The Perfect Warrior

Jordan Bell has the keys—to overcoming Houston, Golden State’s title run and possibly the whole damn future. B/R Mag takes a look at the prototype of NBA centers to come.
photo of Howard BeckHoward Beck@@HowardBeckNBA Senior WriterIN OAKLANDApril 13, 2018

Jordan Bell is trapped.

The room is dim and musty, and teeming with absurdity. Musical notes and colored light bulbs and switches of unclear purpose dot the walls.

What do those interlocking gears do? Is that a scale in the armoire? Is that a cucumber on the scale? There in the corner, is that...a coffin?

Lights flicker. A bell rings. The sound of gurgling water emanates from above.

"You're drowning, bro," Bell's friend, Shelly Brown, warns.

But there is time yet. And if there's one thing we should know about the Golden State Warriors' energetic rookie, it's this: Jordan Bell doesn't flinch.

And when it comes to escape rooms, he doesn't lose. At least, not so far.

"I've got out every time," Bell proclaims. "Two-for-two." 

But that unblemished record may be in jeopardy. There are a mere 80 minutes to unlock a series of logic puzzles and, well, actual locks.

Bell at the escape room.
Bell at the escape room.Howard Beck/Bleacher Report

Bell methodically flicks switches, turns gears, sifts through drawers and quietly consults with his girlfriend Carissa West and his longtime pal Brown.

"He's really good at problem-solving," West says. "He really thinks logically through things."

With each new room comes a new riddle. But Bell is unfazed. He recognizes that a few colored lights need to be turned on. But how? He stretches his 6'9" body across one corner, touching two distant metal plates to trigger the lights—much to the delight of our escape-room guide.

"You got a pretty good wingspan," he chirps. He seems wholly unaware of Bell's identity, and the true value of that wingspan.

The modern NBA demands versatile bigs, who can guard every position, patrol the lane and attack the rim at the other end. Bell is the new wave: a mobile big man who can defend any position, anywhere on the court. He's no unicorn—a Joel Embiid, an Anthony Davis or Kristaps Porzingis. But Bell is tallish, a versatile athlete who can run and jump, set screens and swat opponents' shots.

"I do think he is the prototypical front-liner," says assistant coach Ron Adams.

It's hard to miss Bell when he's on the court. He's the one flying in for the chase-down block of Damian Lillard. The one unabashedly throwing a lob-dunk to himself in the waning minutes of a blowout. The one dancing with Nick Young in pregame warm-ups. The one hounding the smallest guards and the brawniest bigs, all in the same possession. The one attacking every play as if the world's fateor, at least, the Warriors' championship pursuitrests on his relentlessness.

That Bell's presence is so felt is impressive, given his surroundings. All that star power. All those MVPs. All those veterans. All those rings. But the second-round draft pick has been the fresh blood and fresh energy the Warriors need. He's the young legs on a bench populated by old heads. ("Bell might be the fastest guy on our team," assistant coach Jarron Collins says.) A shot-blocker who can also guard the three-point line. A big man who can defend Clint Capela and James Harden. That's Bell, a tightly wound spring who plays much taller than his listed height.

Bell guarding James Harden.
Bell guarding James Harden.Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As the NBA playoffs unfold, his importance may only grow. It'd be ludicrous to call him indispensable—not on this team, not with Bell's thin resume—but then again, maybe it's not. The Warriors' path back to the Finals has grown more daunting, with the Houston Rockets seizing the top seed in the West and constructing a defense specifically designed to throttle them. The expected (inevitable?) clash in the conference finals might come down to the finest details—a deflection, a block, a well-timed rotation. This is where you'll find Bell, in the spaces in between, mining the details.

"He understands," says Adams, "the importance of small things."

You might say Bell was a Warrior before the Warriors ever drafted him. It took him just days to win over his teammates and coaches last fall, a few weeks to crack the rotation and not much longer before he found time in the starting lineup. His reserved demeanor and relentless hustle felt like a perfect fit from the start: smart, diligent, committed to the larger cause. In conversation, he exudes humility. On the court, he radiates bravado.

"Perfect Warrior," associate head coach Mike Brown says.

Brown added that Bell is extremely coachable and has a penchant for trying to do the right thing. He also questions everything, which can come across as exasperating or endearing, depending on whom you ask.

"He's so cute," Mike Brown says, chuckling. "He's like my young son at seven years old. I go tell him something, and he's explaining, 'But Dad, I didn't mean to do it! This is why I did it!'"

The longer he hangs out with the Warriors, the more Bell sounds like them. An unconscious mimic, he's caught himself parroting Green's favored profanities ("motherfucker") and Durant's southeast slang ("shawty").

Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the Warriors have seen Bell acquit himself well in Golden State.
Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and the Warriors have seen Bell acquit himself well in Golden State.Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

"He has confidence in himself," Curry says. "He has an opportunity to help a championship team win another championship, and do it his way. ... You got to be yourself at the end of the day. That's what you like about him the most." 

