traveling violation that somehow resembled a snowman melting in the sun.

Perhaps the most well-known Young goof came when the then Laker prematurely celebrated a long shot that wound up not going in, an oopsies that spawned an enduringly popular all-purpose GIF. (To be fair, Curry has done this too.) Young says that the Warriors “welcomed me with open arms,” and that’s true: When Young signed with the team, Kevin Durant tweeted an image from that play, with Young’s hands stretched outward as the ball clanks off the rim, as a way of saying hello. (This was before Durant wound up in Twitter jail.) Young enjoyed the gesture. “I thought that was cool,” Young says. “He just won a championship, he was the MVP, and he tweeted me. I thought that was all good.”

A year after Durant was holed up in the Hamptons as numerous NBA teams made their pitches to him, he joined Kerr and Draymond Green on a trip down to L.A. to recruit Young this summer. His involvement in bringing Young to Golden State took other forms, as well: This summer Myers told reporters he hadn’t expected that Durant would structure his contract in the way he did, taking less money to allow the Warriors more flexibility to pursue a player like Young. (He also remarked that when Durant was the one being wooed, one of the players who helped make the push was Iguodala, who knew he was helping the team obtain a guy who would take away his minutes.) “It’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit,” Myers told reporters in July, quoting John Wooden. “We don’t have guys that are selfish at all,” Curry said on media day, “that are jealous of anybody else’s success or going to create drama if they get five shots one game and 15 shots the next game. As long as we win.”

Young has averaged upward of 20 minutes per game over the course of his career, a number that will surely drop this season. “We’ve got a lot of mouths to feed,” Kerr said at media day. “If you look at our bench, how many guys have been full-time starters, [now] coming off the bench: JaVale, Andre, Shaun [Livingston], Nick Young, David West, and I’m probably missing a couple—Omri [Casspi, another offseason acquisition] has been a starter in this league. … There’s a bigger picture than just playing time and points per game and stats, and that’s why a lot of them have come here the last couple of years.”

Kerr mentioned Ian Clark, who averaged 12.8 minutes in two seasons with Golden State before moving to New Orleans in the offseason, as a player whose role, and presumably playing time, Young will fill. But in those minutes, the Warriors want Young to put up shots, space the floor, and yes, play good defense. “Our message to Nick was, ‘You’re perfect for us,’” Kerr said at media day. “You can shoot, you’re 6-7, you can guard multiple spots. He was better defensively last year than he’s ever been.” Last season on the Lakers, Young played under Walton, a former Warriors assistant who briefly took over Golden State head-coaching duties in 2015 when Kerr took time off to rest his ailing back. “I have good friends on the Lakers’ staff,” says longtime Golden State assistant Ron Adams, “and they liked [Young] as a defender.”

But just because Young will be a supporting actor this season doesn’t mean he’ll quit hamming it up as if he’s in the lead role. Earlier this summer, in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Lance Fresh, Young was asked what he’d do if he found himself with the ball in his favorite spot and the game on the line while KD and Steph were open too. “Shoot that muthafucka,” Young said. “Then hit both of them with: ‘My bad, y’all, I didn’t see y’all open. I thought the clock ran out.’” He was laughing when he said it, because he always is.

Young’s best friend, assistant, and cousin is a man who goes by the name “Big Meat.” (He is from a “completely different” side of the family, Young says, than another cousin: Kendrick Lamar.) Once, Young says, a fan who recognized Big Meat asked Young if he’d mind taking a photo of them—perhaps because Big Meat is a big part of a 2013 “Thru the Lens” day-in-the-life-of–Nick Young video best known for being the origin of the Confused Nick Young meme that transcended sports altogether. Young’s smiling, perplexed, eventually megaviral reaction face comes after his mother, Mae, tells him that he was a clown as a kid; some things never change. But Big Meat has also known Young since the part of his youth that was far more serious.

