Ty Lawson says his comeback story is just beginning

Ty Lawson told ESPN of his unexpected return to the NBA with the Wizards this postseason, "I want to show everybody that I am back to being Ty Lawson." Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

WASHINGTON -- Ty Lawson knows what the NBA was thinking: Teams had given up on him.

"Oh yeah, for sure," he said. "100 percent."

The Washington Wizards point guard is also sure of why NBA general managers and coaches were keeping their distance.

"Everybody says I have a problem with drinking alcohol," Lawson said. "I don't really have a drinking problem. I don't drink that much, to be honest. Only when I go out with friends [on occasion] ... to clarify that, I don't think I am an alcoholic at all. I am not."

Lawson is a man with a lot to prove these days, and his NBA comeback is underway. Just weeks removed from spending this past season in the Chinese Basketball Association, Lawson is playing a key role in the Wizards' first-round series against the Toronto Raptors, as Washington heads into a must-win Game 6 on Friday night.

Lawson wants to help the Wizards advance to the next round and, in the process, remind the NBA this is where he belongs and prove he can steer clear of any more alcohol-related trouble.

"I think it's the comeback of Ty Lawson," Lawson said last week as he talked about his career and his long road back to the NBA in a sit-down with ESPN.

Barely able to keep his eyelids open, Lawson felt like he was sleepwalking through his first practice with the Wizards two weeks ago, which was perfectly understandable considering just how far the point guard had come to return to the NBA.

Less than 48 hours earlier, Lawson was still feeling the sting of losing in the first-ever Game 7 in Chinese Basketball Association playoff history. Hours after finishing with 14 points and six assists for Shandong in a 105-95 semifinal loss to Zhejiang Guangsha, Lawson found out the Wizards were ready to sign him for the NBA's postseason.

While Lawson had brought two pieces of luggage with him to Game 7, he left many of his belongings at his apartment in Jinan as he began the trek from East China's Hangzhou to Shanghai to Los Angeles. During a five-hour layover in Los Angeles, Lawson figured he could drive to his house in the San Fernando Valley to pick up more clothes, but the crawling rush-hour traffic ultimately forced him to turn back toward LAX, where he had to take an even later late-night flight.

By the time his red-eye flight landed in Washington the next morning, a groggy Lawson "wandered" through his first practice with the Wizards before boarding yet another international flight to Toronto, where the Wizards opened the postseason.

In all, Lawson's 29-hour trip spanned nearly 8,000 miles while crossing 11 time zones. That odyssey, though, feels like a layup when compared to the long, winding journey he has taken to get back to the NBA.

"People forgot about him," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said. "I think you kind of forgot about how fast he is, how he has been a starting point guard on some very successful teams in Denver."

When he was at his best, Lawson looked like one of the NBA's rising dual-threat point guards. The No. 18 overall pick in the 2009 draft, who won a national championship at North Carolina, averaged a career-high 17.6 points and 8.8 assists for the Denver Nuggets in 2013-14. The following season, he averaged 15.2 points and a career-high 9.6 assists, ranking third in the NBA in assists per game both years.

"Shoot, he is a smaller version of John Wall," Wizards forward Otto Porter said. "He's so quick. He is amazing ... Somebody you can't sleep on. He might be small, but he can create a lot of havoc in the paint."

But Lawson's life off the court appeared to be just as disruptive. During the 2014-15 season, Lawson was arrested twice on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol. In January 2015, he was pulled over in Denver for speeding, which led to his arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence. Lawson was charged with speeding, careless driving and driving while intoxicated, but as part of a plea deal reached, he pleaded guilty to driving while his ability was impaired and guilty to a lane-usage violation while having three other charges dismissed.

In summer 2015, Lawson was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving in Los Angeles. It was the fourth time during his basketball career he had been arrested for allegedly being intoxicated while behind the wheel. A week later, the Nuggets traded Lawson to the Houston Rockets, where his scoring average dipped to a career-low 5.8 points per game. Houston cut Lawson the following March, and he finished the 2015-16 season with the Indiana Pacers, before a relatively quiet year with the Sacramento Kings the following season.

During his season in Sacramento, Lawson was ordered to appear in a Denver court after allegedly violating probation terms on his 2015 drunk-driving conviction. He allegedly failed three alcohol tests from September 2016 to February 2017 while also allegedly failing to complete 48 hours of community service.

Lawson said the negative publicity followed by the toxic feedback he received from fans on social media poisoned his confidence and subsequently his game, both of which were in a steady free fall since 2015.

