The Rise of Swaggy P
Nick Young’s difficult journey to the NBA and his hometown team.
by Alex Shultz / @AlexShultz
Shortly after a season-ending loss to the Cal Golden Bears in spring 2006, USC head coach Tim Floyd sat in his office chatting with Houston Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson on the speakerphone. Floyd previously coached in the NBA and likely had every GM on speed dial. His connections to the League helped him recruit future first-round picks like DeMar DeRozan, OJ Mayo and Nikola Vucevic.
On this particular day, Floyd wanted to know what Dawson thought of then-sophomore Nick Young, a talented shooter who had finished fourth in the Pac-10 in scoring (17.3 points per game) the previous season. Was he ready to turn pro?
Dawson didn’t hold back in his assessment—Young had a long way to go. He needed to show he was a winner. He needed to get better at defense.
What Dawson didn’t know at the time was that Floyd wasn’t the only one listening to the conversation—Young was sitting across from the speakerphone. Coach Floyd wanted his star player to hear the truth without sugarcoating, and this was the only way to get it done and get it done with an impact. There was too much resting on Young’s decision to leave it to chance.
Though Dawson’s critique was a setback, it was far from the first Young had encountered. And like the previous obstacles he faced, this one would only end up making him stronger.
To Live and Die in L.A.
When Nick was 5 years old, his brother Charles Jr was killed by a member of the Bloods gang after being mistaken for someone else. His oldest brother John was devastated by the death of Charles and was later admitted to a mental institution after suffering a breakdown. As the youngest child in the family, Nick leaned on his parents to make it through the difficult loss. Over the years, he became a talented basketball player who steered clear of the gang culture that turned his family’s life upside down. Still, it wasn’t easy. Bloods attended schools in his community. By the time Young was in high school, he was cutting classes, trying to avoid gang members by spending hours alone shooting hoops. After attending two different schools, he made his way to Cleveland High in the San Fernando Valley.
Cleveland basketball coach Andre Chavalier remembers when he met Young for the first time. “A friend of mine ran a club team in Los Angeles,” he says. “He was interested in bringing some kids out and Nick was one of the kids [who] visited the school.”
At first, it seemed like nothing more than the latest stop on a winding path for a down-on-his-luck teen. But Chavalier saw something in Young that piqued his interest.
“He was very weak and very raw,” Chavalier remembers. “He was still growing and he was gangly, still trying to find himself within the game of basketball. But you could see that potentially he was going to be very good. He was athletic and he kept the basketball in his hands at all times, so those were good signs for us.”
Chavalier didn’t know about Young’s background when the teenager decided to enroll at Cleveland High. He pushed his new star player to apply himself on and off the court, a fact not lost on Young more than a decade later.
“Coach is a father figure,” Young said in a sit-down interview with SLAM. “He guided me my whole high school career and that was big for him to take on that role. I owe him so much… He was tough on me, but he was also there for me every time too. That’s something I needed at the time.”
With Chavalier’s help, Young quickly blossomed into one of the best players in the country.
“His junior year, that summer is really when he came out of nowhere and just started playing really well in the AAU circuit,” former USC assistant coach Bob Cantu says. “That’s when we became aware of him.”
Young went on to average 27.2 points and 10.8 rebounds his senior year. He was named to the Los Angeles Times All-City team, and his Cavaliers finished 25-4 overall.
“As a coach, you’ve been around the game so long and you rarely react to things,” Chavalier says. “But he did a couple things in games that the coaching staff even had to react to. I know one time we somehow found a way to play the Chinese National Team. They had a 7-footer and Nick dunked on him so bad that the entire game stopped. People started running on the court and going nuts. That was crazy.”
A Second Chance
In June 2004, Nick Young needed an 800 on the SAT to be eligible for college and formally enroll at USC, the school he had verbally committed to months earlier. He hadn’t achieved the necessary score on two prior attempts and this was his last shot.
“We were thinking that more than likely he would be going to a prep school and we would have to battle our way to get him,” Cantu says.
