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Nick Young never stops smiling. That’s the first thing you need to know about Swaggy P, the 6-foot-7 wing who the Nuggets signed off the street Monday to provide depth to a rotation that’s been ravaged by injuries not even two months into the regular season.
With a 24-karat grin, Young walks the hallway like he’s still smelling the champagne that coated Quicken Loans Arena’s visiting locker room after the Warriors clinched the 2018 NBA Championship last spring — not as a 33-year-old journeyman who for the last eight weeks has watched basketball from his couch in Los Angeles instead of on the NBA hardwood and had one foot out of the league before Denver phoned him Friday in need of a ninth man.
He’s the newest Nugget, and he’s here to remind Denver’s young roster of something they tend to forget when the going gets tough: basketball is fun.
The Nuggets are in one of those familiar lulls right now. More than 50 percent of their payroll is sidelined due to injury. Will Barton, one of the Nuggets’ locker room leaders, has missed most of the season with a right hip/core muscle injury that required surgery. Gary Harris has been sidelined for five of Denver’s last seven games and likely won’t be back until January. Paul Millsap broke the big toe on his right foot Friday in Charlotte.
Coming off two straight losses, spirits are low, even for a team that sits near the top of the Western Conference more than a quarter of the way through the regular season. The joy that’s been a staple of Denver’s equal-opportunity offense for the last three years around Nikola Jokic has come and gone as one injury after another hit the Nuggets’ roster and reduced Michael Malone’s rotation to just eight players on the second night of a back-to-back, on the fifth game of a season-long five game road trip in Atlanta.
Enter Young, who’s still the same character that impersonated Kobe Bryant during a media scrum, ended his postgame interview after winning his first ring after just one question because he wanted to “turn up” and publicly changed his nickname to “Swag Champ” after the Warriors’ Finals sweep. He’s still the captain, first Lieutenant and lord commander of the NBA’s Meme Team.
Young can keep things light, which might be just what Denver needs right now as the Nuggets enter one of the toughest stretches of their season.
But Denver needs Young to contribute on the court too. He’s a career 37 percent three-point shooter and last season shot nearly 38 percent from deep. Young’s three-point prowess is needed on the Nuggets, who are a bottom-10 three-point shooting team on the year, and the 700-plus career games he has under his belt was also a driving factor in Denver reaching out to Young over a month ago and signing him Monday morning.
“Teams have to game plan for Nick Young,” Malone said.
The familiarity he has with Nuggets helps too. Assistant coach Wes Unseld Jr. was on the Washington Wizards’ sideline when Young was drafted by the D.C club 16th overall in 2007. Nuggets president of basketball operations Tim Connelly was also with the Wizards’ front office at the time. Their relationship is still healthy to this day.
“(Connelly) called me and said, ‘Are you 240 (pounds) right now? I was like, “I’m close,'” Young joked. “I told him I’m ready whenever.”
All kidding aside, the Nuggets don’t have time for Young if he’s going to get more run time on Shaqtin’ a Fool than as a part of Denver’s rotation. Denver signed Young to be its ninth man and a contributing piece until some the Nuggets’ regulars like Barton, Millsap and Harris get healthy.
Denver needs him to play winning basketball.
“These guys are playing great,” Young said. “They had a couple injuries, but they’re still trying to stay on track. I can come in and try to help the best I can.”
Young got acquainted with a few of his new teammates at shootaround Monday morning. He’s already familiar with Isaiah Thomas (who isn’t?) and Mason Plumlee praised Young’s two-way ability, something he had been knocked for throughout his career. Monte Morris, who’s familiar with Young from running in the same circle as his former teammate and fellow Michigan native Draymond Green, said he’s already fitting right in.
“That’s my guy,” Morris said. “That’s Swaggy P, baby!”
Something else the 11-year veteran can instill in the Nuggets? An ever-lasting confidence, which Denver plays with when its offense is clicking on all cylinders but sometimes forgets about when its attack grinds to a halt. It’s the same confidence that Young maintained even while sitting at home watching the Nuggets on League Pass and waiting for the call that would get him back into the league that he never had any doubt would come.
“Can’t doubt things when you’re Swaggy P,” Young said flashing his signature grin. “I still gotta be Swaggy P at the end of the day.”