Larry Nance Jr.'s journey brings him full circle

Larry Nance Jr. is having a moment. Two months ago, he was a well-regarded but rarely considered reserve on the rebuilding Los Angeles Lakers. Now — for the time being, at least — he’s the starting center on the Cleveland Cavaliers, sharing the frontcourt with megawatt superstar LeBron James on a team that, season-long scuffles aside, is expected to make the playoffs and seriously contend for a fourth straight NBA Finals berth.

The 6-foot-9, 230-pound big man out of Wyoming is running the floor, defending with vigor, turning in career-best performances and throwing down dunks in the city where he grew up … and, now, he’s doing it wearing the same number his dad, Cavs legend Larry Nance Sr., did back in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

“Obviously, you never want to be traded,” Nance Jr. recently said as part of a short Ryot documentary titled “Namesake” about his preparation for the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest. “Nobody ever wants to pack up and move their stuff. But if I had to go somewhere, Cleveland is home for me. Twenty years since my dad retired, his son is now on the same team he retired from. It’s crazy.”

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The Lakers tabbed Nance as a prospect worth betting on in the summer of 2015. They used the 27th pick in that year’s draft on Nance, despite a lifelong battle with Crohn’s disease and a torn right ACL that prematurely ended his junior year, thanks in part to Wyoming’s coaches raving about his makeup and in part to a predraft workout in which Nance “tested off the charts athletically,” according to then-Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak. The decision paid dividends almost immediately, as the always active rookie quickly earned a spot in coach Byron Scott’s rotation with his combination of talents as a screen-setter and finisher, his toughness on the glass, and his knack for being in the right place at the right time on the defensive end.

Larry Nance Jr. finished second in the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. (Getty)
Larry Nance Jr. finished second in the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest at All-Star weekend in Los Angeles. (Getty)

After spending the first 2½ years of his career in L.A., Nance headed to Cleveland at February’s trade deadline as part of a blockbuster deal aimed at injecting new life into the flagging Cavs. He’s done his part since his arrival, averaging 11.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and nearly 2.5 combined steals and blocks in just 23.1 minutes per game as a Cavalier. He’s become a difference-maker on a high-profile team in dire need of his brand of two-way energy and effectiveness; Cleveland’s point differential has been more than 20 points per 100 possessions better with Nance on the floor than off it since he joined the team.

Nance made his first return trip to Los Angeles just a week after his trade, participating in the 2018 Verizon Slam Dunk Contest during the NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend festivities. This weekend, he’ll come back for his first live NBA action since the trade: a Friday night meeting with the Los Angeles Clippers, followed by a Sunday showdown with his former teammates in purple and gold.

“I think it’s so cool how things come full circle,” Nance said as he prepared for the dunk contest. Last month, he got to experience it by following in his father’s footsteps, nearly 35 years after the elder Nance won the competition. Now, he’ll get to live it by returning to the place he became an NBA player, as he starts to introduce himself to the wider world of NBA fans as one of LeBron’s new right-hand men.

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