Young had plenty of supporters wishing him success, one of whom was Jordan Farmar. He had played with Young in the AAU circuit, and the two quickly became friends. They later faced off for rival high schools—Cleveland versus Taft—filling gymnasiums to capacity as they put on dazzling displays of skill and athleticism. But that didn’t stop Farmar from helping an old friend when he needed it most, and he sent Young his SAT prepbooks.
“I had already passed my SATs and gotten into UCLA, and I thought he definitely deserved to get a higher education,” Farmar says. “Anything I could do to help, that’s all I tried to do. I think it probably got way more exposure than it was really worth. At the time it was just like ‘this helped me out and it can help you out.’ The fact that we had camera crews following us and stuff like that, it was some kind of news.”
The crew was filming Second Chance Season, an inside look at Nick’s difficult family life and struggles to attain higher education. The movie, released in 2007, was well received. Although Farmar appeared in a few scenes in the film, he was actually supposed to play a much bigger role.
“The movie was supposed to be about Nick and I,” Farmar says. “A camera crew followed [us] around high school. I wouldn’t sign off on [the rights] because they didn’t want to give us any money. I have all the footage, though.”
Farmar laughs as he recounts the story. “I’m a businessman. I wanted to do it right.”
Young used the study guides, and this time, he passed the SATs. It was a relief for his entire family. He enrolled at USC, despite Farmar’s last-ditch attempts to get him to go to rival UCLA instead.
“I remember he tried to recruit me at UCLA,” Young says. “I couldn’t do that one. I couldn’t be a Bruin.”
Nick “Noodles” Young
Before Nick Young was affectionately known as Swaggy P, he was Noodles.
“I was just a scrawny little guy coming in my freshman year at ‘SC. They called me Noodles on the mic and I guess it just stuck,” Young says.
“He looked like a wet noodle when he played, he was always so long and lanky and goofy,” Cantu explains.
At first, Young didn’t have many chances for Galen Center announcer Petros Papadakis to call out the less-than-flattering nickname. In fact, in Young’s debut collegiate game against UC Irvine, he only logged nine minutes in a 90-70 victory.
“He didn’t play a whole lot and was really upset,” Cantu says. “He didn’t understand that he was now in college, and there’s other good players. We had a really senior-heavy team.”
Unexpected circumstances changed that in a hurry. USC head coach Henry Bibby was fired after a 2-2 start to the season, and interim head coach Jim Saia was anointed to finish the year out. He and Cantu decided to take the program in a different direction, a move that likely accelerated Young’s development.
“What Jimmy decided to do, and what we agreed on as a staff, was to play the freshmen for the long term of the program,” Cantu says. “We had upperclassmen that were really talented, and that was a difficult decision to make, but we played Nick and Gabe Pruitt a lot of minutes.”
Young averaged 11.1 points per game as a freshman, winning co-team MVP alongside fellow freshman Pruitt. After the season, the Trojans hired Tim Floyd, former head coach of the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets.
“My first impression was that this young man might be as gifted as any 2-guard that I had ever coached—that included the professional level,” Floyd says. “Offensively, just an instinctive offensive scorer who could spot and shoot, put the ball on the floor. He could get to the rim, post and fade. His athleticism was a bonus. He was just a tremendous athlete.”
Young blossomed in his sophomore year, but the Trojans only saw a moderate improvement in their record, going 17-12. There was still work to be done.
From Prospect to Pro
“Making the leap” is a cliché sports expression for a reason. Some athletes have huge growth spurts that turn them into elite prospects. Others put it all together mentally or physically. Nick Young was a fringe NBA player when he sat in on Tim Floyd’s conversation with Carroll Dawson and other general managers. There was a consensus: Young needed to improve on defense and show he could be a winner. He accepted the challenge, and Floyd noticed an immediate change in his game.
“The tools were all there,” Floyd says. “What Nick had not done up to that point was prove that he could win, even with our first team. We were 17-12 but not to the level where an NBA team wants to give a guy a couple million dollars. You want to make sure the guy can affect winning at the level he’s at.”
That offseason changed Young for the better. He already had a solid nucleus of players around him, namely the aforementioned Pruitt and future Chicago Bull Taj Gibson. Now it was time to fully assert himself.