When Young was 5, growing up in Los Angeles, his oldest brother, Charles Jr., was killed by a gang member in a case of mistaken identity; another brother, John, experienced a mental breakdown in response to his anguish. “One bullet killed two sons” is how Young’s father, Charles, put it in a documentary called Second Chance Season that was filmed by director Daniel Forer, screened at the 2007 L.A. Film Festival, and aired on ESPN2. The documentary, which began as a three-minute feature for a cable TV pilot called Basketball Avenue, followed a teenaged Young, who attended three different high schools and had drawn notice for his basketball skill, and his family as they fought his local school board to maintain his basketball eligibility and struggled with the lasting impact of his brother’s death. The film also featured another future NBA player, Jordan Farmar, a friend of Young’s who played for a rival basketball program but lent him SAT study guides to help him get the scores necessary to play on a collegiate scholarship.

“He had a very difficult upbringing,” Tim Floyd, who now coaches at UTEP but previously coached Young at USC during his sophomore and junior seasons, says in a phone conversation. “He lost a brother at a young age. He was proud to be at the school, loved the school, and I thought was absolutely one of the most talented guys that I ever coached at the college level.” After Young’s sophomore year, he told Floyd he was interested in going pro. Floyd says he reacted by telling Young, “I’d never hold you back, but let’s make sure we’re not jumping into a swimming pool that doesn’t have any water in it.” He brought Young into his office, dialed an NBA general manager on speakerphone, and asked for his thoughts. They weren’t encouraging. “We hung up, and I said, Nick, should we make more calls? He said, ‘No, coach, that’s enough.’”

Young returned for his junior year, a 25-win season for USC that until last year marked the program’s highest win total and averaged 17.5 points, gaining national attention and improving his draft stock. (Those Trojans ended Durant’s brief college career by advancing to the Sweet 16.) “You see some of his silliness,” Floyd says, “and you might think differently, but he lived in the [USC] gym. Kobe was his hero, and he tried to emulate Kobe as a result: You saw him take a lot of midrange shots, a lot of shots off the dribble, a lot of creativity in his offense. He was a very versatile player.” Young declared for the NBA draft following his junior year, and the Wizards took him 16th overall. “USC was everything,” Young says. “Those were some good days. I still go there to play around, and see my face all inside the gym.” Floyd calls Young “one of the most fun guys I’ve ever coached, and one of the most misunderstood.”

Any misunderstandings are perhaps understandable, considering the vast catalog of offbeat, off-court misadventures Young has delivered over more than a decade. Back at USC, a good-natured game-day rassle with a teammate resulted in a shattered fire extinguisher cover and a bunch of stitches in Young’s ass. “They had to pad my butt up,” he told Complex about playing in that evening’s game. “I had pads all on me like a diaper.”

In Phoenix to play the Suns in 2012 while with the Wizards, Young happened upon a wedding reception at the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton and wound up sampling the chocolate cake and taking over a mic to publicly well-wish the bride and groom. (Step aside, Jerry Rice!) “I was a wedding crasher,” he told The Washington Post. “Will Ferrell. I didn’t have nothing else to do.”

Before a Lakers game in 2015, he told reporters of the scary run-in he’d had with a dolphin who was, in his estimation, trying to off him in order to move in on Young’s then-girlfriend, the Australian pop star Iggy Azalea. “He was playing with everybody else, doing what dolphins do, the ‘ack-ack’ and all that,” he explained, sounding not unlike Billy Joel yelping the lyrics to “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song.)” “It was my time to ride the dolphin. For some reason he took me all the way to the bottom. He was trying to drown me.”

As Young told the story to reporters, Coach Scott interrupted from across the locker room to inform him that he had shown up 15 minutes late and would be issued a fine. A year later Young and Azalea very publicly broke up not long after one of his Laker teammates, D’Angelo Russell, snitched on his boy by posting a video of Young lying on a hotel room sofa and recounting time spent with another woman. Azalea defended Young in the short term, but later confirmed via their house’s security footage that it wasn’t just bluster. “Single,” Young tweeted after the split from his fiancée.

Since then, he’s thrown himself into another love: fashion. Young is obsessed—“I find myself on my laptop a lot, seeing what’s hot,” he says—and regrets that his father no longer possesses the ’70s leisure suits that he wore back in the day. “I’d try to throw them on,” Young says. “I tell him all the time, ‘Yo, where that Dad at?’ He had that big fro, and now he’s just a normal dad.” According to GQ, Young’s launch of his clothing line, Most Hated, so named because Young often feels that way, made him “the first pro athlete with his own merch.” (He sent stuff to Odell Beckham Jr., who posted on Instagram that he and Young “got somethin in common.”) Young has played games in shoes ranging from Timberland-looking Wheat LeBrons to Yeezy Boost 750s, the Kanye West shoes that look more like suede baby booties than basketball sneakers. In the Warriors’ first preseason game last Saturday, following a week of discussion about anthems and kneeling and canceled White House visits, Young sported a pair of old 2007 “Black President” Adidas sneakers that his former Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas had given him. (He went 2-for-5 from the 3-point line in 19 minutes of play.)

