When I saw Ty Lawson knocking down three-pointers at the beginning Game 6 against the Los Angeles Lakers, it was difficult to believe it was the same Lawson who spent the first 95 days of his season in Europe playing for eventual Lithuanian champions Zalgiris Kaunas.
The same thoughts have surely been coming to Zalgiris’ and European basketball fans’ heads all season long as Lawson had a terrific year and established himself as an NBA star. Why didn’t Lawson meet expectations and was strictly a role player in Europe before having such a big impact in the NBA?
Back in July of last year, I wrote about the five reasons why Euroleague teams shouldn’t sign NBA stars and all five points could be easily applied to Lawson in retrospect.
Lawson simply wasn’t able to translate his game in Europe. Lawson, who is known for his quickness, driblle penetration and ability in transition, had to fit Ilias Zouros’ slow-paced positional, defensive game, which would be a nightmare for an player like Lawson. As a result, Lawson scored 52 points, dished out 11 assists and made six steals in 149 minutes (seven games) of Euroleague action.
In contrast, in his first 165 minutes (five games) in the NBA this season, Lawson’s numbers were more impressive - 93 points, 28 assists and 14 steals. Definitely, no defensive three-second violation had also prevented Lawson from driving to the basket, but as he is ranked highest (31st) in scoring among all NBA players, who played in the Euroleague during the lockout. It is clear that Zalgiris was not able to use all Lawson’s offensive potential.
Two weeks ago, after losing Game 2, Lawson seemed to be frustrated as he tried “to please everybody" and added that he "probably had 10 different people coming to him saying, 'Do this, do that' instead of just trusting his skills and playing himself". ‘Trust your skills and play yourself’ approach would have definitely helped him in Lithuania as well.
On the other hand, Lawson never was as aggressive in Europe as he is in the NBA and that was the feeling since his first Euroleague game against CSKA Moscow. For example, despite Lawson was only taking one three-point shot only every 19 minutes in Europe (compared to one every 11 minutes in the NBA this season), which is 1.2 attempt per game comparing to 3.1 in the NBA. He also didn’t dish out a single assists in the first two games in Euroleague.
Moreover, people who surrounded Lawson on the team always noticed that he had never been very motivated in Kaunas. RealGM was the first media outlet to conduct a one-on-one interview with Lawson, where the Nuggets’ point guard seemed to be excited about playing in Lithuania, but later on after getting familiar with European basketball, the excitement disappeared. Coaches getting fired after just one Euroleague game, two-a-days, unusual player rotations, lazy practices and playing for a losing team didn’t motivate Lawson to excel in Europe.
However, Lawson remained a professional off the court as well during his time in Zalgiris and usually tried to avoid expressing what he really thought with only a few exceptions. Once, Lawson shared his opinion about practices with Zalgiris on Twitter, where he wrote, “I coulda sat home and played NBA 2k12 and got the same thing accomplished that we did in practice smh.”
After returning to the United States, Lawson also revealed to the media that he didn’t understand European rotation system, where “you play four minutes, then you get subbed for 10, and later you have to get back on the court”.
The example of Lawson’s adventures in Europe just proves how unpredictable and different European basketball is in comparison to the NBA. But the positives outweighed the negatives for Lawson in Europe.
Back in September, Lawson told RealGM “probably the biggest difference I’m having is two-a-days. In Denver, we didn’t do that at all. This is getting me in shape".
Lawson was right - a tough schedule and the experience he gained in Europe helped him to get into shape for the NBA season - the best in his career. Lawson had excellent numbers, averaging 16.4 points, 6.6 assists and 3.7 rebounds per game in the regular season.