As the Warriors' lone rookie, Bell is sometimes tasked with all of the errands that, on a lesser team, might have been divided among several newbies. (He hasn't really been hazed in the typical sense—no cartoon backpacks or public humiliations.) He sometimes lugs around a massive, unspeakably heavy case of poker chips (for team flights) or delivers pregame coffee, boxes of Ike's sandwiches and Jamba Juice smoothies. And does it all with grace.

"A lot of guys feel entitled when they come in," Durant says. But Bell arrived "with a humble mind, humble spirit, ready to learn, ready to work. I thought that was his best trait."

One night in New Orleans, just before 2 a.m., Bell's phone started buzzing. It was Curry, demanding beignets from the world-famous Cafe Du Monde. For the whole team. For the second time that night. Bell fetched the powdered treats, as a good rookie should. "They were so good," Curry explains gleefully. "We needed more."

Parking is tough to find at lunchtime in downtown Oakland, and Bell is impatiently gunning his Audi Q5 from block to block, in search of an opening, rapping along to Future's "Might as Well": "I took off just like a rocket/Olajuwon, Hakeem."

Bell plays his music loud and drives his car fast (two habits that, he says, mildly alarmed the Hall of Famer Bill Walton last month when Bell gave him a ride home from a Warriors game). 

"I'm a fast driver," he says. "I'm not reckless, but I drive fast." 

After about 10 minutes of speeding around the Oakland grid, Bell finally pulls the SUV into a curbside spot near a Mexican restaurant. Two team execs are already inside. 

At the table, Bell is pretty sedate. He picks at his food and checks his two phones often, the smaller of which still bears the cracks from last June, when Bell dropped it upon learning he just became a Warrior.

Bell at lunch in downtown Oakland.
Bell at lunch in downtown Oakland.Image credit: Andy Thompson/NBA

But among teammates and coaches, the 23-year-old is unfailingly described as reflective and mature. "He's got a bit of an adult demeanor in that regard," says the 70-year-old Adams. "He doesn't have to hear himself talk. He has an internal world about him that I think gives him strength."

Bell is not that far removed from a sometimes-troubled adolescence in Long Beach, California. The youngest of five children, Jordan was relentlessly tormented by an older brother, who gave Bell a broken nose and stitches in his forehead, and virtually ignored by his father, who had a drug addiction.

From time to time, Bell acted out. In middle school, he skipped classes, got into fights, rifled through students' lockers and went on a stealing binge, just for the thrill of it.

"I mean, I was bad," he says. "I didn't do it because I wanted it. Like, I would steal people's phones and give them to my friends, like, 'Hey you want this?' I don't want it. I just wanted to steal it."

He bounced between three middle schools. He was expelled with two weeks to go in eighth grade. 

"I think that's when I realized, I might have a problem," Bell says.

The turning point came in Bell's freshman year at Long Beach Poly, when he was kicked off the football team. To that point, football had been his passion—and basketball a distant afterthought. 

"So when that got taken away from me," Bell says, "I kind of, like, had a little wake-up call."

As he worked his way through a program for students with behavioral issues, Bell came under the watch of Poly basketball coach Sharrief Metoyer, a strict disciplinarian.

A 17-year-old Bell closes in for a layup at the Adidas Nations event at Long Beach College in August 2012 while a student at nearby Long Beach Polytechnic High School.
A 17-year-old Bell closes in for a layup at the Adidas Nations event at Long Beach College in August 2012 while a student at nearby Long Beach Polytechnic High School.Kelly Kline/Getty Images

Metoyer recalled to the Los Angeles Times' Zach Helfand last year, Bell wasn't "misguided," but "unguided. There's a difference." He demanded accountability from Bell.

"I think that's when I was really scared to lose basketball," Bell says. "It was more of just I love doing this, I don't want this to be taken away from me. So I'm gonna do what I have to do."

It's a story Bell retells matter-of-factly, without shame. "Everybody always can have an excuse why not to do something—or why they do certain things," he says.

His past is his past. It's how he got here.

"We liked that he had some adversity," Warriors general manager Bob Myers says. "We liked that he kind of came out of the other side in a good way and learned hard work, had kind of gone through some things."

Bell did not set out to blow up Twitter on the night he blew up Twitter. He just wanted to follow coach Steve Kerr's edict in the final minutes of a rout in Dallas to "keep the intensity up." So when that breakaway chance came with less than three minutes remaining and the Warriors up 25, his impulses took over: He tossed the ball to himself off the backboard for a showy slam.