“Between sophomore and junior summer, he kept working on [his game],” Cantu says. “When he came back that fall, we all said, ‘This kid has a chance to make it.’”
USC finished 25-12 during the 2006-07 season, and Young was second in the conference in scoring (17.4 points per game) while shooting an impressive 52.5 percent from the floor.
“He was good. He was definitely their go-to guy, definitely tore us up,” former Arizona big man and current Los Angeles Lakers center Jordan Hill says. “When he was at USC I don’t think we beat him.”
The Trojans advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2002. They blew out the University of Arkansas 77-60, with Young pouring in 20 points and 7 rebounds. Then it was a matchup against University of Texas freshman sensation Kevin Durant. USC won 87-68.
“They started saying KD was going to kill us and we blew them out,” Young says. “We were just on fire. It felt like we couldn’t lose.”
But the Sweet 16 game didn’t go as planned, and USC lost to North Carolina. Young still chides former teammate Gibson about the defeat.
“Taj getting in foul trouble against Carolina…I talk to Taj about that every day,” Young says. “I tell him, If you didn’t get in foul trouble, we probably would’ve won it all.”
At the end of the season, Tim Floyd once again put his speed dial to work, calling up NBA general managers about Nick Young. This time, however, Young wasn’t anywhere within earshot.
“It was clear after three phone calls that he was going to be a top-20 pick, so we told him it was time to go,” Floyd says. “He needed to take some of that guaranteed money and help his family, and it was obvious that he was prepared to have a career.”
Young still looks back at his time in college, once an unattainable dream for a kid who spent much of his early high school days skipping class, with fond memories.
“USC is my place. I’m always going to represent that Trojan life, that cardinal and gold, and hopefully one day I’ll get my jersey retired,” Young says.
A Road Well-Traveled
Nick Young’s NBA journey has been marked by ups and downs. He was drafted 16th overall by the Washington Wizards in the 2007 Draft, right in line with what Floyd had predicted. Young quickly cultivated a bond with Wizards All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas, also a Los Angeles native with a quirky sense of humor. The Wizards enjoyed moderate success in Young’s rookie season, but fell apart when Arenas went down with a knee injury and was later involved in the now-infamous locker room incident with Javaris Crittenton. Arenas was soon traded away, and Young was stuck in a rebuilding process now centered around top overall pick John Wall. When Ted Leonsis bought the team in 2010, players from the “Arenas Era” were considered damaged goods, and in March 2012 Young was shipped to the Los Angeles Clippers.
“The first time I got out there (for the Clippers), they threw me into the fire,” Young told the L.A. Daily News. “I played off the bench more. It was hard to adjust. But I got used to rolling it. It was such a good team. I enjoyed playing with those guys.”
Young followed up an incredible Playoff performance—knocking down three straight triples in a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback against the Memphis Grizzlies—by signing a one-year, $6 million deal with the 76ers. Philadelphia looked like a promising Playoff contender with newly acquired center Andrew Bynum, but the big man missed the entire season with injuries and the 76ers stumbled to a 34-48 record. Once Young’s contract was up in the 2013 offseason, he was once again a free agent with a very difficult decision to make.
Home Sweet Home
Nick Young is living the dream of every Angeleno basketball fan—he’s playing for his hometown team.
“In pre-season games and practices, I was just killing it,” Young says of his debut with the Lakers. “I wasn’t nervous or anything. But once I put on that jersey and the crowd was there and the spotlight was on, I thought, I’m really a Laker. I was messed up a little bit, but then I got in the hang of things and started breaking out and just playing basketball.”
It’s likely that Young could’ve commanded more than the veteran minimum salary of $1.11 million offered by the Lakers, but the allure of his favorite squad drew him in. That, and a little convincing from an old friend.
“I thought it would be a good opportunity for him,” Jordan Farmar says. “I told him that I was coming back because I knew how special it was to be here and what this organization means, especially to kids from L.A.”
