Larry Nance Jr. is one of the most underrated players in the NBA. This has become a popular take in NBA circles, especially with Nance Jr. in the midst of a breakout season.
With Kevin Love sidelined due to a right calf strain, the 28-year-old has taken on an increased role for the Cleveland Cavaliers and posted career-highs in points per game (10.5), assists per game (3.8), steals per game (2.4), threes per game (1.6), three-point percentage (42.9), defensive rating (103) and steal percentage (3.3) among others.
Among all NBA players, Nance currently ranks first in steals per game (2.4), first in steal percentage (3.3), first in deflections (4.8), third in loose balls recovered (1.7), fifth in Defensive Win Shares (0.8), seventh in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2.3), 12th in Defensive Rating (103.3).
BasketballNews.com recently caught up with Nance for a one-on-one interview. You can listen to the interview above or read the transcribed version below.
You grew up in Ohio and were a huge Cleveland sports fan your whole life -- your dad obviously played on the Cavs. I love that you ended up playing for your favorite team. What is it like making that transition from fan to player on your favorite team, and do you have a unique bond with Cleveland fans because you're one of them?
Larry Nance Jr.: “I think it does give me a bond with them. Growing up, we're all on Twitter, right? One of the biggest things for me growing up a Cavs fan -- cheering for Eric Snow, Larry Hughes, Jeff McInnis and those Cavs teams -- it was great because I followed all of that through Cavs Twitter. I was part of that whole banter, that group, in high school and stuff. Then, going to Wyoming, going to the Lakers and coming back [to Cleveland], I still follow those same people. I still see all that. I'm still a part of that. I read it. I may not participate as much, but I still see it. I was a Cav long before I actually became a Cav, if that makes sense. I was basically born a Cavalier, so I have to pinch myself every single day. I consider myself incredibly fortunate and I wouldn't trade my current position to be anywhere else.”
I remember when you first got traded to Cleveland. We did a phone interview that same day and I remember how excited you were. What was it like when you arrived in Cleveland after the trade? Walk me through that moment when you became a Cavalier.
LN: “It was crazy. I've only been traded once, thank goodness, but I'd imagine you get traded and you usually don't know anything about where you're going and you need people to show you around. But I got traded and people were showing me, ‘Oh, the food's over here and the locker room [is here].’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, I've been here!’ When I was in high school, I used to drive up here and work out a little bit, so I felt right at home. And the guys were incredible at welcoming me to the team. Tristan [Thompson], who I was a fan of for a long time before coming here just as a Cavs fan, and obviously K-Love. The guys that were from the championship team, they were awesome. Just making sure I felt welcome and making sure I felt like they wanted me here. Now, it's my job to do that for the guys we have coming in year after year.”
Speaking of which, the Cavs recently landed Jarrett Allen and Taurean Prince -- and traded away Dante Exum -- as part of the blockbuster deal with the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers. What are your thoughts on the trade, and what can Allen and Prince bring to this team?
LN: “First and foremost, you hate to see one of your friends get traded; Dante Exum was awesome for us both on and off the court -- a guy we all loved in the locker room and a guy that was really helping contribute to what was the No. 1 defense in the league. You hate to see a guy like that go. But in the same breath, we're thrilled -- I mean, beyond thrilled -- to welcome two outstanding basketball players to our team and when we desperately need it; we need bodies right now. Jarrett, I've been a fan of his since he came into the league. I think he's one of the best rim protectors in the league. I'm really excited to work with him, especially on the defensive end; I think we can cause a lot of problems for other teams just with our length and defensive prowess. Taurean, same thing; I’ve probably guarded him every single game we played against each other. He's a guy that, on any given night, can be the best player on the court. And so it's up to us to figure out how to get the best out of them and make sure that those guys feel welcome and feel like this isn't just a five-month stop before the trade deadline or before the end of the season when Jarrett's contract expires. It’s not that. I think I’m speaking for all of us when I say: We want these guys here. We're excited to have them and we're gonna have a full season together so this is very, very exciting. I'm thrilled. I know everybody was hopping around our practice today and pretty excited about it. It breathes some new life into us and brings us some bodies when we needed them most.”
You mentioned the team being ranked No. 1 in the NBA defensively. You guys were ranked 30th last year and allowing 113.6 points per 100 possessions. You climbed up to No. 1 earlier this season, and you’re currently ranked second (allowing 103.3 points per 100 possessions). How did that worst-to-first transformation happen?
