Once Larry Nance Jr. finishes his final piece of artistry in the Slam Dunk Contest, he will have concluded a whirlwind of a basketball life. Traded. Moving back home. Teammate to LeBron. NBA Finals a possibility. A month ago, Nance Jr. was a member of a developmental team who, at best, are two years away from any kind of playoffs. In a reversal of fortune, Nance is in the spotlight and everything he does for Cleveland and everything he does not do will be twisted and exaggerated and evaluated in the reactionary way that is indicative of the sport. But Nance Jr. has a compelling narrative regardless of how this year finishes. He is the son of a NBA player whose number 22 is retired. He has Crohn’s Disease with a medicine regimen of every seven weeks. He was expected to be a second round pick but wasn’t. And Larry Nance Jr. had knee surgery after a torn ACL in college. He shouldn’t be here but he is.
Larry Nance Jr. will never be an All-Star. He scores but he’s not a prolific shot maker, never averaging 10 points in his career. He rebounds but isn’t Andre Drummond, career high 5.8 rebounds. He is efficient, 59% this season. He defends but isn’t spectacular. He dunks as powerfully as his father but not as elegantly. And something the Cavs have to watch out for. He has never played 65 games in a season.
Because he is not an All-Star, not elite in any one area, this slam dunk moment in L.A. where he played for two and a half seasons will be special. The crowd will show love as a thank you goodbye gift to Nance Jr. who, surrounded by 19 and 20 year olds, played hard and with passion.
The Lakers believed in Nance Jr. when most scouts considered him a project. The Lakers drafted him 27th. Skilled at late round picks, the Lakers saw his athleticism and basketball skill and maturity. For what they were trying to build, he fit.
When Nance Jr. was in high school, he wasn’t feeling well and after a round of medical appointments, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an inflammatory bowel disease that causes problems in the intestinal tract. He was 16. Once treated with the right combination of drugs, Nance Jr. resumed his basketball career. At Wyoming, he tore his ACL and it was probably why many scouts considered him a second rounder. With the Lakers, in his second year, he sat out with a bone bruise. The Cavs have to be aware of his knee fragility and not overuse him so he can’t compete.
It’s hard to say how Nance Jr. will do going forward. He doesn’t speak in superlatives. It’s been three games and unlike many fans and analysts, he’s not going to presume three games means 30 games. He has to establish chemistry once Kevin Love returns. Larry Nance Jr. has never played in the playoffs. When there is real pressure, what then?
“I don’t have to worry about points. I don’t have to worry about rebounds. I don’t have to worry about assists. I don’t have to focus on stats. All I need to focus on is doing whatever I possibly can to help the team win. I just need to make winning plays.” (Hoops Hype)
But for right now, this is the best moment of his professional life. He said of playing with the Cavs, “everyone wants to win.” It sounded like a backhanded criticism of the team he left behind but the team he left behind was so young and so deficient in many areas, he was right. They can’t want to win or else. The Lakers accept they are young and developing. They just want to get better. The Cavs want to beat Golden State. In that goal, they have little room for error which is why Larry Nance Jr. is playing for the same team that his father played for. Do the little things that help winners win is all he is expected to do.
As he plays under his father’s retired jersey- and no he isn’t going to have it taken down to wear it himself for nostalgic reasons- he is an example. A player who has never averaged 10 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, 30 minutes, is valued enough that a championship contender made a deal to get him. The NBA is just not about the stars. You need the Larry Nances to do the little things.
He has. So far, it’s been Larry Nance Jr.’s year.