Ty Lawson understands the game. As Kings coach Dave Joerger succinctly put it, “He is staring his career right in the eyeball.”
Four arrests for driving under the influence – two in seven months in 2015 – threatened the career of one the league’s quickest, most unusual point guards. At his best, Lawson is an NBA rarity, a blur of a player who would rather pass and make plays for teammates than pad his scoring stats. He is one of a few NBA veterans who might be able to race past fellow Kings point guard Darren Collison, the son of world-class sprinters and a speedster in his own right.
But Collison is far from the only competition for Lawson as he attempts to revive his career on a one-year, non-guaranteed contract with the Kings. His other opponent – perhaps the more formidable one – is himself.
After the two alcohol-related incidents in 2015, the Denver Nuggets traded their troubled star to the Houston Rockets, who waived him after five largely ineffective months. He finished last season with the Indiana Pacers, again in a minimized role. He was lingering on a depleted list of free agents when Kings general manager Vlade Divac began a desperate search for backcourt help. The Kings lost Rajon Rondo in free agency and await an announcement on the length of Collison’s anticipated suspension from the league following his arrest on misdemeanor domestic violence charges.
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Ten games? Twenty games? The Kings are sweating, expecting the worst.
“We went over the (free-agent) list and evaluated everybody,” Divac said, “and in terms of talent, nobody was close to Ty. But we needed to meet with him and talk about a few things before we offered a contract.”
After a conversation with Lawson and his agents, the former North Carolina standout flew to Sacramento and worked out for Divac and Joerger. The initial impressions were encouraging. The sturdy, 5-foot-11 Lawson was in excellent shape and appeared to have retained his cat-quick movements.
Lawson also had done his homework. He had several conversations with former Kings and Nuggets coach George Karl, with whom he remains close. Karl endorsed the Kings – somewhat surprising given his awkward exit and strained relationship with members of the front office – and encouraged Lawson to accept the Sacramento offer. John Lucas, a former NBA star whose career was hampered by a cocaine addiction and who essentially crafted the league’s substance abuse policy, similarly advised the eight-year pro to sign with the Kings.
“The Rockets asked me to mentor Ty last season, and I was straight up with him,” said Lucas, who recently was hired as the Rockets’ director of player development. “He did everything that was asked of him (by the courts), and he kept himself in great shape. But he just wasn’t a good fit in Houston. Ty needs to play fast. But it’s like I told him. ‘It’s not the place, it’s the person.’ Sacramento is offering him a new start. Now he has to remove his ego and keep his mind right and refocus on his career.”
If I go out, I take Uber, or I just stay home. I’m not drinking and driving ever again.
Ty Lawson, Kings guard
Not long ago, Lawson ranked among the league’s elite point guards. He was selected 18th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves and immediately swapped to the Nuggets during the backcourt-rich 2009 draft. The undersized but gifted junior was a steal in a class that included Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio, Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Eric Maynor and Patty Mills.
Despite dismal numbers (5.7 points, 3.6 assists) in his combined 66 appearances and 13 starts last season with Houston and Indiana, his career averages are a respectable 13.1 points, 6.2 assists and 1.2 steals. He is one of only three players (Chris Paul and John Wall) with at least 2,000 assists since 2011-12.
“I think Ty is a great pickup,” Karl said Saturday. “He likes passing the ball more than scoring, and he just loves to play. The problem I saw with him last year was that he seemed to lose his confidence. But if he still has his speed, he and Darren Collison can be really good together at times. And, of course, the Kings have to work with him to keep that other part of his life – the off-court life – under control. If they can do that, the Kings will be very happy with him.”
But about those off-court issues. The drinking and driving. The four arrests. The time in a rehabilitation facility in Malibu. The gamble that can only be answered over time: Can Lawson stick with the straight and narrow?
Asked about his legal issues, Lawson is polite but uncomfortable and sparing with details. He reveals only that he completed his community service and court-mandated counseling sessions, and after a year without a license, he is eligible to regain his driving privileges.
“It could have been a lot worse,” Lawson said, nodding. “I could have gone to jail. What I learned from all those experiences is don’t drink and drive. That’s it. That’s all it is. If I go out, I take Uber, or I just stay home. I’m not drinking and driving ever again. I don’t want to go through stuff ever again. Everyone looks back and says, ‘Oh, he has been away (struggled) for two years.’ But it was only one year. To me, that was a throwaway year. This year, I want to get back to playing Ty Lawson basketball, to playing the way I played for George (Karl) and playing to win. And I feel like I have my legs back.”
I think Ty is a great pickup. He likes passing the ball more than scoring, and he just loves to play.
George Karl, former Kings coach, on Ty Lawson
While Joerger expects a major adjustment for all of his guards during Collison’s anticipated suspension, he has no reservations about Lawson’s playmaking abilities – a Kings weakness for several years.
“Ty’s strength is going end to end,” Joerger said, “and guys love playing with him. Defensively, we’ll find out what he can do. He went through some pretty tough times these past few years. But I’m hoping it’s behind him, because if he is to continue in this league, this year is it. I hope he can say, ‘I’m ready. I’m back on track.’ ”