EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- In the week since Dwight Howard announced his decision to go to the Houston Rockets, players and front-office members of the Los Angeles Lakers have been treading pretty lightly on the subject.
Leave it to L.A. native and newly-minted Laker Nick Young to say what everybody seemed to be thinking at his introductory news conference on Friday.
"That was the first time I've ever seen anybody leave L.A., wanting to leave L.A., and I'm from here so I haven't seen that," said the 28-year-old Young, who not only played high school ball at Reseda Cleveland but also played his college basketball at USC. "But Dwight had to do what he had to do."
Young jumped at the chance to return to the place where Howard fled.
"I just felt like I needed this opportunity," Young said. "Over the past couple of years, I feel like I've been getting disrespected a little bit out there and I feel with this stage the Lakers set, with the opportunity for playing time here, I can get my name back out there and get the respect I feel I deserve. I did this for myself, really."
The disrespect Young was referring to occurred in Philadelphia last season. The 76ers signed him to a one-year, $6 million deal, and he languished on the bench, picking up DNP-CDs with regularity. A season before that, he was hitting big shots in the playoffs for the Los Angeles Clippers. In 2010-11, he was averaging a career-high 17.4 points per game for the Washington Wizards.
Coming to Los Angeles was about getting back on track.
"We think there's a lot of playing time here for him if he works hard and earns it," Kupchak said. "We see him playing at the small forward and the guard position. He's very gifted athletically. We know he can score. We've been talking about improving the other parts of his game, which I think he's committed to working on to becoming a complete player."
While the Lakers couldn't offer Young much in terms of salary -- he signed a one-year deal for the veteran's minimum, worth about $1.2 million -- what they could offer was the precious commodity of a chance to play major minutes and a shot at the future.
Even though the Lakers have let it be known they want to maintain as much cap flexibility for the summer of 2014 as possible to pursue max-level free agents, Young is seen as a piece that could stick around once those marquee players are added.
"Although it's a short contract, we would hope that he would be here for a long, long time," said Kupchak, who had initially pursued Young last summer before holding off when the Steve Nash and Howard trades came together.
Acquiring Young allowed the Lakers to waive Metta World Peace via the amnesty clause and still have a player they believe can start in his place.
When asked if World Peace's spot in the starting lineup next season belonged to him, Young replied: "It should be."
Not that Young wants it handed to him. While playing shooting guard for most of his six seasons in the league, he has racked up just a 1.9 rebounds-per-game career average. World Peace, meanwhile, pulled down 5.0 boards per game last season. And don't forget defense, either. World Peace averaged 1.6 steals per game last season to Young's 0.6.
"To get out there on the floor, I need to do the other things too -- defend, rebound," said Young, a natural scorer who has an 11.3 points per game average in just 23.1 minutes per game in his career, with a career-high 43-point game against the Kings in 2011. "I feel I can do those things. I'm still learning. I ain't reached my potential yet. There's things I just need to pick up along the way."
Someone he intends to learn from is Bryant. Standing 6-feet-7, 210 pounds, Young has a nearly identical frame to the 6-foot-6, 205-pound Bryant, and his game resembles that of the Hall of Fame-bound Bryant.
"Growing up in L.A., Kobe was my idol, really," Young said. "Just to have an opportunity to step on the court and to pick his brain and see how he carries himself day-in and day-out, that's going to be big for me."
Young's belief in Bryant is also a big reason why he still classifies the Lakers as "contenders" for next season, while many have tempered their championship expectations because of Bryant's Achilles injury and Howard's departure.
"You never know with that man, No. 24," Young said. "Him and Nash and Pau [Gasol], they’re still trying to get to that championship game and they're still fighting their hearts out to continue to be a contender. I guess you just got to have that mindset coming in here. Anything less than a ring for Kobe I think is going to be disappointing."
Young already experienced a bit of minor disappointment before signing with the Lakers: his old high school rival, Jordan Farmar, started negotiations with the Lakers first and called dibs on wearing uniform No. 1, the same number Young has worn most of his career.
Young chose No. 0 instead, in part paying tribute to friend and former teammate Gilbert "Agent Zero" Arenas, and also to symbolize what coming home means to him.
"I feel l need to start from somewhere," Young said. "Start from the bottom again."