The rookie out of Vanderbilt didn’t arrive in Golden State with the fanfare of No. 7 pick Harrison Barnes, or even second-rounder (but First Team All-American) Draymond Green. But whatever modest expectations there were for Ezeli, he’s already vastly exceeded them.
As a preseason fill-in for the still-hobbled Andrew Bogut, Ezeli has been the story of training camp. Starting out of necessity, the good-natured Ezeli has been a real jerk to opposing offenses so far. He’s already flashed an advanced understanding of defensive positioning and excellent timing as a shot-blocker.
Plus, he’s also shown a better-than-expected set of hands and a decent jump hook, neither of which anyone figured he had.
In an average of just 21 preseason minutes per game, Ezeli is averaging 5.7 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, all while shooting a blistering 81 percent from the field.
Given Ezeli’s emergence, you’d think Andris Biedrins would have woken up from the four-year nap he’s been taking (probably in his tanning bed) and shown a little interest in reclaiming his old job. That certainly hasn’t happened yet, and experienced Warrior fans probably know by now that waiting on Biedrins to figure things out is not a productive use of one’s time.
Productive, though, is exactly what Ezeli has been. And even though he’s old for a rookie—he’ll be 23 before the season starts—there’s actually a compelling argument that he’s got more room to grow than most first-year players.
Ezeli, who hadn’t played a second of organized basketball until 2007, is still learning the game.
All of the physical, unteachable tools are already in place. He’s huge (6’11” and 260 pounds), has a great attitude, is highly intelligent and works like crazy. So, really, his lack of experience could mean his ceiling is much higher than that of most late first-rounders.
Plus, even if Ezeli isn’t going to improve at all, he’s already a legitimate backup center in the NBA. That’s a pretty good get at No. 30.
Although Ezeli probably doesn’t feel any more pressure than a typical rookie, there’s actually a lot riding on his performance. As everyone knows, the Warriors’ season depends on Andrew Bogut’s health. So it’s critical for the Dubs to have a respectable backup for their Aussie center, whom they absolutely cannot afford to strain by giving him big minutes.
If Ezeli’s ready, he’ll be logging a lot of court time right away. That’ll help preserve Bogut’s health, and by extension, the Dubs’ playoff hopes.
And, of course, there’s also the whole “culture change” thing going on in Golden State. Every member of the Warriors’ brass and coaching staff has been chirping about adopting a defensive identity and toughening up since the new ownership group took control two years ago. Andrew Bogut has even threatened to start a few fights just to rattle the cage.
Well, Ezeli is proof positive that all the talk about getting bigger and badder was for real. He’s a walking, talking, musclebound representation of the Dubs’ new image.
Did the Warriors Put One Over On the Spurs?
Finally, Ezeli’s excellent play helps legitimize a pretty questionable decision the front office made after the Andrew Bogut trade last year. In a move that felt a lot like the panic-driven decisions of regimes past, the Warriors freaked out at the thought of having to deal with the Return of Captain Jack. Stephen Jackson was Milwaukee’s “please get this guy out of our locker room” throw-in player in the Bogut deal.
So, rather than buy Jackson out, the Warriors shipped him to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson—who had an extra year and more money on his deal than Jackson did—and the Spurs’ first-round pick. That move was universally panned by critics (Insider subscription required) because it took the Warriors out of any meaningful free-agency acquisitions until 2014.
But now it turns out that the pick the Dubs got from San Antonio was worth something. If Ezeli ends up being the most valuable commodity from that trade (which shouldn’t be that tough), he’ll validate a deal that was a real head-scratcher at the time the Warriors made it.
More than that, he’ll give the Warriors something few other teams have ever had: the satisfaction of getting the better end of a deal with the Spurs.
Add up his surprising early performance, his room to grow and his value to the organization and it’s clear: The Warriors have a steal in Festus Ezeli. Whether he plays 15 minutes per contest or ends up starting 60 games, the Dubs are flat-out lucky that every other team with a first-round pick made the mistake of passing on him.
Now, somebody go tell Andris Biedrins his services are no longer required. If he’s not at the salon, try the phone on his speedboat.