A team full of superstars is looking for point guard Steve Nash to lead. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
The Lakers needed a player to take a shot. It wouldn't determine a win. But with their first practice already reaching four hours, the Lakers hardly wanted to stay in the gym any longer and perform running drills. The ticket to freedom: one player needed to make three free throws.
Kobe Bryant relishes those pressure moments. But he immediately turned to Steve Nash.
"I'll take that 92% free-throw shooting any day," said Bryant.
Nash actually shoots 90.4% from the stripe, but the point was well taken. Nash went to the line, sank three shots and allowed his teammates to call it a day.
"I didn't know I had to shoot all three, but I was happy to do it and take on the responsbility," Nash said. "We had already been out here a long time. I didn't want to make us stick around."
The moment during the Lakers' first practice of training camp on Tuesday epitomized how the team views its new point guard. The Lakers value Nash beyond his fifth-place standing in NBA history in assists (9,916) and his mastery of the pick-and-roll. They also trust his shooting. So much that Bryant touted Nash as "one of the great shooters our game has ever seen."
It also showed that a team full of superstars is looking for Nash to lead.
"He's a natural leader, more of a quiet leader than a rah-rah-type leader," Lakers Coach Mike Brown said. "But you can definitely tell that everybody respects him. He has a great feel for the game. He understands when and how much he needs to learn, too. He knows how to listen as much as he knows how to teach. It helps out tremendously. It makes you feel like you have an assistant out there on the floor."
That's already proved valuable on multiple levels.
Of course, it starts with his passing, the main reason the Lakers signed Nash to a three-year, $27-million contract. At 38, Nash still excels at running the pick-and-roll game, and the Lakers hope he can add fluidity and balance to a revamped offense that will involve elements of the Princeton system.
Bryant praised Nash's ability to scan the court. Gasol called Nash a "gifted passer" and was the recipient of a nifty Nash entry pass that allowed the Lakers forward to tip the ball to Dwight Howard for a dunk in a scrimmage Thursday. Nash? He says he wants to keep learning.
"It will be a challenge for me," Nash said, noting that beyond changing loyalties in a rivalry he's long been a part of, he has a whole new basketball culture to absorb. "Playing one way for more or less eight years to come in and play a different way is going to be a big challenge. But it's one I'm thrilled to be a part of and open minded as we go into this."
Nash's leadership went back even into the off-season.
Over the summer, Nash invited point guards Steve Blake and Chris Duhon as well as Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy to Phoenix where they practiced together in a series of workouts. Duhon appreciated the team-bonding and Blake picked up pointers watching how Nash runs the pick-and-roll, manages his dribble and adjusts his stance. Nash? He sounded bashful that teammates even wanted his advice.
"They may be waiting a long time if they want me to pass on any gems," Nash said with a smile. "But if I can share with them any of my experiences, I'd be happy to. It'd be great to pass on anything I've learned. I'm here to help. If they can glean from anything that I do or I can show them with my thoughts on any situations I've experienced in the past, I'd be happy to."
Nash has also set an example by not sweating the little things and understanding the larger picture.
He seems unconcerned by the prospect of logging more playing time this season after averaging only 31.6 minutes last year with Phoenix to reduce wear on his back. Instead, he touted the importance of staying healthy and getting a strong contribution from the bench so his back doesn't even become an issue.
Nash laughed about the attention Bryant raised for immediately proclaiming it's "his team." Though he agreed with the premise, he also stressed the necessity that everyone else elevate their play so Bryant doesn't carry the sole burden.
Despite readily conceding the challenges a new offense and new teammates entail, Nash has stayed optimistic.
"Everyone will understand our motives are pure," Nash said. "We're not here to do anything but win and make the group better. If we have to have heart-to-hearts from time to time, if voices are raised, that's a part of being a team and building a team."
So far, Nash hasn't done that. Instead, he's just let his actions do the talking. After only five days of training camp, that's difficult to measure. But if being picked to take the three free throws that will deliver his teammates from extended practice time is any indication, it's clear the Lakers are trusting him to lead.