David Lighty walked out of the tunnel of Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas wearing ice wrapped around his knees and a smile on his face. Having torn an ACL in high school and broken a foot in college, few realize the importance of keeping his body in pristine shape like he does.
The smile Lighty displays comes from the satisfaction of knowing he made a great final impression on the Kings' summer league staff, after scoring 16 points on 8/9 shooting during their final summer league game on Friday. Down the stretch, the 6'6" swingman had the unenviable task of defending both point guard Dennis Schroeder and power forward Mike Scott, demonstrating the type of versatility he is capable of bringing to a team defensively.
"Whatever the coach asks me to do, I'll do," Lighty told me when we spoke after the game.
Statements and sentiments like that come naturally to Lighty. This is a guy who truly understands his role on a basketball team, and doesn't ever need a play run for him to be successful. You see, if there are two words that exemplify what Lighty is, they're the two words he uses most in conversation: teammate and winner.
After my interview, I went through and counted how often he used those words in the five minute span. He used the words "team" or "teammate" 14 times, and the words "win" or "winner" 9 times, showing just what his priorities are. He takes pride in being Ohio State's all-time wins leader more than he does in his quite impressive overall statistical performance there.
"Everybody likes a winner," Lighty said. "At the end of the day, if you have zero points, but have five rebounds, five assists, and five steals and you win, I'm happy. Scoring is definitely a big part of the game, and people love that part, but winning is even better."
Lighty did all of those things and more during his time at Ohio State. As a member of their vaunted 2007 recruiting class - one that also featured Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr., and Daequan Cook -- Lighty was overshadowed early on in favor of bigger names. But that shouldn't diminish the type of impact he had as soon as he stepped on campus. As a jack-of-all-trades defensive player, Lighty became the glue to a team that went to the national title game in 2007 and won the NIT championship in 2008. Then just as the Buckeyes had opened up a hard opening stretch unbeaten in 2009 to become ranked for the first time in nearly two years, Lighty suffered the aforementioned broken foot that held him out the rest of the season.
He took his time off to develop a more versatile offensive game, and when he returned in 2010 as a redshirt junior, he took a large step forward as a scorer. Lighty became a 40% three-point shooter on over 230 shots during his final two seasons, and had developed his handle enough that he was capable of creating on-the-ball for both he and his teammates. His defensive level never wavered, and Lighty became arguably the second-most important piece on a team that featured National Player of the Year, Evan Turner. Over the last fifteen years, Lighty is in the top ten statistically in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks, which exhibits just how influential he was on the outcome of every game.
"My time at Ohio State was lovely," Lighty said. "It grew me into the player I am today. Learning how to play with stars was great - I played with seven NBA players - and just being about the team and winning. Coach Matta and his staff were all about that."
After graduating Ohio State with a degree in consumer affairs, Lighty then went undrafted in the 2011 NBA Draft. Furthermore, he couldn't have picked a worse year to go undrafted. The lockout continued to rage on for about 6 months after the draft, meaning he couldn't speak to teams until things were settled. Plus, summer league was canceled that year, so he never got another chance to make an impression on the floor. He made the difficult decision of leaving the United States and going over to Italy to play for Cantu of the Italian Serie A.
"I didn't know if I wanted to stay and wait out the lockout or go overseas, but I ended up signing in Italy and had a great first year as a professional," Lighty said. "I just tried to pick up as many things as I could, and learn things from different guys."
This past season was arguably the most successful of Lighty's career, as he left Italy and went over to France. While playing for Nanterre this year, Lighty averaged 12.5 points, four rebounds, three assists, and one steal per game en route to becoming their most important player. Nanterre made the playoffs as the 8 seed, knocking off top-seeded Gravelines (featuring newly-signed NBA point guard and French League MVP Dwight Buycks) and then fourth-seeded Chalon in a combined four games. In the championship, they faced off against second-seeded Strasbourg. After losing by 24 in the first game, Nanterre went on a three-game run culminating in a championship on June 8th. Lighty himself was named MVP of the final, after scoring 21 points in the clinching game.
"The team I was with was just like a family," Lighty said. "No one was selfish and everyone was about winning. In the end, we ended up winning a French championship. In the final, I just tried to be as aggressive as possible. The team we were up against had experience and size down low, so I just tried to attack the bigs and get at them early. Once I did that, the whole thing changed around for us and we got a lot of confidence."
If the NBA is in the cards, the next step will be receiving a training camp invite, which is what he was working to secure by playing in Summer League this season. He started his month-long journey this summer at a Bucks' workout for players ineligible for the 2013 draft, and then moved on to the Brooklyn Nets in the Orlando Summer League. While in Orlando, Lighty averaged nearly eight points with 2 assists and rebounds per game. He left a day early to work with Sacramento's Summer League team and former Ohio State assistant Chris Jent.
In Las Vegas, he performed admirably prior to his breakout final game; however, his style of play is not conducive to the selfish and sloppy Summer League. He works best within a team concept where he is able to spot up and knock down open shots. Ben McLemore taking 16 shots a game over the five days didn't leave many shots for the rest of the team, and team defensive concepts are non-existent in Las Vegas. If Lighty wants to make a roster, he's going to have to display his ability to pick up a system role in training camp.
So what's next for Lighty? He'll probably take a couple of weeks to relax, continue working on his game, and hope a training camp invite rolls in. Lighty badly wants to succeed in the NBA, but he's also seemingly happy and appreciative of where his life has taken him to this point. He would contentedly return to France if that ends up being the final option. In that vein, there may not have been a more polite and grateful player at Summer League this year. After the final game, I watched as Lighty walked up to every member of the Kings organization and thanked them simply for the opportunity of getting the Summer League tryout.
And that Ohio State past that we talked about earlier? He makes sure he always remembers his roots by wearing the same "Ohio State 23" backpack that I saw him wearing around campus when I was an undergrad at the same time.
While at OSU, Lighty played with seven future NBA players. With a continued hard work and a few lucky breaks, Lighty might be able to become number eight.