LN: “A lot of buy-in from the guys. To start it off, JB [Bickerstaff] has been outstanding, to say the least, in transforming the way guys think about that. Defense is something that you got to figure out how to get guys excited to do [it]. And I think he's done that -- just with his defensive schemes and whatnot. Plus, Andre [Drummond] has been awesome on the defensive end this year. JaVale [McGee] has really helped as well, having rim protectors behind us. Our guards have stepped up. We drafted Isaac Okoro, who is already one of my favorite players on the team. He's just so defensive-minded; I love it. It's a lot of that, but it's mainly buy-in. Guys gotta focus on that -- guys gotta be excited and proud that we have the best or second-best defense in the league. And I think that [ranking] is something that is not a joke. I think that's very for real, and not just [a small sample] at the start of the season. That's something we hang our hat on and we've got to be that every single day.”
Your defense has been incredible too. You currently rank first in steals (2.4), first in steal percentage (3.3), first in deflections (4.8), third in loose balls recovered (1.7) and fifth in Defensive Win Shares (0.8). You've always been really good when it comes to knowing the tendencies of your opponents, having quick hands and being versatile, but it seems like you've taken your play to another level and anchoring this defense. What went into making that leap individually?
LN: “A lot of focus. I talked to JB a lot over the summer about being versatile -- guarding some bigger 2s, all 3s, all 4s and some smaller 5s and, defensively, trying to play that Draymond [Green] role. Since I came into league, I've always been a good steals percentage guy and all that type of stuff. I love analytics and this year, I'm getting to put that stuff into practice and put it to good use. Obviously, no one wants to see anybody go down. We hope Kevin [Love] comes back tomorrow if possible. But with his extended absence, I've been able to take advantage of the opportunity and get my name atop some of those leaderboards. I don't plan on that changing. I would love to lead the league in steals -- I would love to -- and I see no reason why I can't continue that. That is something that I, personally, am very proud of.”
When JB asked you to take on that Draymond role, how did you prepare for that new role and accept that challenge? I’m guessing you studied a ton of Draymond’s film.
LN: “I've always watched Draymond. I'm a massive Draymond Green fan. I think he’s criminally underrated in terms of his impact on the game and impact on those championship Warriors teams. I think he's the definition of a winner. I watched his film; I studied how he talks to those guys on the defensive end and how he took charge of that [group]. I studied how he was an anchor and guarding three or four different positions at times. And there's none of that that I don't see in myself. Right now, if there was no fake noise in the arena, I think you'd hear me talking on defense 99 percent of the time -- just telling guys where the shooters are at, where I'm at, saying, 'I got low man, I got your help. JaVale, make sure you're 2.9 [seconds]; don't stay in there too long.' Just barking things out and letting guys know what's going on, where guys are at.
“The biggest thing for me was [leading] vocally, just trying to do that more. I've always been in position, I've always been a really good defender, but now taking that and making sure other guys are really good defenders positionally by letting them know where they're at and kind of commanding our defense, that's the biggest step. Thus far, it's been good and hopefully it just keeps getting better.”
If you keep this up, I wouldn't be surprised to see you on an All-Defensive Team. Is that something that you're striving for? What individual goals have you set for yourself?
LN: “That would be awesome. I'm not a demonstrative guy in advocating for myself; that's never really been me. I'm not that guy [who yells], ‘FIRST TEAM!’ (laughs) That's not me. But I believe I'm a First-Team-caliber defender. I believe that I'm going to continue this level of production. I believe that if I do -- and when I do -- yeah, First Team All-Defense should be a no-brainer. And certainly, if I keep it up, then Defensive Player [of the Year] is not out of the question as well. So, those are two things that I would love to do. I want to keep our defense in the top two -- if not No. 1 -- and thankfully I have the minutes to do that right now. Defense is something that I've always prided myself on so right now, sitting where we're at defensively is something that I won't let go lightly.”
I’ve seen a number of people labeling you as one of the most underrated players in the NBA. What does that mean to you?
LN: “It means a lot. Like I said, I'm not going to be the most demonstrative in terms of advocating for myself. That's never going to be who I am or what I'm about. But getting that kind of praise is very cool. Whether you want to admit it or not, it's very cool to see your name brought up like that and talked about like that, so I appreciate it greatly. I happen to agree! (laughs) I don't know whether it's a small-market [thing], and I don't really care about any of that because I'm happy here. But like I said, it's very cool. It's very cool and I appreciate everybody that happens to mention me in that category, and hopefully I can just keep earning praise like that.”
When Kevin Love got hurt and you were asked to take on that increased role, all of a sudden you were being asked to handle more responsibilities on both ends of the floor. What was that adjustment like?
