Ty Lawson, A Perfect Blend of Mind and Speed
USA Today Sports
The mid-2000s was a unique period for the game of basketball. The NBA was no longer in its golden period where Jordan, Bird, and Magic roamed the hardwood in their respective cities. The game itself turned into more of a slugfest than free flowing exhibitions. Teams like the 2004 Pistons and the 2005 and 2007 Spurs won while being some of the slowest teams in the league. The rules were set up in such a way that the biggest and nastiest teams could grind smaller opponents like a mortar and pestle set.
Soon though, the rules — and the enforcement of the rules — began to change. The league knew that such a style of play wasn’t conducive to high ticket or jersey sales. The game was sliding towards a much faster style of play, and high-octane offenses soon took precedence to methodical defense. Yet like all change, it happened in a gradual manner.
The slower pace of this change setup for why Ty Lawson fell in the draft in 2009. While the pick looks like an obvious steal in 2014, many of the concerns linked to him were much more defensible just five years ago. The scouts liked all the things Lawson could bring to the table in the NBA, but also were wary of the things left off. The questions of how a player barely standing 6-feet — plenty say he’s not even that tall — could start in an NBA where point guards could outsize and out-muscle him were legitimate knocks in a league caught between the tenacious defense of the prior era and the fluidity of the modern.
So Lawson fell just outside of the lottery, where the Denver Nuggets scooped him up by giving the Wolves a future first-round pick. Those same questions, however, ignored Lawson’s athletic prowess — his quick, explosive moves to the basket, sure, but also the herky-jerky agility that creates one of the most lethal hesitation dribbles in the game. Those gifts quickly manifested for all it see; in Ty’s rookie season, he played the role of a spark-plug off the bench, only occasionally playing minutes alongside the bigger, incumbent starter, Chauncey Billups — often in a fast-paced attack. Denver head coach George Karl created an offensive onslaught that was unique in the league. Even through the years where slow-it-down ball was the norm, Denver was in the upper echelon of pace consistently, and Lawson became one of the keys to the Nuggets’ attack.
His sophomore year was much of the same through 51 games. The offense became faster but there was no room for Lawson’s name to be called in the starting lineup with Billups in town. Then the Carmelo Anthony trade hit, and — on the surface, anyway — Denver’s identity seemingly went with it. The Anthony trade liberated the Nuggets in a certain sense, offering a silver lining to the departure of Denver’s superstar. The small dynamo that is Ty Lawson took over the reigns and pushed the Nuggets’ speed to new heights. Each year, Denver’s pace was quicker than the last, and Lawson was the catalyst for that growth.
Instead of adapting to how his bigger opponents played, Ty learned to dictate the flow to be more in his favor. And that’s the crucial point for Lawson’s evolution as a player — while he displays extraterrestrial athleticism at times, his mental acuity and sense for the game is top-notch among NBA point guards. That cognizant approach to the game is what takes him to an even higher level than he could achieve off physical talent alone. Lawson could survive with just one of these sides to his game, but the potent mix of the two is what makes him so dynamic on the offensive end.
In what looks like a simple drive-and-dish to the more casual viewer, breaking down each individual event reveals the mental steps of Lawson’s attack. The fact he’s the Nuggets first option both scoring and distributing the ball allows for Ty to begin making his move long before we actually see it begin. Dribbling the ball up the court is seen as a simple exercise for most NBA point guards, but for Lawson it’s a way to see the current battle before it happens. Much like a veteran of war wants to get to higher ground so he can look down on the happenings below, Ty is constantly analyzing his best option of attack before he crosses into the front court.
From there, you will find often his hesitation move works like a charm. Yet, what can seem a simple matter of Lawson having more foot agility and acceleration than a bigger, clumsier opponent also reaches a second level of mental fortitude. Ty rushes in furlong as if he’s carelessly sprinting in, but when he reaches the three point line he pulls back like an archer’s bow, with a quick hesitation move. This leaves his defender on their heels, with Lawson yet another step ahead. That bow is released and Ty is flung headlong into the lane, now unaccounted for. The speed is the main reason Lawson can put on moves such as this on a regular basis, but that extra preparation of the initial spring from the Pepsi Center logo on the floor to the three point line is how he truly sets it up.
The mind games aren’t done there either. Once inside the free throw line, Ty starts one of his patented glides. He knows he isn’t putting the shot up well before his defenders do though, as his experience tells him the weak-side defender is clamping well before the defender starts his descent into his paint. Lawson’s hangtime makes him seem almost frozen in air, as he’s about to collide with a man almost a foot taller than him. He’s ready though, not for the contact itself but that sliver of light that shows itself in the passing lane to an open Nugget for a corner three. Much like how Pop draws up the open corner three by mixing a drive and off-ball movement through one of his patented hammer plays, Ty creates the look knowing it was there well before it came into fruition. He got it in a manner that is grittier than Pop’s intricate designs, but to act as if it wasn’t brilliant in it’s own right is to deny human art.
Ty Lawson sits at the crux of pure speed that kills and playing a basketball chess match against five other players and winning with enviable ease. If he was any higher on the athletic side, maybe that drive described earlier ends with a 6’4” Lawson rising over the top of the bigger defender and throwing down home a dunk that is more bombastic to the view. And maybe if he shifted more towards the mental side of things, he’d go into the lane with less reckless abandon and find a way to knock down the turnovers that strike us as silly. Yet, he would come off as a less appealing player in either scenario. In a league filled with limitless athletes and wily vets, Ty has struck gold finding solace in being the equilibrium of those two players.