Whether Young will admit it or not, the prospect of playing with Kobe Bryant didn’t hurt either. Nick grew up watching Magic Johnson in the ‘80s and rooting for Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones in the ‘90s. He even donned a Bryant jersey for multiple Championship parades in the early 2000s. His admiration for Bryant isn’t lost on his former coaches.
“You always talk to these guys about who their favorite player is and who they would like to be like, and with Nick it was clear—from day one, it was Kobe,” Floyd says. “He loved Kobe and he loved the Lakers.”
“I don’t want to be too much on the bandwagon, but I still love him,” Young says of Bryant. “I still talk to him. He’s been mentoring me here and there. That part has been great. Who wouldn’t want to learn from Kobe?”
But Young knows he’s no Black Mamba. Media members have playfully made the comparison in post-game interviews after high-scoring performances, and Young, always with a smile on his face, has made sure to give Kobe his due while pushing back on the suggestion.
“I can’t play like Kobe, man,” Young said after knocking down the game-tying free throws against the Chicago Bulls on January 20.
He especially wasn’t a fan of the “Swag Mamba” nickname that was floated around after that same game.
“Swag Mamba? Nah. I’m Swaggy P, baby,” Young told USA Today. “Can’t be no Mamba. I don’t want to be a snake. I like the flash of the jewelry. I’m a flashy man. Look at my backpack.”
The Origin of Swaggy P
It’s the question everyone wants to know the answer to—where exactly did the “Swaggy P” nickname come from?
“I still don’t know what the P is for,” Jordan Hill says. “But he’s been having that name for a minute, so I don’t think he’s ready to change it.”
Young will only say that “Swaggy” became his moniker as a result of his friends, who showered him with compliments about his indelible swag. Naturally, he adapted it to become “Swaggy,” which was more becoming of his lifestyle. As for the P?
“The P is a mystery. I can’t give that secret out yet,” Young says. “It was one of my first nicknames, so nobody really knew about it and I just kept it a secret. People kept asking about it, so I started saying it’s a mystery. In a couple years I’ll give y’all something.”
Whatever it means, Young has become one of the more recognizable personalities in the NBA, a fact not lost on Tim Floyd when he recruits at the University of Texas at El Paso.
“When players want to know what professionals we’ve coached, it seems like when his name comes up, nine times out of 10 these young guys say, ‘That guy is one of my favorite players,’” Floyd says. “They all love him, so I guess the new nickname is serving him well.”
The second-leading scorer on an underwhelming Lakers team, Nick Young knows his time as an alpha dog for arguably the NBA’s most-storied franchise is likely to be short-lived. That doesn’t mean his role has gone unnoticed by teammates.
“He has a gift that can’t be taught, some of the shots that he hits,” Lakers point guard Kendall Marshall says. “He bails us out of the shot clock situations. He’s been a joy to play with. He brings a burst of energy to our team.”
Still, beneath the smiling exterior and flashy clothing is a slightly misunderstood player. Young is always playfully chirping away at teammates and opponents, but that might have less to do with his personality and more to do with his love for the game. Whether it was at Robertson Park in West L.A. or a random blacktop where he could distract himself from the rest of the world, basketball has always been his solace. Every time Young slips on a Lakers jersey, he’s not only reminded of his dark past in Los Angeles, but filled with pride and a sense of responsibility to the city that gave him his future. And that makes every loss even tougher to handle.
“I ain’t gonna lie, I’ve been frustrated lately,” Young said after a recent practice. “I’ve been thinking so much, and letting the season get to me…That’s what’s wearing on me, the fact that I feel like we’re letting the fans down and the city down.”
A recent injury didn’t help. Young bumped knees with Cavs forward CJ Miles on Febrary 6 and was diagnosed with a non-displaced fracture of his patella along with a bone bruise. It’s been that kind of season for the Lakers, perhaps the most banged-up team in the League. Still, as Young thinks back to his early years playing basketball, he can’t help but positively reflect on how he got to where he is today.
“When I was growing up, coming to practice I was always saying, I’m Kobe today. I’d shoot fadeaways saying, Kobe! I’ve always been a Lakers fan, so for me to come here and be in my hometown and see the fans calling me ‘Swaggy P,’ it’s been a dream come true.”