OAKLAND, Calif. — For a first-round pick hoping to make his mark in the NBA, Kevon Looney had to adjust to a new way of life.
But not in the way he was expecting.
The gifted 6'9" forward left UCLA after his freshman season, and the then-19-year-old Milwaukee native was rewarded when Golden State scooped him up with the No. 30 pick in 2015's draft.
A couple of months later, Looney had to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his right hip to fix a torn labrum. Recovery time? Four to six months.
He recovered by the winter, enough to play a dozen games with the Warriors’ NBA D-League team and then sparingly in five games for Golden State sprinkled throughout January and February.
Then Looney felt inflammation in his other hip, a soreness that should not be there. In April, as the Warriors were just kicking off their title defense in earnest, the rookie had the same surgery. Another torn labrum. Another four to six months of recovery. He had played all of 21 NBA minutes before his rookie season was shut down.
Now, all those months of sitting on the sideline in dress clothes and being relegated to the role of cheerleader are memories fading fast. Looney has played in all seven of Golden State’s games and already eclipsed his entire workload from last season. His 11 points against the Los Angeles Lakers last week marked a new career high.
And during Golden State’s 116-106 win over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night, Looney was the first Warrior off the bench in the first quarter, ahead of second-unit stalwarts Andre Iguodala and David West.
Finally, Looney is getting a chance to shine, and he’s soaking up every moment.
"I feel like a basketball player again," Looney told Bleacher Report. "For the last year-and-a-half, I’ve really felt like a coach or spectator. To get me on the court and to practice every day, which I haven’t been able to do for a long time, and without pain has been great."
That means being able to finally continue his overall development after being delayed for what amounted to an entire year. Though Looney led all NCAA freshmen in double-doubles during his lone year at UCLA, he was not yet 20 when the Warriors picked him, and his ceiling—as a consistent scorer and rebounder who can play above-average defense on power forwards and some centers—is still a ways off.
But the Warriors staff and players all see the potential in Looney’s game.
"He just has a really good feel for the game," head coach Steve Kerr said. "He’s not going to wow you with anything athletically, but he’s just always in the right spot making the right play."
That’s coming from increased minutes, but it’s also from Looney incessantly picking the brains of veterans around him. Shaun Livingston, whose career nearly ended in 2007 because of a broken leg, knows all too well about long recoveries. Iguodala, now in his 13th season, has impressed upon Looney the importance of eating right, getting the proper amount of sleep and being one of the first people in the gym before practice.
But Draymond Green (6'7") has perhaps served as Looney’s most sensible example to emulate.
They have similar heights and builds, and can play "bigger" than their assumed positions. With time and progress, the Warriors see Looney being able to guard centers in the way Green does when Kerr goes to the vaunted small-ball "death lineup."
That scenario won’t be commonplace just yet, but Green has been impressed with Looney’s aptitude and feel for the game. He sees the similarities they possess.
"[Looney] has some things about him that you just can’t teach. He has a nose for the basketball. He always knows where to be. He’s always in the right place," Green said, all the while emphasizing that this year is essentially a "sophomore season" for Looney.
"As he continues to learn the game," Green added, "he’ll continue to get better."
It’s been an uphill climb for Looney—literally at times. After playing not even eight minutes in the preseason opener in Vancouver, Canada, the second-year man "felt like [he] was dying on the court."
But by the fourth preseason game, held in the high-altitude environs of Denver, Looney felt more acclimated, not just to the conditions but to the game itself.
"I was tired, but I still felt like I could play basketball," Looney told me. "That was the turning point. I could feel the progress I’d made."
Any exhibited progress would be welcomed by Kerr and his staff. With the acquisition of Kevin Durant, the Warriors were priced out of keeping rim-protecting centers such as Festus Ezeli (now a Portland Trail Blazer) and Andrew Bogut, who returns to Oracle Arena with Harrison Barnes and the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday night.
In their stead, the Warriors signed Zaza Pachulia to start, plus David West and JaVale McGee as backups. But the drop-off is clear: After grabbing a league-average 76 percent of the team's defensive rebound chances last year, Golden State is snaring only 72 percent this season, which is second-worst in the NBA.
Looney has a natural feel for rebounds, and the numbers should grow with increased playing time. When normalized per 36 minutes played, Looney is Golden State’s best offensive rebounder so far. And per 36 minutes, no regular Warrior has been a more reliable scorer in the paint than Looney, who exhibits a comfortable feel for the ball at the rim.
The first phase of Looney’s comeback was about getting and staying healthy. Now, it’s about developing the better parts of his game and getting his conditioning back to normal. While his hips are 100 percent recovered and pain-free, Looney estimates his stamina is still around 75 percent.
For the moment, he is grateful to play meaningful minutes again and feel like he’s contributing to the team’s successes. The worst part of last season was returning to the locker room in his suit after every final buzzer.
"I would come in after the game," Looney recalled, "and I’m already dressed to leave."
Now, he’s an actual contributor to a team that has captured the world’s attention.
And for a budding frontcourt star who’s not yet 21 and has elite defenders like Iguodala and Green mentoring him every day, Looney’s ascendance can finally begin.
Warriors Insider's Notebook
The talk of the basketball world after Monday night was Stephen Curry’s remarkable and historic barrage of three-pointers that rained down on the defenseless New Orleans Pelicans. With 13 threes on 17 tries, Curry was on fire the whole night, with at least three treys in each quarter.
But beyond Curry’s heroics, the Warriors still struggled mightily from deep, making only three of 18 three-point chances.
Klay Thompson has been the most surprising source of Golden State’s three-point woes. After an encouraging four threes during last week’s win over the Thunder, Thompson went 2-of-10 against the Lakers and 2-of-7 against the Pelicans. On the season, he is now just 11-of-53 on threes—two fewer makes than Curry alone had versus New Orleans.
"I’ve been in plenty of shooting slumps," Thompson said in the locker room after the win. "I do appreciate my friends’ concern. … I’ll be alright. You’ve seen me catch fire before. It’s just a matter of time."
Thompson acknowledged that earlier in his career he would obsessively check his shooting stats. Now, he said: "I don’t overthink things when I’m in a little slump. I just go out there and play hard."
After spraining his left ankle during the first Warriors-Pelicans matchup (the season’s second game), hyped second-round pick Patrick McCaw was back in uniform and cleared to play after missing four games.
Kerr, playing it cautious, still opted not to use him.
More interesting still, Kerr moved Anderson Varejao to the inactive list to make room for McCaw. Relegated mostly to late-game garbage-time minutes, Varejao hasn’t looked great in his limited moments on the court, and this could be Kerr’s first move in solidifying a more productive and cohesive rotation going forward.
Green Means Go
Draymond Green’s scoring is down from 14 a game last season to just 9.4 in the early goings of this schedule, but his defense (on both two- and three-pointers) has been stellar, and he remains one of the league leaders in assists. Green is also grabbing 10.7 boards per night.
"He’s been brilliant," Kerr said of Green after the win over the Pelicans. "He’s probably come to understand that there are not going to be as many points for him to score. Just simple math in terms of who has the ball, but he’s impacting the game in so many ways with his passing, defense and his communication, talking on defense and that kind of stuff."
"I hope people aren’t looking at his point total and saying he’s not playing as well as he did last year," Kerr added. "He’s playing every bit as well as he has played the last couple years. The box score is just going to look a little different."