Rookies aren't supposed to make a difference, but Golden State Warriors' second-rounder Jordan Bell is positioned to defy expectations.
His peers seem to see that already, as the 39 rookies who participated in the NBA's annual survey named Bell, the 38th player off the board in June, as the second-best defender and fourth-biggest steal in the draft. No wonder the Warriors spent the maximum allowed—$3.5 million—to buy that 38th pick from the Chicago Bulls.
Even if Golden State's successes on the floor and in the draft (see: Patrick McCaw last year) have the team in a Spursian spot such that everyone immediately groans "of course they got that guy!" Bell stands out as a particularly significant theft.
Listed at a shade over 6'8" in shoes and featuring a wingspan a quarter-inch shy of seven feet, Bell graded out like a guard in draft combine agility drills, finishing fourth overall in the shuttle run and posting the third-best time by a power forward from any draft in lane agility, according to Julian Applebome of Draft Express. How did all that length and athleticism serve Bell in college?
Here's Anthony Slater for the Mercury News:
He was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He was the head of Oregon’s 2-2-1 press and his ability to capably stay with guards on the perimeter was a key reason Oregon, with a 89.0 defensive rating when Bell was on the floor, was able to play a switch-heavy style at times and boast one of the country’s stingiest defensive units this past season.
Switching, trapping, stuffing shots and darting all over the floor, Bell was the only D-I player to average at least 2.2 blocks and 1.3 steals per game last year.
That seems useful for a Warriors squad that switches more than anyone, thrives on rim protection from undersized forwards and isn't all that attached to positional designations.
Bell's offense needs work, but his athleticism will allow him to contribute in so many non-scoring areas that the Warriors will be fine waiting on his development. Example: He posted an ultra-rare 5x5 in just his third contest in the NBA Summer League, amassing five points, 11 rebounds, five assists, five steals and six blocks. We haven't seen a 5x5 in the NBA since Dec. 11, 2015, when Draymond Green did it for the Warriors.
It's appropriate then that Bell had this to say after his summertime stat-stuffing:
Nobody expects Bell to be another Green, mostly because nobody expected the first Green to become what he is: a singularly versatile defensive havoc-wreaker. Fortunately, Bell can just be himself and fit into a role Golden State has been trying (and failing) to fill for years.
We know head coach Steve Kerr craves a player like Bell because Kerr has spent his three seasons in charge trying to shoehorn less capable alternatives into a sort of hybrid, switchy, defense-first center spot. Sure, Kerr has always started a conventional 5 and frequently unleashed Green there for short bursts in clutch moments. But Kerr's persistent efforts to make James Michael McAdoo a contributor reveal how badly he wanted someone to be as Green-like as possible in the middle.
Even Anderson Varejao got reps because he—in theory but certainly never in practice—could move his feet, switch onto guards and pass the ball a little bit on offense.
McAdoo played 56 postseason minutes in 2017 and 38 the year before. Varejao was on the court for an incomprehensible 93 minutes in the 2016 playoffs, killing the Warriors throughout.
Bell is what Kerr always hoped his unconventional bigs could be.
With Zaza Pachulia and David West aging and with JaVale McGee limited to short stints because of his defensive weaknesses, Bell should get a real opportunity to prove he's the guy Kerr has coveted during the regular season. All of the Warriors vets, Green especially, will need extra rest after three straight trips to the Finals, which will only increase Bell's chances.
Sure, he'll be battling second-year center Damian Jones for those minutes, but when the Warriors want to downsize and cause chaos on D, Bell will be the superior option. And after seeing Kerr trust McCaw in key minutes of a decisive Game 5 against the Cavs last June, we know that if Bell proves himself during the year, he'll get a crack at ultra-high-leverage minutes in the playoffs.
Bell's appeal isn't limited to Kerr and the Warriors. As the league continues to eschew positional designations and meanwhile prize versatility, he'll soon become the prototype at the position. Lumbering power forwards are already nearly extinct; do you really think old-school centers are going to last much longer?
And while everyone should be hunting for players like Bell, the Warriors remain the team best equipped to maximize his skills. Because even if he doesn't see time with the first unit or as part of the Dubs' vaunted Death Lineup, he'll be positioned to create another one.
Look around the league and try to find a second unit as next-generation rangy and like-sized as Golden State's Shaun Livingston, McCaw, Nick Young, Omri Casspi and Bell. There are several starting fives that would struggle to contain that group.
The skills are there. The environment is perfect. And this particular moment in time, when the NBA is right on the precipice of shifting toward players exactly like Bell, is ideal.
It's never wise to bet on rookies making major impacts, but the deck is stacked in Bell's favor.
And the Warriors are about to cash in. Again.