Happy father day OG I love you pops

A post shared by Nick Young (@swaggyp1) on

Floyd recalls that in college, Young was ahead of the game when it came to his head. “Nick invented this hairdo that nobody else in sports had at the time,” he says. “Called the Fro-Hawk.” In 2015, when Young experimented with another hairstyle that Scott said “looks like a bunch of worms up in there,” Young took it in stride. “People with no hair wouldn’t understand,” he retorted at the time, referring to his Lakers coach. “He had the ability to try things with his hair. But when it’s over with, you tend to turn into a hater to people who got hair.”

It’s all part of that Nick Young Experience. “I don’t view what he does as a negative,” said Myers this summer during his July press conference. “I just think he has fun playing basketball.” (Young has casually known Myers for years; he says that during open-court times at gyms down in L.A. he used to run into the former agent and Warriors GM, who enjoys playing pickup. “He’s still active,” Young says of Myers, pointing across the practice basketball courts to a piece of workout equipment in one corner. “You see him on his treadmill over there, wearing his joggers.”) Curry pointed out on media day that, having played against Young for years, he’d seen plenty of his personality and character. “He’s always having fun,” Curry said. “Looks like he’s always smiling, enjoying whatever he’s doing on and off the court, which is something that is very consistent with our culture here.” Warriors assistant Adams echoes all of this, saying, “He’s kind of a free spirit, just really a delightful person. I enjoy people like that.”

On the Lakers, Young got a chance to play alongside his slightly less free-spirited idol, which was a trip: “You watch him, you wear his jersey, you try to be like him on the playground,” he says of Kobe Bryant, “then you’re actually playing with him on the court. He used to call at 6 a.m. telling me to come to Orange County, like an hour away. I’d get on the road and get there just in time. Just seeing Kobe walk into the gym, early a.m., with his shades on? I thought that was cool. That’s Kobe.”

But in typical Young fashion, he wasn’t cowed by his idol. He trash-talked him in practice, triggering a Bryant outburst in which he called the Lakers “soft like Charmin.” After a Lakers win without Bryant in the lineup, Young jokingly concluded to assembled reporters that the best way to maintain momentum would be to tell Bryant to pass the ball and “take the backseat for a little bit.” He once play-acted as Bryant in the locker room, and, when a reporter jostled his knee, he responded that it was all good: “The mamba, we slither,” he told him. “We don’t have bones.” After Bryant scored 60 points in his final NBA game, Young asked the Nike athlete to sign his Adidas shoes. Bryant threw them in the trash instead. “That’s Kobe for you,” Young concluded.

Young’s childlike sense of wonder, his guest house full of sneakers, his self-proclaimed nickname, his erstwhile celebrity relationship: All these things can give the impression that he isn’t serious, whatever that means. But he’s come to the right place: The Warriors organization isn’t afraid to engage its players’ many quirks.

“If I could do it all over again, I would be Klay,” Kerr joked on media day when asked about Thompson’s magical adventures over the summer in China. “He’s got it figured out. Just wants to hoop and have fun and play with his dog.” Myers stuck up for Green after the player went on a 2016 locker room tirade, saying they wouldn’t be a championship team without him; this past summer, KNBR radio hosts revealed that Myers’s cellphone ringtone was a clip of a celebratory Green saying, at the Warriors’ second championship parade: “Can somebody give Bob some fucking credit?” This might not work on a less disciplined, less successful team, but Golden State exists in the kind of ecosystem that tends to self-correct when necessary and keep everything humming along. Having such respect for the individual makes for a stronger collective.