Purists were appalled. Younger fans were delighted. Teammates were split. (Durant gasped and covered his mouth, muttering something under his breath. Draymond Green giggled uncontrollably.) A debate over basketball decorum would ensue.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Warriors rookie Jordan Bell already throwing it off the backboard. 😅 https://t.co/BRBdCM6DOS

It was then that the Warriors truly understood their new rookie. "You want to stand out as much as you can," Bell says. "It's still two points, but it will get your name out there more. It'll get you more hype." 

Bell is sort of a homebody, spending his off days binge-watching Black Mirror and Dragon Ball Z, rather than hitting the town—"Pretty chill dude," says veteran David West—but basketball taps into something else. 

"That play stood out to me, because he had the guts to do it," Durant says now. "Sometimes you get taught as a rookie to be such a robot, and he was out there just being him. So I loved that play."

The self-assist dunk wasn't even Bell's first. He converted the same play in his final season at Oregon—though "it was way nastier," says former Ducks teammate Dillon Brooks, now with the Memphis Grizzlies. "It was the loudest I ever heard the gym go. ... That's just JB's personality. He likes to stretch the band a little bit."

Kerr says he was concerned in the moment, but admits that his thinking on the matter has evolved. "I really liked Jordan being like, 'Hell yeah, I'm coming,'" he says. "You need that in this league."

That bravado has been on display throughout the year. A month later, Bell roughed up the Chicago Bulls—who sold his draft rights to the Warriors last June—and celebrated by repeatedly rubbing his thumb and forefinger together, the universal sign for money.

Maybe that's why he's garnered so much respect among the Warriors' transcendent talent and towering personalities. But Bell also fits nicely, politically. As an Oregon freshman, he was one of two players who sparked a minor furor putting their hands up—the universal "don't shoot" pose—during the national anthem, a way of quietly protesting police killings of unarmed black men.

When coach Dana Altman tried to order the two players to run, as a sort of penance, Bell pushed back.

Bell skies for a dunk against North Carolina while with Oregon.
Bell skies for a dunk against North Carolina while with Oregon.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

"I said, 'I ain't fucking running for shit,'" Bell recalls. "I said, 'If you want to suspend me for a game, go ahead. When they ask me why you suspended me, I'll be sure to tell them that you don't agree with our message.'" The coach backed down. 

Now Bell is on a team that regularly speaks out on issues from gun violence to racism, and began the season by declaring its intent to skip the traditional White House visit, in protest of President Trump.

The ethos here in Oakland, even after three straight Finals and two championships, is about perpetual improvement. And Bell has taken to that culture well. "We see that in the young guy," Durant says. "It says a lot."

It's rare for a second-round pick to make an immediate contribution, and rarer still for a rookie, of any round, to play meaningful minutes for a title contender. Bell averaged 14.2 minutes per game in the regular season. (As a comparison, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last rookie to average at least 15 minutes a game in the regular season for a defending champion was Mike Penberthy, an undrafted guard who played for the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers. The last rookie to average at least 15 minutes for a defending champ in the playoffs was the Bulls' Toni Kukoc in 1994, per Elias.) He might have secured an even greater role if not for a series of ankle injuries that cost him 17 games in the heart of the season.

"He is a critical piece," Adams says.  

When you're a perennial contender like the Warriors, with limited salary-cap room and low draft picks, snaring a prospect with that kind of potential is challenging. Warriors executives were enamored with Bell. In three years at Oregon, he had authored his share of highlight-reel dunks and blocks—even inspiring a Twitter account, Things Bell Could Block—but he made his mark through opportunism, not design, through hustle plays and putbacks. Plus, he could add a dimension to the Warriors' so-called Death Lineup, a small-ball unit that has, for four years now, been a big part of the team's defensive arsenal.

Bell stuffs Damian Lillard in a game against the Trail Blazers.
Bell stuffs Damian Lillard in a game against the Trail Blazers.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

"We viewed him as someone that helps you win basketball games," Myers says, "which is sometimes overlooked, because we're always grading on potential, upside, things like that."

"Mostly," Myers says, "we couldn't deny his effort out there."

Back in the escape room, progress is measured in small things—the right order to play those mounted musical notes, the word puzzle whose solution depends on the weight of that cucumber.

Bell and the members of Team Treyz are scrambling, frantically rifling through drawers and cabinets. The clock is ticking. In the center of the room, Bell is methodically working through a brainteaser, unperturbed.

"He's not worried about it, like, 'Oh, he won't get it,'" says Carissa West. "Like, he's going to figure it out." 

The guide advises that only 17 percent of guests solve the puzzle within the 80-minute window. There are padlocks that need keys, and more gears and various new bits of strangeness. Finally, Bell puts a few final touches in place (we won't give it away here), and the last door swings open.

Team Treyz has escaped, with the clock reading 78:56. Bell's perfect record is intact, albeit barely. It took some creativity and ingenuity, considerable concentration, a little faith and a bit of teamwork.

That wingspan helped, too.

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and B/R Mag. He also hosts The Full 48 podcast, available on iTunes. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck