With blinding speed and all-out effort, Ty Lawson has quietly become an elite point guard.
by Abe Schwadron | @abe_squad
Ask your favorite NBA player to describe his game in one word and you could hear any adjective from “smooth” to “hard-nosed” to “aggressive.” The answer for Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson is an altogether more curious one: “ratchet.”
And that’s not just out of an affinity for rapper Chief Keef’s verse on a song of the same name.
“Ratchet is like, anything goes,” says Lawson. “You gotta do whatever you gotta do to get the job done. You don’t know what’s coming when I come down the court. I might pull up, might go to the basket or just chill for a second. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Linguistics notwithstanding, the 25-year-old Lawson has ratcheted up his game to new heights in this, his fourth season in the League, helping the Nuggets evolve from a group of intriguing parts into a cohesive unit and borderline favorite in the Western Conference. Lawson leads Denver in scoring (16.7 ppg) and assists (6.9 apg), and the third-place Nuggs (56-25) are a team ready to make some serious noise in the NBA Playoffs.
Less than 24 hours after guiding the Nuggets to an early March 107-92 victory over those Clips in front of a national TV audience with a 21-11-6 line, Lawson says Denver’s goals have never wavered.
“I think we’re right there with the best of them, with the OKCs and San Antonios. I feel like, like I said at the beginning of the season, that we can win the West.” With the best home record in the conference (37-3) and Ty’s torrid 2013 pace, Denver certainly has a puncher’s chance, or better.
A notoriously slow starter since taking over the starting point guard role under head coach George Karl last season, Lawson’s scoring has spiked from 15.8 ppg to 19.1 (on 50 percent shooting) since the All-Star break, something the speedy floor general attributes to a steady increase in confidence, a better feel for the team around him and a continued strengthening of his endurance at Denver’s high altitudes over the course of the season.
Then again, it’s hard to call anything about Ty Lawson “slow.” In fact, it’s the opposite—it would be near impossible for him to get any faster. With the rock in his hands, it’s catch me if you can. Blink and he’s by you.
“He’s one of the elite point guards in the League as far as speed goes,” says Nuggets assistant Chad Iske. “Us being a running team, his elite speed and ability to push the ball—make or miss—and collapse the defense helps us a lot because we want to run more than anybody in the League. That’s kind of our personality.”
Funny, it’s Lawson’s, too. His comfort playing in Denver’s system stems from all the way back in his junior high days in Maryland, where his raw skills and up-tempo play got him noticed. “I was a straight scorer. I think the player I am now is the player I was in middle school. I used to have mid-range, a three-point shot—I was more of a 2-guard just trying to get buckets, more of a scorer.”
The native of Clinton, MD, impressed enough through two years of high school ball to transfer to basketball powerhouse Oak Hill (VA) Academy, where he played against and alongside some of the best talent in the nation—and established life-long bonds with the likes of Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Nolan Smith and others. (“Those lineups were just crazy,” he says.)
Lawson remembers facing Durant and Greivis Vasquez when Oak Hill met big-time foe Montrose Christian. He remembers the previous year, when he and KD teamed up against a little-known California prospect named Russell Westbrook. He remembers finishing practices, then battling five-on-five for four or five more hours, going at it with his future-pro teammates and fellow products of the DC-Maryland-Virginia area, nearly all of whom not only share hometown area codes but also playing styles.
“We wear it on our sleeve. We let people know we’re from the DMV,” says Lawson. “I think our game is a different type game than a lot of players in the League. The way we play, I feel like—ballhandling, pushing the ball, scoring—that’s a DMV type of game. People are going to know where we’re from just by the way we’re playing.”
And he remembers the lighter moments, too.
“There’s so many funny stories and memories of Oak Hill…Those were wild times. I think Eric Devendorf was in the dorms cutting our hair because there were no barbers. So we were running around looking nasty. He had no barbershop experience or nothing like that, but he was like, ‘I’ll cut it!’ and we just trusted him to cut it. It was terrible.”
But Lawson’s most critical formative years came over his three seasons at another Hill: Chapel Hill, NC. There, Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams taught Ty to be a true facilitator—and with scorers like Brandan Wright, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington around him, Lawson facilitated UNC all the way to the 2009 NCAA title. Williams also urged his point guard to push the pace at all times, which Lawson now credits for his ability to make the right play inv transition, even at breakneck speeds.
“Being at UNC, Coach wanted us to push it, push it, push it. It took me a year to get used to it, but now it’s second nature. Being under control but still going fast at the same time,” Lawson says. To this day, flying up the court is where he feels most comfortable. “When I’m coming down full speed and the defender is backing up, I feel like I have him at my mercy sometimes. Like I can come down and pull up, or take one hard dribble and cross over and be at the rim. That’s definitely my cup of tea.”
Much like at Carolina, Karl wants his young Nuggs to push the tempo. Denver is second in the NBA in scoring (behind just Houston) and top-3 in assists and steals. Only the Rockets play at a higher pace (possessions per game) than the Nuggets. That philosophy has led to success in the Mile High City. And with Denver’s team chemistry clicking, it’s a formula built for an exceedingly fun atmosphere, with Lawson running the show.
“I think we always had good chemistry. We have a lot of fun. With the lobs, the running, the type of game we’re playing, you’ve got to have fun,” says Lawson. “One or two dribbles and we’re already down the court throwing lobs or somebody is dunking. It’s definitely an advantage for us.”
It’s a far cry from the only other professional basketball team Lawson has ever suited up for—Lithuania’s BC Zalgiris. Desperate for hoops and eager to stay fit, Lawson, like many players, headed to Europe for work during the NBA’s 2011 lockout. And while he says the experience (which amounted to seven games in the Euroleague) was an aid to his pick-and-roll game, he also developed a newfound respect for the NBA lifestyle.
“There’s a lot of luxuries over here that they really don’t have, that we take for granted,” he says. “For example, laundry. When they do your laundry here, they put it in a separate bag, you make sure you get your own stuff back. Over there, they do the laundry, put your drawers, socks, mix it up with everybody else’s. And sometimes the number comes off, so you don’t know whose drawers you’re putting on. I had to bring my own socks to practice—they were taking my Nike Elite socks!”
After an audible sigh, Lawson concludes, “Would I go back over there again? Yeah, but I’d probably go to a hot place, like Tel-Aviv or something like that.”
Safe and sound in a cold Denver but on the hot Nuggets, Lawson is again free to enjoy the comforts of home, which for him include playing NBA 2K (yes, he plays as himself—“I try to go for 100 every time”) and Call of Duty, or playing arcade games at Dave and Buster’s with bewildered locals.
Also among those luxuries not available overseas? How about five more double-figure scorers on Denver’s roster and high-fliers like Andre Iguodala, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee ready to throw down on the fast break?
It remains to be seen whether the run-n-gun Nuggets can win playing that way in the postseason, since Lawson and Co. have made first-round exits in each of the past three seasons. And critics will forever be skeptical of just how much of a pounding Lawson’s sub-6-foot frame can take. But the team’s coaching staff has steadfast faith.
“He has the ability to not just be fast but to push through contact. He can fight his way through people to the rim,” says Iske. “I thought he got a taste of it last year against the Lakers. They started putting Kobe on him and World Peace on him late in games. At first, he was taken aback by it, but now it helps build confidence in him that he is a very good player and can be a great player if he puts his mind to it.”
Lawson is the first to admit that in past seasons, the Nuggets struggled in late-game situations. He openly acknowledges they were “a little hesitant or got a little scared going down the stretch.” But if the ’12-13 regular season is any indication, that will no longer be a problem come Playoff time. Take Denver’s March 1 win over Oklahoma City, when Lawson, defensive specialist Thabo Sefalosha’s hand in his face, drilled a long jumper with less than a second left to bury childhood buddy KD’s Thunder.
“It was a big shot,” Lawson says excitedly. “Those are the type of shots you dream of when you’re playing on the Fisher-Price and you act like you’re Michael Jordan or AI hitting a game-winner.”
Four years into his NBA career, Lawson is becoming one of the League’s most difficult matchups for opposing PGs. He’s proven he can hit the big shot. And he wants to be an All-Star next season. But right now, he’s got the Nuggets focused on another single word: Championship.