"With the 18th pick of the 2009 NBA Draft, the Minnesota Timberwolves select..."
It all sounds rather uneventful, doesn't it? Five years removed from a mid-round draft pick (by David Kahn, no less), you'd never imagine the Timberwolves had chosen the leader and figurehead of your Denver Nuggets. But such is the way of the draft, and leave it to Kahn to trade away the best of the three point guards he drafted that day.
When Tywon Ronell Lawson was traded to the Denver Nuggets later in the draft, things got interesting. As a college hoops laggard, I found myself in need of a quick education. I solicited the opinion of my three best NCAA followers and March Madness geeks, surveyors of every college game a satellite dish could offer, and got a few of the following thoughts (thanks god I save old emails):
"Dude, you got a speedster. He may end up the fastest guy in the league."
"Did you know he was the ACC Player of the Year? (I didn't) Yeah, the first point guard to win that title in 30+ years."
"Bet you're glad he decided to spend another year at North Carolina..." (apparently he almost declared the year prior)
"No way he's six feet tall!"
Now this was piquing my curiosity. Blazing speed, a great handle, accolades, maturity... ok, not enough height, but come on, we're talking the 18th pick here. So... What worried these guys about our new acquisition?
"He needs to be more vocal."
"I don't know if he's a floor general..."
"That whole team was so talented, I have no idea if he can lead."
Huh. Isn't that interesting. Each of these guys landed on a similar concern about Ty. I resolved to take notice of Ty and how he might choose to lead or inspire the Nuggets. Fortunately, he was starting out his career by backing up one of the league's great point guards in Chauncey Billups, Denver's sports legend, who had repeatedly told stories of his own maturation in the league, and the players who had influenced him and taken him under their wing. Early on, Billups had also seemed lost in the league and his role. After his growth and maturation to become the Pistons' Finals MVP, Chauncey had been very vocal about "paying it forward" and his role as a mentor and leader to the next generation of players. Even more exciting, the Nuggets were coming off their second-ever Western Conference Finals appearance, and were picked by many to go deep into another playoffs for the '09-'10 season. Chauncey and Ty. Ty and Chauncey. Tab A, meet Slot B. This was going to kick ass.
But sometimes, things go wrong along the way. Ty's first season was filled with incredible plays (dunking over D.J. Mbenga, anyone?) and lightning speed, and the Nuggets went on a season-long tear, up until the point George Karl's cancer returned. It seemed as if the heart was ripped from that Nuggets team, and without Karl's leadership, the Nuggets were lost. A first-round exit and rumblings from fans and front office began the exceptionally long Melo-drama of Carmelo Anthony's departure in 2011, and saddest of all, native son Billups was swept up in the trade. In the course of a tumultuous season-plus, Lawson, our "future floor leader" had lost a superstar, a mentor, and the health of his coach. It was a plainly difficult time for Lawson, who was suddenly thrust into the lead role as point guard. How would he handle the pressure and responsibility?
It's been a tumultuous ride ever since.
Ty Lawson is an interesting guy. A quiet and humble man, who has a reputation for being harder on himself than anyone else, leadership (especially the vocal kind) was not necessarily an easy step for his cerebral and easygoing personality. To his credit, Ty's work ethic is exceptional, and he's taken steps every offseason to address weaknesses in his game, both as a player and leader. Those first few seasons at the helm, Ty seemed to spend as much time second-guessing himself as playing ball, and he would go through lengthy bouts of seemingly uninspired play, always followed by public commentary from George Karl, after which Ty would perform some sort of public penance by speaking with one of the Denver news media about "taking the right steps" and "learning to lead the team". It left a lot of Nuggets fans (including many vocal Stiffs) wondering if Ty would ever truly take the reins, or if he wasn't made of "that stuff". Another quick exit from the playoffs after the '12-'13 season (amongst other things) cost Karl and several of his staff their jobs, and Ty began the 2013-2014 season with a new coach and new set of responsibilities.
Brian Shaw made no bones about Lawson being the head of the team immediately, entrusting Lawson with a new system and an ever-changing array of players due to injury and a search for cohesion. Lawson and the Nuggets struggled early on, and he and Shaw had their moments of conflict. Even so, Shaw and Lawson both went out of their way to patch up any momentary issues, and Ty began to mold and guide the team. When a player would find themselves out of position, Ty waved them in to place. When effort wasn't being given, said player would find Ty in his ear on the way back to the huddle, only to be supplanted by Shaw with more of the same. Though the teams' play was rough and ugly in its infancy, you could see a bond developing between coach and floor general, and Ty began to flourish under Shaw, getting national traction on a possible All-Star berth (he'd miss out) and learning to bend Shaw's evolving game plans to his speedy will. Ty led the Nuggets last season at nearly 36 minutes and 18 points a game, his highest totals in either category, and you could nearly see great things on the horizon.
What more proof could one need that Ty was finally taking the lead?
In the quarter-season (20 games) Ty Lawson did not play last season due to injury, the Denver Nuggets went 7-13. Not a tragic figure until you realize that two of those wins came during a rare early hot streak against the likes of the Washington Wizards and Philadelphia 76ers, and three more during the last six games of a lost season in which several teams were done giving their all. Removing that, the Denver Nuggets were 2-13 when Lawson was off the floor. Beyond the losses, coaches, fans and commentators alike wondered at how lost Denver seemed on the court without Ty. Amongst injuries to key players throughout the season (or players we went all season without), no loss was more impactful to the team than Lawson. He'd truly become the engine that made the Nuggets run.
I'll admit I assumed that last season was Ty's first as a team captain, given his contributions, but cannot find a named captain for last season to save myself. I'm certain one or many of the Stiffs faithful can set me right on what that was all about.
Entering another Nuggets season, Lawson seems to have finally put to rest the questions surrounding his leadership and necessity to this squad. As Lawson goes, so go the Denver Nuggets, and with his eyes set firmly on an All-Star spot (holy crap, that's a tough "get"), Ty looks ready to take our Nugs back to the promised land of the playoffs (and hopefully past the first round). Isn't it time to put a C on that jersey, a cape on his back, and a nearby jock-catcher for all the guys he'll be blowing past this year? That's what I'd do, anyway.
What about you, Nuggets Nation? Is Ty finally the unquestioned leader of this team, or does he have more to prove?