“What I’ve found when you have players come to your team,” says Adams, “is that what others have said about them—you have to throw that out. This is a new world, this is a new setting, people change, they get older, they look at the game differently, they look at the world differently.” McGee is one example, Adams says, and last season, so was Matt Barnes. “I never liked playing against Matt, because he was a mean guy who was always starting stuff. And Matt came in here, and I have to say, I miss him! He was one of my favorite guys. … So throw out the labels, because they’re all human beings.”

Success in sports—and the lack of it, too—often has compounding, exponential, financial-like returns. The more capital one has, the less that capital needs to be monkeyed around with in order to pay bills or even to splurge now and again; the rich can sit back on what feels like autopilot and live comfortably off dividends. Conversely, going into debt can become a hellhole of interest-upon-interest-upon-interest that is exceedingly difficult to climb out of.

A team like the present-day Warriors creates its own virtuous circle, an escalating upsweep of good values and smart people and winning culture and folks buying in and arenas selling out. Do it right, and a franchise can wind up like the San Antonio Spurs or the New England Patriots: perennial contenders, clubs whose championship eras can span decades, teams who operate in a cocoon of greatness. The kind of organization that Young is joining is a far cry from a team like, say, the late-aughts-early-teens Washington Wizards, where both Young and McGee got their starts. The current-day Wizards may have climbed toward the NBA’s upper echelon, but there was little upward momentum in the days of Young, McGee, and Arenas.

Instead, things had a way of spiraling out of control. When the Wizards won 19 games in 2008-09, they got unlucky at the draft lottery and wound up with the fifth pick despite having the second-best chance to nab the first overall selection. They traded the pick to the Timberwolves for two guys who would play for Washington for only one season; the Warriors took Curry in that draft, seventh overall. Young, McGee, and Arenas had been for a while the bright spot for the Wizards’ mostly miserable fans, pranking one another and messing around with lo-fi videos, but even that couldn’t last: In 2009 a card game on a team jet involving Arenas, McGee, and a few other players set in motion a series of events that culminated in guns being brandished in the locker room and Arenas getting suspended. It was that kind of era in Washington.

In 2011, McGee and Young, using their self-assigned monikers Pierre and Swaggy P, recorded a series of shows that included the two of them taking on the “cinnamon challenge,” in which the goal is to swallow a spoonful of the hot powder. Young choked it down, but when McGee tried, smoke billowed from his nostrils like fire from a dragon, and he spat everything out as fast as he could.

Last week McGee remarked to reporters that his and Young’s waggish web show was visionary, in its own way. “You know what people told us when we were rookies and stuff?” he asked. “‘Focus on basketball. Make sure you’re doing this or doing that. You’re not focused because you’re posting stuff online.’ Now, it’s like, the PR tells us, ‘Hey, you should post more on your Instagram and make videos. That’s really good content.’ It’s crazy how we were ahead of our time, and everybody is doing what we were doing and it’s OK. But I guess everybody has a time for everything.”

In 2013 Young went to China with the Lakers, where he recorded a selfie video of himself crashing during a sled ride near the Great Wall. He’s now back in the country with Golden State, but he and McGee have been taking in the sights like an old retired couple, posing in front of markets and buses, Young wearing a white T-shirt that can be purchased for $55 from his clothing line. This summer McGee told Young that the Warriors felt like a family, and the center re-upped with the team on a new one-year deal himself. Since then, in addition to their sightseeing in China, the two have reunited stateside by messing around in the weight room and going out for some vegan chicken and waffles. “#EatingVeganFood,” Young wrote on Instagram, posting a photo of himself, McGee, and a few other friends, including Big Meat. “#ImNotGonnaLieItWasCool.” In the picture, Young is wearing a pair of Most Hated warm-up pants, a steal at $150.

Last weekend Young went a few miles north to Berkeley to “check out the college atmosphere,” he says. Back in Oakland, like any new kid in class, he is focused on catching up quickly, not only with what’s on the chalkboard—“I’m making them go over stuff they already know,” he says of his teammates—but with all the little particulars of day-to-day life. “I’m still learning the best way to get from my apartment to practice,” he says. If there’s any institution of higher learning that has a clear, achievable, proven lesson plan, though, it’s Golden State. And while it’s anyone’s guess whether he’ll be signing his name on his work as Nick Young or Swaggy P or some other creation altogether, it’s safe to say that, for everyone involved, this will be a whole new experience.


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