EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — The Lakers kicked Nick Young out of practice Thursday. He was sick — probably from traveling across time zones recently, he suspected — and they didn't want him getting any of his teammates sick.
Would he play Friday against the San Antonio Spurs? It wasn't clear at the time, and even if he did play, Lakers coach Luke Walton said, "We didn't know how much we were going to be able to get out of him."
But Walton and assistant coach Brian Shaw told Young that if Michael Jordan could play well with the flu — as Jordan famously did by scoring 38 while quite ill in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals — then so could Young. It was a message of inspiration, but they were half-kidding, of course. Young took it in stride, then he started against the Spurs.
What Young achieved over the ensuing 28 minutes of floor time was stunning on many levels. He scored 22 points, hitting 7 of 12 shots, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range, one of which helped keep the Lakers within striking distance late. He continued to be one of the Lakers' best defenders and even blocked a Pau Gasol hook shot, along with grabbing four rebounds. Perhaps his only flaw was that he finally missed a free throw; he's now 28-for-29 for the season.
"They doped me up real good with some medicine before, so I felt good," Young would later joke. "I felt [sick] in the beginning, but as the game went on, I started feeling like myself a little bit."
The Lakers lost 116-107 despite rallying in the fourth quarter to close a 17-point gap to just four, a comeback both surprising and impressive because they were playing against the stout Spurs without point guard and leading scorer D'Angelo Russell, who was out with a sore left knee. Afterward, Walton praised Young, saying he played "great" and "gave us a nice effort."
Walton was then asked if he has come to expect such performances from Young, and if he truly grasped how shocking such a concept is considering how tumultuous Young's past two seasons had been.
"I don't think it's a shock, and, yes, I do expect him to play this way night in and night out," Walton said. "He's our starting shooting guard."
Following that business-like, seemingly no-frills response, Walton moved on. But digest this new reality for a moment, if you can. Not only is Young on an NBA roster for the 2016-17 season, but he's starting and playing a key role. And not only that: He's playing so well that it has become almost commonplace, even when he's playing while sick. And Young is doing all of that with the Lakers, a team that he believed just a few short months ago didn't want him.
Factor it all in, and it's hard to find a bigger surprise anywhere in the NBA. Indeed, Young has resurrected his career, and he tried to sum up that resurrection in October, just days before Halloween, by offering a ghoulish metaphor. "I was like the hand out the grave," Young said with a laugh. "I'm still here. I'm just going to keep fighting, keep going."
Publicly, Young laughs and smiles and jokes just about all the time. His personality is often described as cartoonish, but, he admits, that personality also shields what lies beneath. And he put up that shield last season when he faced constant criticism from ex-Lakers coach Byron Scott, saw his minutes and production shrink, dealt with highly publicized off-the-court drama, then endured rumors that the Lakers would cut ties with him and that his career was ultimately in jeopardy.
"It's tough," Young said after practice at the Lakers' facility Saturday. "I had to put a facade on to stay believing and have faith."
If you could go back in time to last summer and tell Young that after two subpar years he'd still remain with the Lakers and be a valuable contributor, a player whom Walton has often said is their best perimeter defender, what would he say?
He said he'd be shocked, just like most NBA observers are now.
"I thought for sure come July after the championship game was over, I thought for sure they were going to make some cuts," Young said.
And he believed that he would be one of those cuts.
It wasn't an unrealistic expectation, after everything that had transpired. First, rewind to July 2014. The Lakers signed Young to a four-year, $21 million deal, rewarding him for averaging a career-high 17.9 points the season before. But that same month, the Lakers also hired Scott as their head coach. And from the start, Scott, with his old-school mentality, and Young, with his light-hearted approach, seemed to clash.
The Lakers were missing D'Angelo Russell but not their will to compete Friday, which the victorious Spurs noticed.
While his older brother grew up admiring Kobe Bryant, D'Angelo Russell saw himself in Manu Ginobili. Now the second-year Lakers guard is on the same court as his Spurs idol and loving it.
Young's opportunities and scoring fell in 2014-15 and dropped even more last season, when the Lakers posted a franchise-worst 17-65 record. Then in March, a video surfaced, recorded by Russell, that showed Young talking about women other than his fiance, Australian rapper Iggy Azalea. (Young and Azaela would call off their engagement a few months later.)
The incident created a divide in the locker room, and there were doubts about whether Young and Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, could coexist. To many, the only solution was for the Lakers to part ways with Young.
"You hear everything," Young said. "I won't lie and say I didn't hear all the rumors and all that. It was up in the air. There was so much going on. I didn't know where I was going to be."
Many believed Young's NBA career might well be over and that his only options were to play in China, though even that didn't seem like a guarantee. Young said he wasn't thinking that far ahead, though.
"I just didn't think I was going to be here," Young said. "I knew I was probably going to play somewhere, but I thought for sure I'd probably get bought out or traded or just cut, period, and I'd have to try out somewhere."
As one might expect, Young is about as satisfied by his turnaround as outsiders are surprised.
"It's great," he said. "This is home. I grew up here [in Los Angeles]. I was a little disappointed how everything ended last year, the last two years. [But] Coach has given me the ultimate confidence and [his] believing in me, it makes me want to run through a wall for him."
Several Lakers have used that exact same phrase to describe their commitment to Walton.
"I would run through a wall for Coach right now," Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson said after a practice earlier this month. "He's doing such a good job. We want to get wins for him as well as ourselves."
"He wants to run through a wall for us, too," Lakers forward Julius Randle added after the same practice. "He has our back. And when you have someone who truly cares about you, it's a different feeling. It's an open and honest relationship. I can text him, call him, talk to him after practice or whatever. It's just an open relationship. He's genuine. You can go up to somebody and know if they truly care about you or not."
Perhaps no Laker wants to run through that metaphorical wall for Walton more than Young, who credits the 36-year-old coach for helping revive the Lakers as well as his career
"It's unbelievable that a coach could come in and just change the whole mindset and the program. It's great," Young said.
Young also credits Walton for his individual success, citing the coach's system and ability to relate to players, which is often mentioned as one of Walton's greatest strengths. "Luke has been in situations where he knows players," Young said. "He's played against me before. He knows the game."
Walton gave Young a chance, a clean slate, but Young also admits that he knew this opportunity might be his last chance in the NBA, and it couldn't be wasted.
"Yeah, for sure," he said. "Unfortunate situations happened last year that made things worse. Once I had a chance to get past all of that, it's all about basketball."
Young laughed after he was asked to pick which one of those unfortunate situations marked his lowest moment.
"It's hard to pick one," he said. "Ah, man. I had a couple. Coach didn't play me for nine games. It was tough, it was tough. He was bringing people from the D-League up and playing them over me. It was hard, it was hard. It messed up my confidence."
So he put up his facade, his shield, joking and smiling and laughing even while his career crumbled around him and his confidence dwindled. He leaned on his family and friends. He didn't visit the Lakers' practice facility all summer, only stepping inside in late September, just before training camp began. On the day he walked in, he looked around and noticed the different atmosphere under Walton.
"It was good," Young said. "People were happy to see me."
Young played so well in training camp and throughout the preseason, Walton was convinced to start him on opening night. Young's strong play has only continued, so much so that Walton expects it nightly, even if outsiders are still acclimating.
More and more, Young's metaphor about a hand bursting through a grave seems especially fitting. On Saturday, Young thought about that image.
"You can't keep me down!" he said, his ever-present smile stretching from ear to ear.