LN: “Well, there's an adjustment, of course. It's one thing that I don't take lightly. When JB asked me to take on this extra responsibility, it's something that I appreciate him doing. I appreciate his confidence in me and him expecting a lot out of me because I expect a lot of myself as well. But there's an adjustment period, obviously. I want Kevin back healthy tomorrow, if he can play. I want all of our injured bodies back. But, like you said, this is an incredible opportunity. There was a bit of an adjustment period. We played Orlando back-to-back and it was just like, ‘Man, I can't figure this out right now. I don't know where my shots are coming from, I don't know when I should/shouldn't look to facilitate instead of [shoot] and yada yada yada…’ I think I've started to find a groove. I've started to find a rhythm and know more of what is expected out of me on the offensive end. And I'm doing what's expected of me defensively; that was never a concern. I've never been a traditional stats guy, but at the same time, now I've found a rhythm, now I understand where I'm at and what I'm supposed to be doing and how to help the team best, so I think those traditional stats will really start to show up and pop a little bit.”
What aspects of your game were you focused on improving this past offseason?
LN: “I mean, there were two major focuses. One: three-point shooting. That's something that, coming into the league, I wanted nothing to do with. It didn't really interest me; I didn't think I had to do it. When I came into the NBA, I didn't have to! It's just crazy to have the landscape change that much in four years. So I just did a lot of three-point shooting -- a lot of reps, a lot of confidence work, a lot of getting the feel of, ‘Yeah, I can shoot this shot! And yeah, it's a great shot for our team! And yes, this is going in!’ I'm very proud of where I’m at in terms of my shooting development. And so that was number one.
“And number two: a lot of leadership work. We've got a lot of really intelligent people around the Cavaliers organization: JB, Koby [Altman] and some of our assistant coaches that I would talk to on a daily basis about my leadership. Like, if I do this, what if these guys don't respond to it in the way that I think? Or, if I keep these guys accountable, I need you to keep me accountable. Just stuff like that, trying to make sure that I'm doing the right thing so that when I am barking orders and telling these guys exactly what to do, where to be and all that, I'm walking the walk and not just talking the talk. I would say those are the two biggest areas I worked on. It may seem crazy to say, ‘I worked on leadership,’ but you 100 percent can. I did a lot this offseason and I could be wrong, but I think it's paying off quite well.”
How did your teammates respond whenever you started being more vocal? I'm sure they appreciate it because they know that you're trying to get the best out of them, but what was that adjustment like?
LN: “They've been great about it. I talked to a few of them about it as well. I talked to Drummond and talked to K-Love about like, ‘Hey, look guys, we're the old guys around here. I need your guys' help.’ Tristan [Thompson] was kind of our vocal leader so losing him was tough, but I kind of talked to them and was just like, ‘We got to figure out somebody to fill that void.’ Those two are more lead-by-example guys, so for me, I have to step into that vocal role. If I say something to you guys, I need your help. I can't be having you saying something behind my back or talking to the locker room and stuff like that. We have to be a united front and if I'm saying things you don't agree with, just come to me and let me know and I'll change it. But whatever it is, us three really need to be united as far as the message we're putting out along with JB, and JB knows that. If there's anything that he has to say to me or anything I have to say to him, he's been incredible at making sure that door is open and making sure that I feel comfortable saying, and asking, whatever. It's been good thus far. Our teammates have been incredible about it; the coaching staff has been great. They've been keeping me accountable and I love it, so we're off to a solid start, especially considering the circumstances, and we hope to continue that.”
This is such a unique season with the condensed schedule and postponed games and limited practice time and everything. How is that adjustment going?
LN: “It's been tough. We have personnel meetings via Zoom, going over the scouting report virtually and stuff like that. It's definitely been an adjustment period, trying to figure out the right balance of practicing versus getting off our feet because the games are not slowing down anytime soon -- and that’s while maintaining the health-and-safety protocols, while trying to win, while balancing new guys that are coming to the team, while teaching rookies the right things. There's a lot that goes into it, but it's something that every team is dealing with. For the season to be going the way it has, I think we're doing a really good job of it thus far. I am optimistic that we're going to get a few bodies back here shortly and that it’ll get easier after that.”
We have to talk about Sexland.
What have you seen from Collin Sexton and Darius Garland as far as their development and what do you think is the ceiling for that duo?
LN: “It's been great. They both have been great. Collin, at the end of last year, I was looking at him like, ‘Man, I don't know how you improve on this.’ This man was playing out of his mind, averaging over 20 points on, like, I want to say 50-40-85 splits. He was on fire, and it was awesome to see. Well, he answered the question of how do you improve on that this year: now he's averaging, what, 25 points per game on 50-50-90 splits?! He's just got a knack for scoring. There's not many people that can keep him out of the lane, keep him from the shots and spots he wants to get to. It's been really fun to see his development as a player and the sky's the limit for him. I mean, he’s averaging 25 points per game -- an efficient 25 -- in his third year. I'm so happy to see his continued development because we all love him here, of course.
