The nameplate above Ty Lawson's locker simply reads "Rookie." It's a nickname Lawson has gotten used to during his first season -- hearing it on a daily basis from Nuggets coach George Karl -- even if his play on the court at times has belied that of a first-year player.
Even Karl, who has been notorious throughout his 30-year coaching career for rarely playing rookies, has had a hard time keeping Lawson off the court this season. Time and time again, in crucial situations in which Karl would normally never scream, "Rookie," at the bench in the hopes of sparking his team, Karl has depended on Lawson to give the Nuggets a game-changing boost.
"When you watched him play in college the first thing that stood out was his speed and his ability to play fast," said Karl. "A guy with that kind of speed can really help you out. But what we didn't see was his maturity of the fundamentals. He doesn't turn it over. He doesn't make a lot bad decisions and he's still going after the defense."
After falling two wins short last season of reaching their first NBA Finals, the Nuggets had a relatively quiet offseason, losing free agents Linas Kleiza and Dahntay Jones while trading for Aaron Afflalo and Lawson, who was selected out of North Carolina with the 18th pick by the Timberwolves in June.
In Lawson the Nuggets have something they didn't have last season -- a speedy, playmaking point guard who changes the tempo of the game and causes problems for defenses that might have gotten a break last season when Chauncey Billups, 33, went to the bench. Despite his quickness, Lawson isn't reckless, which has gone a long way in gaining the trust of Karl. Through 19 games he only has 26 turnovers and is shooting over 52.5 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc. He is in the top 25 in plus-minus and two of the five-player combinations he's on are listed in the top 25 in plus-minus as well.
"He plays at a high speed but he's under control," said Karl, who was told by North Carolina coach Roy Williams that Lawson was the best point guard he'd ever coached. "Most people that play at his speed lose control or lose vision or lose something but he doesn't lose anything. People don't understand how strong he is. He could be a running back in football. He's built really low to the ground."
There is already a feeling among the Nuggets that if they had a player like Lawson last season, that maybe they would have been in the NBA Finals. The Lakers have a hard time containing speedy point guards, as illustrated by Aaron Brooks, who helped the Rockets take the Lakers to seven games in the playoffs last spring and scored 33 points in a win a L.A. this season.
"He gives us something we didn't have," said Karl. "The rules are now such that it's hard to keep a quick little guard in front of you. Having a good little guard is now part of the formula for success in this league. We know the Lakers have trouble with good little guards."
No Laker found that out more than 7-foot center DJ Mbenga, who was victim of a Lawson dunk that became an instant YouTube classic and caused ESPN analyst Mark Jackson to exclaim, "Are you kidding me? This should be against the Law-son."
While the maneuver displayed the athleticism the 5-11 Lawson often showed at North Carolina, it was also an example of the time he puts in studying the game in the film room and on the bench. "I noticed every time I was going to the lane Mbenga was trying to time my shots, so once I got up to the rim I saw him try to time it again so I went up real quick and dunked it on him," said Lawson, who often goes over game film on his laptop before games. "I know it surprised him. It surprised a lot of people."
Despite being a three-year star at North Carolina and leading the Tar Heels to the national championship last season, Lawson was only the seventh point guard taken in the draft, falling to 18th overall before he was selected by Minnesota and traded to Denver for a future first-round pick. It may be a decision many teams regret; Lawson ranks among the Top 10 among NBA rookies in six different statistical categories despite playing only 21.3 minutes per game.
"I got a real big chip on my shoulder," said Lawson. "Every time I play against a team that passed me up in the draft I want to go out there and play well and prove that they should have picked me. I'm going to have that chip probably until I'm an All-Star. I want to keep proving a point every night."