[Note: Originally Posted 09-17-2009 at 07:00 AM by DenButsu]
In the last couple of weeks I’ve spent a good amount of time scouting Ty Lawson, watching a lot of his games from the NCAA regular season and tournament, and his five NBA Summer League games. From what I’ve seen I think Denver Nuggets fans have good reason to feel confident that he will not only make a very positive contribution to his new team, but do so right out of the gates and make a real impact during his rookie year. Part of this has to do with the Nuggets as currently built, and what their team needs were this offseason; more of it has to do with him. Some of those team needs included an upgrade to Anthony Carter, especially with regards to his propensity to make mistakes and turnovers, and his inability to shoot well; more players on the roster who can boost the team’s basketball IQ and strengthen its character; and a point guard who can transition into the future with Denver’s young core of Carmelo Anthony, Nene and J.R. Smith. I will get to how Lawson may address some of those needs in a moment.
But let me get one thing out of the way first, and start with what might be the biggest reason for concern, which is the limitation that his diminutive stature (5’11”) and short arms could place on his ability to defend opposing guards in the NBA, where they’ll come bigger and stronger than the players he defended in college ball. I was actually happily surprised to see how Lawson seems to be a fairly skilled defender who puts in a very complete effort. He’s very good at getting into the passing lanes to disrupt plays and grab steals. And he makes great utilization of his speed and quickness, generally staying in front of his assignments, chasing them closely when they’re off the ball, and keeping himself well positioned to contest their shots. He also impresses with his ability to fight through screens – he’s a lot stronger than I had anticipated. But the question is whether these traits will prove effective on the NBA stage, where in some cases taller opposing guards will have little trouble shooting right over him, and in other cases the bigs who are setting screens will be a lot bigger and stronger than most he met in the NCAA. One silver lining is that there is no shortage of short guards in the NBA (Chris Paul, Aaron Brooks, T.J. Ford, Allen Iverson, Nate Robinson, Jose Barea, to name a few) who will not pose a mismatch for Lawson. But the more difficult thing to account for, if Denver maintains similar defensive schemes next season, will be how Lawson is able to handle larger opponents when the Nuggets switch on screens and pick and rolls as they do so often. This has the potential for creating serious mismatches that the band-aid solutions of Billups (6’3″) and Anthony Carter (6’2″) won’t patch up when Ty’s on the floor. So George Karl may have to make some special considerations for how to run the team defense while Lawson is out there. At any rate, it’s safe to predict at this point that defense will be the area of his game that Ty will struggle most with.
Beyond these defensive worries, however, I am much more encouraged than apprehensive about his game and his character. Considering the Nuggets’ current roster needs and the future needs caused by the age of their veteran point guards, Ty Lawson seems like an excellent fit in many ways. Some points I observed:
-Despite his reputation for pushing the pace, Ty Lawson is a very controlled player. (Another way of saying this is that he’s an upgrade over Anthony Carter).
After hearing so much about how different he was from Chauncey Billups in terms of his playing style, I was really surprised to see Lawson reminding me so much of Chauncey on play after play. I had heard a lot about him zipping up and down the court all night, so the first thing that really jumped out at me watching him was how effectively and efficiently he was running half court sets. Be it the Tar Heels or the Summer League Nuggets, he was clearly orchestrating the action in a very deliberate manner (as a true point guard should). I had anticipated a lot more fast breaking, free wheeling run and gun action, but there was not as much of it as I’d expected. But even when he did push the pace, and initiate plays while taking the ball up the court, a turnover was a rare sight, and he nearly always seemed to get the ball to the right players at the right time. I guess I’ve been watching some certain Nuggets players for long enough that I’ve inadvertently come to equate “fast” with “reckless” and “out of control”, but this certainly isn’t the case with Lawson. He pushes the pace with deliberation, selecting the best opportunities for doing so without wasting possessions or causing sloppy turnovers. This is something, if he’s able to continue it at the NBA level, that will certainly help the Nuggets improve their finishing fast breaks, as they have a lot of players who know what to do with the ball once they get in near the basket, but fewer who know how to get it to them in the right spots (yes, I’m looking at you and your long bomb full court passes, AC).