“Darius, last year, was coming off a knee surgery and I can speak to this from personal experience: after a surgery, you're not really back for maybe a year and a half, two years afterwards. There are a lot of people that will tell you the same thing, just mentally. When we had our little mini bubble here in September, he shocked us all.; he came out on fire and looked like the best player on the court. It was a whole new Darius Garland and he's carried that into the season, just his level of confidence. His body looks better. He's just trusting himself more and he's a heck of a ballplayer, so to see him be able to make that jump so quickly in his second season has been impressive. To be honest with you, when I think of those two's ceiling, the first thing I think of, right or wrong, is a backcourt like CJ [McCollum] and Dame [Lillard]. That would be unbelievable. I think of those guys as both being a little on the smaller end of the guard spectrum, but they are just absolute dogs. You do not want to see CJ and Dame on any given night. It's hard to say right now that they're not the best backcourt in the league. They're unbelievable night in and night out. If we can coach Sexland up to even hold a candle to that, that would be incredible.”
We talked about your leadership within the Cavs organization, but you've also been doing an amazing job in the community. COVID-19 is impacting a ton of small businesses, so you’ve been raising awareness for different Cleveland companies by shouting them out on social media, wearing their apparel and auctioning off your game-worn jerseys so that you can donate the proceeds to them. How did that idea come together and how's it been going?
LN: “It came together pregame at a preseason game, just kind of talking in the locker room with one of our athletic trainers. We were talking about the ‘My Cause My Cleats’ thing that the NFL does, which we both thought was really cool. [We were wondering] why the NBA doesn't do anything like that. They can give away their shoes because they only play 16 games; we really can't give away 80-plus pairs of shoes and all that stuff. And so we started thinking about what we could give away, who to benefit and all this type of stuff. The idea was kind of born there. There are a lot of local small businesses that are hurting right now and that have been through a lot this year, and so that's how the idea was hatched.
“As far as how it’s going, it's been going better than I ever could’ve hoped. When I wrote the ‘Hey Cleveland’ message and just kind of put it out there, I didn't think it would be this [big]. I mean, we've gotten probably over 400-500 packages from the Cleveland area. We're trying to go through all these and figure out who's been most affected and [who’s dealing with] layoffs versus sustainability and all this type of stuff, trying to figure it out. Before the season started, I was at the gym until like 6:00 or 7:00 [each evening], going through packages and all that. So, the way the community has responded to it has been... I couldn't ask for much more. I think each jersey right now is selling for an average of $1,500, which is just amazing that people are coming out in support like that. We've done 12 different businesses and we're trying to hit every part of Cleveland, hit every socioeconomic class. We're trying to hit every possible group that we can, and so it's been going great. Hopefully, it keeps on going well, but I know I have to come up with some surprises when we get deeper in the season. There's a lot of support, but I don't know if people want 72 Nance Jr. jerseys. (laughs) I gotta see if I can see if I can sneak a K-Love jersey in there or a Drummond jersey in there or something like that. It's something that I'm very proud of, and this is my community. I'm very proud of where we're at and where I'm from.”
You also have Athletes vs. Crohn’s & Colitis, which is an amazing foundation that helps children who are battling Crohn’s Disease. For those who don’t know, you and I were both diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease when we were kids and that’s how we got to know each other when you were in college. I love that you’ve been able to use your platform to help fellow Crohn’s patients and inspire so many kids who are dealing with that. What went into launching the foundation and how is that going?
LN: “After you and I had talked about having Crohn’s back when I was at Wyoming and we put that article out, I went to [the Lakers]. I got a DM from a kid in New York and he said he’d had a similar experience and thanked me for putting my story out there and thought it was really cool. I messaged him back, ‘We play the Knicks coming up pretty soon, I’d love to get you and your dad tickets and be able to meet up after the game and shake your hand and see if you’re doing alright.’ I met up with them after the game and everything, and I told them that it’s only my second year in the NBA, but that I definitely wanted to do more and get more involved [as far as raising awareness about Crohn’s]. We played the Nets about a week or two later, so they asked to meet up again and I thought, ‘Great. Let’s do it. I have nothing going on.’ We went to lunch and his parents, who are both doctors, brought up the idea. They said, ‘We want to do more as well. How cool would it be if we came together and started a foundation that benefits kids with Crohn’s?’ It was really genuine, just as real as it gets, so I loved it. I loved it right away.
"Now, we’ve been rolling for four years. We try to [provide the kids] with a lot of experiences -- getting these kids to games to meet me and talk. We’ve hosted events in New York, Cleveland, L.A., Chicago and other cities, just about every time we play there, we host 10-to-12 different kids with Crohn’s in a suite. We show them that they’re normal and there are other kids just like you who are going through the same things. And then after the game, I talk to them about how they can do anything -- whether it’s becoming a professional athlete or a teacher or whatever; there’s nothing that Crohn’s can keep you from doing. Through the power of sports, we’ve been very fortunate to be able to show these kids that their disease won’t hold them back and it’s something that me and my family are very proud of. That’s something that’s going to stay around as long as I’m in the league, and hopefully beyond.”