Why you should care

Because we love rooting for 6-foot-9 kids who can fly.

It was only a preseason NBA game, but the crowd was going wild over the dunk. Not as much as the announcers, though. “You gotta get excited over that,” one of them sighed. They’d been shouting like tweens at a One Direction concert. LARRY NANCE! LARRY NANCE!

The way this 6-foot-9 forward can fly into the air and ally-oop has onlookers making comparisons to Blake Griffin, LeBron James — and, of course, his own father, three-time All-Star and winner of the NBA’s very first dunk contest back in 1984. But forget all that for a second. The real shocker is not his lineage or his dunks: It’s that Larry Nance Jr. is … a Laker.

All that sports-announcer hollering is the sound of hope.

The Lakers, 16-time champions and arguably the NBA’s greatest franchise — the team of Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and, however tenuously, Kobe — have declined. OK, let’s be real: They’re flat-out awful, off already to a 1-6 start and with most experts predicting they’ll miss the playoffs for the third year running. Nance the younger is a ray of light in putrid times. He’s also the symbol of a quiet trend.

The YouTube clip is titled “Larry Nance Jr. Puts Festus Ezeli on a Poster.” It’s not a poster Ezeli will hang in his kids’ bedrooms.

The NBA has, over the past decade, made a dramatic shift from a power-interior game to a virtually positionless offensive game that prioritizes spacing above all else. As such, athletic big guys who can’t dribble or create their own shot but have a bit of range have gone from useless “tweeners” with little to no future to essential “stretch 4s” who can force their defenders to leave the paint and open the floor. A big man who can shoot capably, rebound his position and defend multiple players is worth his weight in gold. And though Nance isn’t quite a cut-rate Draymond Green, or even a poor man’s Thad Young — yet — he has NBA personnel execs talking. After all, 6-foot-9 long-armed speed demons don’t grow on trees. Five years ago, Nance probably would have been a late-second-round pick with lackluster prospects. Today? He’s a potential jack-of-all-trades defensive stopper in a league that places greater emphasis on defensive versatility than ever before — the skill set that just earned Green a hair less than max money.

“Whenever I step on the court, I’m trying to pass, move the ball and get the team flowing,” says Nance, who recently returned to the lineup after an injury. We’re sitting on a bench in the Lakers’ practice facility. He has just completed “rookie duties,” which include cleaning the gym and enduring new center Roy Hibbert, who calls him “Rook,” in an incessant loop that sounds like something from the Gertrude Stein playbook. “My strengths are, you put me in for five minutes, I’m gonna get five rebounds. You put me in for five minutes, my man’s not gonna score for five minutes.”

Laid-back and friendly, with light skin and short dark hair (his mom is white), Nance, at about 230 pounds, is slight for his height. Particularly given that the 22-year-old is playing pros almost a decade his senior. Nance became a dominant defensive force at Wyoming, where he was Mountain West Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, a solid scorer and a human highlight reel of dunks every bit as ferocious as his father’s. You might say being the son of Larry Nance Sr. foretold a certain future (his sister, Casey, also played basketball, at Dayton). But growing up in Akron, Ohio, the younger Larry didn’t start playing until eighth grade. “I grew really late and started enjoying basketball really late,” he says, “so I didn’t have a lot of schools looking at me.”

Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that. Until his sophomore year of high school, he was tiny at 6 feet and 130 pounds. And he was inexplicably, debilitatingly fatigued. After the diagnosis of Crohn’s, an inflammatory disease of the gastrointestinal tract, everything changed. He shot up 7 inches in a year’s time and gained about 60 pounds. Still, not even his mentors predicted his nascent success. “We had high hopes, but I don’t think we ever imagined the NBA,” says Larry Shyatt, Nance’s coach at Wyoming.

His big break, of course, was being a first-round pick in the draft. But appearing as the No. 1 highlight on the SportsCenter Top 10 in 2012 — courtesy of a fast-break, Jordan-meets-human-wrecking-ball dunk — was the start of national attention. Just a few weeks ago, in mid-October, was the dunk that made those sports announcers bellow. The NBA titled the YouTube clip “Larry Nance Jr. Puts Festus Ezeli on a Poster.” It’s not a poster Ezeli will hang in his kids’ bedrooms.

Then there’s Nance’s college degree. The last four-year college player to be drafted No. 1 overall was Kenyon Martin in 2000. Seven of the last eight No. 1 picks attended college for only the mandated minimum of a freshman season, and Blake Griffin stuck around for all of two years at Oklahoma. In this day and age of one-and-dones, player personnel evaluators tend to read four years of college as code for “not good enough to leave early.” Nance and other four-year collegiates, including Tim Duncan and Damian Lillard, argue that they’ve benefited from the college game and come into the NBA more prepared to make an impact. If Nance succeeds, it could shift strategies for team building.

Not everyone sees a savior here. Some NBA scouts and draft prognosticators, including Jonathan Givony of Draftexpress.com, are troubled by Nance’s offensive limitations. “He shows promise as a shooter but needs to become a lot more consistent,” Givony says.

Meantime, Nance is his father’s son. Given the chance, he’s crystal clear. “I’m gonna run the floor. And if I get it, I’m looking to dunk on somebody.”

Look out below, Kyle Korver.

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