Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Tale of Two Lawsons

The last time we checked on Ty Lawson, he was not doing so well. He'd played two games and shot 1 for 15. This was heartbreaking. This past year, Ty Lawson was unquestionably my favorite player in all of college basketball. This year, his insane mutant abilities had finally matured: Sure, he could still teleport at will and, obviously, the addition of his sweet three-point shooting was a big plus, but the big difference was the development of his ability to channel waves of pure chaos and bend them to his will. You see, sometimes Ty would drive down court and attack the basket. Then something strange would happen very fast: people would jump, run to change positions, try to cut Ty off. It was never clear to me without instant reply (In a world without slow-motion replay and Tivo, Ty Lawson would be completely incomprehensible) in what order these events would unfold. I would only see the final stroke: Tyler somehow has the ball and is dunking; Danny grabs the alley-oop and throws it down, Wayne cooly (always "cooly") drains it from the outside; or somehow, someway the ball would float up above the basket and then go through the hoop as Ty crashed into the rows of photographers sitting on the baseline. "And one." The mutant heir of Rod Strickland and Allen Iverson was coming into his birthright.

Ty Lawson's chaotic, improvisational game combined with freak speed, uncanny shot, and a penchant for clever, efficient passes was the most compelling part of the Tar Heels run to the championship in 2009. A ridiculously electrifying player on a stupidly dominant team, I thought he was the best player in college that year and a sure thing for the NBA. When he slipped so far in the draft, I worried. Had the other teams seen seem terrible flaw in his workouts? Was he doomed?

My worst fears were realized with his slow start in the summer league. Who shoots 1 for 15? People who watched those first two games seemed to think he was playing well, defending tough and doing the proverbial "little things." I saw these comments. But, I also saw the box score and I despaired. Ty Lawson almost always looked good on the box score. He is a stat head darling. This past season, by most metrics, particularly the most sophisticated and advanced ones Ty Lawson had one of the most amazing seasons a point guard in college has ever had. On offense he was the most efficient player in a ton of widely respected systems, including Ken Pomeroys. ESPN's John Hollinger gave the mock draft crowd something to talk about when he noted that the best players in the draft in terms of PER were easily Blake Griffin and Ty Lawson. I mention this to emphasize that Ty Lawson almost always looks good in the stats, but in summer league, even on the stat sheets (especially on the stats sheets), he was bombing.

Then something happened. He had a day off before closing out the week with three more games. He apparently spent it well:

"After (Wednesday night's) game where I probably got my shot blocked like eight times I watched the tape last night and I realized what exactly I could do to get my shot off," Lawson explained.

That was it. That was the turning point. It was all over after that. He scored over 20 points in the next three games and kept doing all of the little things. Seriously, he just went nuts. Look at the box score and see how well he played. Check out the video highlights from those games. Couple that with the praise of his tough, pesky defense from the NBA Twitterati and Ty Lawson came out just fine.

Hell, the stats loved him again, even factoring his inauspicious first two games. One guy's keen analysis shows that Ty Lawson's statistically dominant ways carried over to the NBA: In summer league, he was the top rookie point guard in win shares, scoring efficiency, and ball handling. The analysis even goes so far as to pronounce him the cream of the rookie point guard crop. Hell, if you ignore those first two games he had, he's off the charts. He was, in fact, who we thought he was.

Nice story, huh? Well we haven't even focused on the best part yet: Ty Lawson played terribly, spent one day watching some film, and then dominated his next three games. That's a hell of a coaching adjustment. I mean, was it really just an issue of him watching the film and figuring out how to get his shot off better? Because, seriously: From making 1 out of 15 to blowing everyone away in a whirlwind of scoring is a fairly significant change. In the interviews with him after his break out game, he repeats that he's just "adjusting" over and over. Is this what Ty Lawson adjusting looks like? Is he that good at making tweaks to fix his game? Is he that good about being coached? If this is true, then what can we make of his ceiling? The rest of the NBA might need to start getting scared.

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