When he was charged with making the Washington Wizards a championship contender, Flip Saunders’ to-do list included grooming Nick Young into a legitimate pro.
Saunders and assistant Sam Cassell spent the summer working with the athletic Southern Cal product, determined to morph the guard from a dribbling jitterbug to an efficient pick-and-roll contributor.
The first step in the process appears to have been accomplished. As he enters his third season, Young no longer needs a dribbling prelude to find a sweet spot before shooting a jumper. Now he runs off screens, catches the ball and either dribbles once and pulls up for a shot or simply shoots immediately.
Next, Saunders wants Young to get better on defense. He has started to make improvements in that area, and Saunders said he can live with gradual progress.
But another step — cultivating mental toughness — is proving more difficult and at times this preseason has been a stumbling block. Last season, Young would have a string of games with double-digit points, then slump for an extended run. He would break out for a while, only to go cold again.
When the Wizards entered training camp last month, Young purposed to play with greater consistency, and he had a great showing. That earned him the first crack at the shooting guard job in a competition that included DeShawn Stevenson, Mike Miller and Randy Foye.
But Saunders was waiting for the preseason games to see whether Young really had improved.
“Some guys are what I call popcorn players,” Saunders said. “The lights come on, and they smell the popcorn, and they take it to another level — or some of them do worse.”
Young has been both popcorn and kernel during the preseason. Starting in the opener alongside Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and Brendan Haywood, he was effective and scored 11 points. Then came four straight outings marked by low output and erratic shooting (a combined 9-for-33).
Shooting slumps occur, but what displeased Saunders was how Young executed poorly in the other aspects of the game.
“Nick’s one of those guys, I’ve learned from being around him, that if he makes a couple shots, he feels good about himself,” Saunders said. “If he doesn’t, he kind of struggles. He’s got to get over that. To be effective… you’ve got to find other ways to be on the floor — not just making shots. So that’s the next step in his maturing process.”
On Monday, Young broke out of his slump with a 15-point outing at Atlanta. But the next night in Philadelphia, he started and came out cold again. He missed his first two shots and committed two first-quarter turnovers.
“[Assistant coach Randy Wittman] was telling me that if I miss a shot, don’t get down. It’s kinda tough being a young guy and trying to do so well with [Butler] and them,” Young said. “And if you’re not used to being out there to begin the games, it’s kinda hard. You’ve got to get yourself going early.”
Young rebounded in the fourth quarter, scoring eight points, including a basket that tied the score with less than a minute to play.
“It felt good that I finally got one of those shots to fall,” he said.