Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson makes final All-Star push

Denver floor leader putting up stats worth of consideration
by Aaron Lopez

As Ty Lawson walked the halls of his middle school in Clinton, Md., he carried two Trapper Keeper binders.

One was filled with papers and other schoolwork. The other provided him with some disposable income.

Long before he became the floor general for the Denver Nuggets, Lawson was the Candy Man of Gwynn Park. He would stock up his inventory at Costco and then hand out assists for a small fee.

“They didn’t have vending machines in middle school, so I was the Candy Man,” Lawson recalls with a laugh. “You want to holler at me? I got a dollar for Starburst, Sour Patch Straws, Snickers. I was a hustler.”

Now in his fifth NBA season, Lawson still has a weak spot for Sour Patch Straws, but it hasn’t slowed him down as he makes a legitimate push for a spot on the Western Conference All-Star team.

Traditionally a slow starter, Lawson has scored in double figures in 39 of his 41 games and is averaging 17.9 points and 8.9 assists – both career-highs. In his past 12 games, Lawson is averaging 18.5 points and 11.1 assists with 10 double-doubles.

“He’s the one guy on the team that you feel like you can almost pencil in whatever his averages are for points and assists,” Nuggets coach Brian Shaw said. “He’s playing at a high level. He has the green light to do his thing on the floor, so we’re going to let him do it.”

History of Winning

Because of his speed and quickness, coaches have always been comfortable putting the ball – and their trust – in Lawson.

He helped prep powerhouse Oak Hill Academy to a 42-1 record as a high school senior in 2005-06, and he won the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard while leading North Carolina to the NCAA title in 2008-09.

As a pro, Lawson served as an apprentice to former NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups for a season-and-a-half before taking over as the full-time starter in February 2011.

Since then, Lawson has emerged as a top-10 point guard, with a bullet. He has improved his scoring and assists averages in each of his first four seasons and is on pace to establish new standards again in 2013-14.

“He’s grown as a player. He’s gotten better every year and he’s been having a phenomenal season this season,” New York coach Mike Woodson said when the Knicks were in Denver. “It’s always nice from a coaching standpoint to watch young players develop over the years. He’s gotten better and obviously he’s put in his time and it’s paid off for him.”

Something to Prove

Such compliments weren’t always so forthcoming for Lawson early in life.

He still remembers the name of a Gwynn Park seventh-grade teacher who chastised Lawson and a friend for talking in class.

“Miss Bailey,” he says with a smile. “I remember it like yesterday. She got mad. She said, ‘If you two were drowning, I wouldn’t call nobody to save you.’ She told us we weren’t going to be worth nothing.”

If only Miss Bailey knew how wrong she was. Every so often, Lawson feels like telling her.

“I was going to go back after my second year in the league and just jump in her classroom and say, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ but she doesn’t work there any more. I’m still looking for you, Miss Bailey. I’m going to find you.”

Banner Season

Nuggets fans could find Lawson in New Orleans next month if Western Conference coaches select him as an All-Star reserve.

He is one of only four NBA players averaging at least 17 points and eight assists, and he also ranks among his peers in assist-to-turnover ratio and points created off assists.

And then there’s the intangible: His end-to-end speed.

“If it’s possible, he looks faster,” said Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle. “Maybe the rest of the league slowed down a little bit, I don’t know. His speed element is No. 1 in the game.

“There are a lot of fast guys, but I don’t know of anyone that has the raw speed for as consistent period of time during the games as he has. He is a monster to deal with.”

Building the Foundation

The path to being a potential All-Star began at Andrews Air Force Base, where Lawson’s father worked as a technical sergeant. George Lawson often took his son along while he played pick-up games at the base gymnasium.

Ty was about 4 years old when he first started honing his skills. His father was soon putting him through ball-handling, shooting and defensive drills to help him improve his fundamentals.

By the time Ty was 7, he was playing for the Andrews Magic, a youth team coached by George Lawson and fellow Air Force sergeant Ron Cunningham. Ty Lawson and youth teammate Dante Cunningham would go on to face one another in the 2009 NCAA Final Four. Cunningham is now with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

When he wasn’t playing at the Air Force base, Lawson enjoyed hooping with his friends on the outdoor courts in Clinton’s Boniwood neighborhood. Though he was only in elementary school, he used his speed to keep up with the bigger teenagers.

“Some days we’d go there at noon when it’d be burning up and we’d play until 7 or 8 at night,” Lawson said. “When the lights came on, I had to be home. That was my curfew time.”

The rims were adorned with chain nets, but the nets inevitably went missing for weeks on end, prompting lively debates over makes and misses.

“Sometimes when someone would swish the ball, we’d have big arguments,” Lawson said. “‘It didn’t go in.’ ‘Yeah, it went in.’ ‘That was an airball.’ It was always fun. It was entertaining for me.”

Alter Ego

Outside of basketball, Lawson entertained himself by collecting Pokémon cards and playing against other enthusiasts. When he was in elementary school, he competed at a national tournament set up similar to the World Series of Poker.

“I used to play all the time,” Lawson said. “I was good.”

Lawson said he kept his penchant for Pokémon under the radar because he didn’t want his basketball buddies to make fun of him. That’s not a concern now that he’s one of the NBA’s rising young stars playing better than he has at any point of his career.

Though still a prankster with a “Dennis the Menace” personality, Lawson is maturing into a leader in the locker room and on the court. Instead of hustling candy in the hallways, he is outsmarting opponents on the hardwood.

“It’s nice to see the confidence that he’s playing with on a night-in, night-out basis,” Shaw said. “This is the best that he’s started out in the first half of the season, and that’s great. If he does what he normally does the second half of the season, watch out.”

That goes for you, too, Miss Bailey – wherever you may be.