-In the intelligence and decision making departments, Lawson is well ahead of the curve.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Chauncey Billups is the perfect player-coach for Ty Lawson. But it strikes me that the opposite way of looking at things might be more appropriate: Lawson is the perfect student for Chauncey, because he’s already in the zone. In his NCAA and SL games, he often seemed to be operating at an awareness that was about two clicks ahead of everyone else on the floor. At NBA speeds and intensities, of course, there’s no guarantee Ty can replicate the sharp playmaking and quick decision making that he has displayed thus far. But if that display is any indication, and if the learning curve he showed with the Nuggets summer squad is as well, he he should quickly develop a solid command over knowing what to do with the ball and when – and how. Lawson has a healthy arsenal of driving, dishing and shooting abilities. But the greater weapon than any of these skills is his acute awareness of when to use each of them. And perhaps his most Billups-esque characteristic is understanding how best to answer and make something positive happen when things go badly. The details change, but the pattern is the same. Lawson flubs a pass, gives up a steal – but contests the shot of the dude who stole it, getting the ball back for a layup off a fast break. Or the guy he’s defending slips past him and scores, but on the next possession Lawson shakes him with a crossover and spins it out to an open man for a 3, negating the damage. Whether it’s a mishap by his own hand or a big momentum shifting play by an opponent, time and again he’s demonstrated the ability to respond by stopping the bleeding. His sense of composure and awareness of game situations is impressive, and I do think it displays not only a high NBA readiness, but also a great basketball IQ and potential for being a quick learner.
-Lawson possesses a high quality of character and great leadership skills.
Not too much needs to be elaborated on here, but the main point is that when you look at some of the trouble immaturity and lack of self discipline has led some of the younger Nuggets players to bring upon themselves, it’s hard to underestimate the importance as the Nuggets organization builds for the future to bring in new young players who will bring stability, focus, character and leadership to the table. Ty Lawson seems to fit the bill, with the pedigree of having a basketball coach dad who raised him with a proper respect for and understanding of the game, being a guy who chose to stay in school one more year to help his team win a championship – and following though on that goal as a veritable team leader and champion. Let me just put it this way: I’m glad J.R. has him as a new younger brother to spend some time together shaping the Nuggets’ future. I think Lawson will be a positive influence.
-Lawson can score in a variety of ways, including from long range.
This may seem simplistic, but it’s actually important as another area in which he should be an upgrade to Carter, who, to put it bluntly, is simply not a scorer. Lawson’s ability to make shots from most spots on the floor, including beyond the arc, will truly add a new dimension to the Nuggets reserve squad. Until now, when Billups has left the floor and AC has gone in for him, opposing defenses were essentially able to comfortably collapse in the lane and squelch easy scoring opportunities because there simply were enough shooters on the floor to properly space it. What was gained in defensive sparks when the bench started rotating in was often lost back on the offensive end. That will hopefully be different now.
So go ahead, skeptics, bring it on now. Call me a homer who’s overestimating the impact that an 18th pick rookie point guard backup can have for a team that just made it to the Western Conference Finals led by their All-Star veteran point. But just understand that the acquisition of Ty Lawson over Anthony Carter (and additionally, Arron Afflalo over Dahntay Jones) just might have the impact of markedly strengthening what was a deceptively thin guard rotation and transforming it into one of the better – if not best – backcourts in the league. If I’m wrong, I’ll know I’ll have to eat my words. But I think people are sleeping on Lawson partly since the Nuggets didn’t make any headline-making marquee moves this offseason and nobody pays much heed to rookies. But the Nuggets have proven very good at getting high achievement from players with low expectations, so don’t be surprised if he makes a splash.