Nick Van Exel was drafted by the Lakers with the No. 37 pick in the second round in 1993 and played five seasons in L.A. before he was traded to Denver for Tony Battie and Tyronn Lue. The 6-foot-1, 170-pound guard went on to play 13 seasons with six NBA teams before calling it a career after the 2005-06 season. Van Exel ranks No. 14 on the NBA’s all-time 3-pointers made list with 1,528. He is now an assistant coach for the Atlanta Hawks and ESPNLA.com caught up with him before the Hawks played the Lakers earlier this week.
What’s your favorite memory from your time with the Lakers?
Nick Van Exel, now an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks, spent the first part of his NBA career with the Lakers from 1993-98. Brian Drake/NBAE/Getty Images
“Favorite memory? Hmm. I’ll probably say two. Just the draft night, being drafted by the Lakers was special coming from where I had come from — a small town in Wisconsin. It was a pretty big event for me. I’ll say three [memories]. Of course, making big shots in the playoffs, just the excitement, you hear the crowd and probably being on the team when Magic [Johnson] returned. That was special.”
You were a second-round draft pick, so there was nothing guaranteed to you. Looking back at that time, was there anybody in the organization that was really backing you or helping you and pushing for your success?
“Yes, the head man, Jerry West. The Logo. He was really a big fan. I can remember playing down in, I want to say Irvine, Calif., for the rookie summer league games and I played terrible. I played terrible and I thought, ‘Man, I may not make the team!’ I really didn’t know much about the NBA. I played so bad that they signed me after like the third or fourth game [because they kept waiting for me to play better]. I was playing so bad. Definitely Jerry West had my back.”
Through your scouting you might have heard of Andrew Goudelock, a rookie on this Lakers team. Your name has been attached to him a little bit in terms of being a high-scoring guard, a second-round draft pick with nothing guaranteed. Is there something about the character of a guy to be able to do that? To make it when the odds are against you?
“I really believe it’s just no fear, man. For me, I never thought I would fail. Every shot I took, I thought it was going in. Even when I was in the second round, a lot of people didn’t know if I would make it or not, I never questioned whether I would make it the team or anything like that. So, I think with him, it seems he has that no-fear attitude. When you can go out there and come off a pick-and-roll and just pull up for 3 when you got Kobe [Bryant] on the court with you, you’ve definitely got a no-fear mentality.”
Did you have any thoughts when you saw that Kobe passed Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time scoring list?
“The thought I had was, it was just when. When is he going to do it? The kid worked so hard coming in as a rookie. He definitely worked harder than anybody else. He has that kind of the Michael Jordan, the Magic Johnson, the Larry Bird, he has that ‘it’ about him. There’s not many guys that have that. Kobe has it and that’s why he’s special.”
Could you tell back then?
“Easy. You could tell he was going to blow the league away eventually because his mindset was, as an 18-year-old rookie coming in, was, ‘I’m the best one-on-one player in the league.’ Like, that’s what he thought when you had Michael Jordan, you had some great players [playing at the time], he felt he was the best player in the league at 18 years old.”
When you think back to those Lakers teams, unfortunately you didn’t get a chance to get a ring with those guys, but those teams had you, Eddie Jones, Kobe, Shaq … There was a really strong collection of talent. What do you think about when you think about those teams?
“Just young. We were just young. I was five [years] in the league when I got traded. Eddie was four, Shaq six, Kobe 2-3. We was just young. Young and dumb and just trying to find our way through it and unfortunately we didn’t get a chance, but there’s still some great memories.”
You played for Denver, you played for Dallas, you played for five or six teams, do you associate yourself with any one team? Do you think of yourself as a Laker? Do you get people coming up to you to reminisce about those days?
“I’ll say this, the most it happens if somebody comes up to me it’s, ‘Yeah, I remember you from the Lakers.’ They say that. You got the Dallas fans too, because I live in Texas, but you get mostly Lakers because the Lakers are who they are. Historical.”
Something I was always curious about as a fan growing up watching you: What was with your free-throw routine?
“(Laughing). My free throw was, I shot free throws so bad from the normal stripe, when I missed I always hit the back of the rim. So, I decided to move back a little bit and it just became a natural shot. That was basically telling me my midrange game wasn’t as good as Sam Cassell’s midrange game, so I had to move back a little bit.”
Editor’s Note: Van Exel finished with a 79.4 percent career mark from the foul line and had six seasons when he shot 80 percent or better.
Did you come into the league doing that? Or when did you make that change?
“I think I started it in Denver. But, I knew throughout my career, I was probably [shooting] in the 70s [percentage wise] from the line, so I knew I was a better free-throw shooter than that. I had to figure out someway so I moved back.”
And it went up once you did it?
“Yes, I think I finished around 80 [percent], so I could have been better if I was smart enough early on. Like I said, I was young (laughing).”
You did enough in your career that the name ‘Nick Van Exel’ is obviously part of NBA history, but is that funny to you to think that just your actual free-throw routine is one of the little quirks of the league?
“I don’t think about it. Everybody else might. For us, it’s just normal things we do. I don’t think much about it.”
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.