"It was a dark time, I feel like," Lawson said. "Just tried to tune people out, and I think it affected basketball and confidence. I didn't play the same."

Lawson said he "completed everything [the court] wanted me to do," from probation to community service and classes with John Lucas, but the damage to his NBA reputation had been done.

"Everybody was like, 'Oh he has a problem,'" Lawson said. "I have heard that. I don't know, actually, what people think about me in other locker rooms. Because, I mean, maybe [they think] I am a problem around the team. I'm not. I am probably one of the chillest guys ever."

Lawson, now 30, said some of the issues he had stemmed from the company he kept. He insists he doesn't have a drinking problem or addiction and that he has learned his lesson when it comes to drinking and driving.

"I won't drink and drive! Take an Uber, that's it," Lawson said. "You can even notice little stuff, like I'm in Sacramento, and everybody is going out, and [people] are looking at me like, 'Is Ty getting a drink?' I am like, yo, it is not that serious. Like, y'all relax. I am not going to drink this [and] go drink the whole bar down."

Whether he had a drinking issue or not, the perception was strong enough around the league that he had nothing but one-year, minimum-salary offers to remain in the NBA last summer. His pride wouldn't allow him to settle for that, so he took a more lucrative offer with the Shandong Golden Stars.

Among the baggage Lawson lugged with him to China was his battered confidence. The point guard had to go halfway across the world to rediscover and rebuild it.

"Shot," Lawson described his confidence at the time.

"... [China] was a little bit of a wake-up call."

Perhaps it is no coincidence that Lawson found himself living in Jinan, the capital of Shandong, a coastal province in East China that is a couple of hours away from Mount Tai, a UNESCO heritage site that is considered China's most sacred mountain. Associated with birth and renewal, Mount Tai has 6,000 stone steps up to the top.

Not far away from Mount Tai, Lawson began his long, humble climb back to the NBA, and he quickly began to realize all the things he'd taken for granted.

After his first preseason game for the Golden Stars, Lawson asked the team's translator a question.

"'Yo, so who washes the jersey?'" Lawson said. "He turns around and throws me some detergent and says, 'Yeah, you can go wash it in the sink.' It's something that you really take for granted over here, but you are like, 'Damn, I got to wash my jersey and hang it up.'"

Laundry, though, was easy compared to finding his swagger again. Lawson arrived in Shandong stripped of his confidence. Instead of looking to score and play aggressively, Lawson had become content to pass the ball off.

"You know, oh, where is James [Harden] and DeMarcus [Cousins] at," Lawson said of his mentality in his post-Denver NBA stops.

But Lawson rediscovered his offense in the CBA. He scored 55 points in the final game of the regular season. In the CBA semifinals, Lawson had 32 points, 7 rebounds, 7 assists and the winning 3-pointer in Game 4 against Guangsha.

"Oh, it's sky high now," Lawson said of his confidence. "I am shooting [the last shot now]. ... Now I feel like I am here. I'm back."

He proved that during his first game with the Wizards, scoring 14 points and dishing out eight assists in Game 2 in Toronto. Lawson also demonstrated something he picked up in China: planting his elbow in the face of CJ Miles while driving to the basket.

"See, in China, when you go to the basket, when you see somebody coming, you got to hit first before they hit you or you are going to be messed up," Lawson said. "That's why I want to apologize to CJ, too. I got to change my mode back to the NBA."

After a season in which he averaged 25.4 points, 6.6 assists, 2.4 steals and shot 62.9 percent from the field in China, Lawson said he doesn't "second-guess myself on every single play from my jump shot to passing the ball" anymore.

That showed when he drilled 4 of 5 3-pointers when pressed into action in Game 2 of the Wizards' first-round series. He has played in the past four games in this series, averaging 19 minutes per game as the Wizards' primary backup point guard. He has even found himself playing alongside Wall at times when Wizards coach Scott Brooks wants two point guards on the floor.

"There were probably times where he was right there, with being an All-Star when he played in Denver," Brooks said. "We knew when we picked him up he would give us a spark somewhere.

"He's a problem [for other teams]," Brooks added.

After getting a taste of the CBA playoffs, Lawson said he definitely wants to play in China again. But first, he has some unfinished business in the NBA.

"If you read on Instagram or Twitter, [people ask] 'Oh, Ty, where you been?'" Lawson said. "'Oh, he is still in the league?' OK. All right. I like that.

"[Game 2 against Toronto] is just the start. I am working hard. I want to show everybody that I am back to being Ty Lawson. That would be fulfilling to me."

Tencent's Du Gong contributed to this report.