Golden State Warriors

Can Kevon Looney earn his keep?

Kevon Looney has done everything right since the end of last season, but remains buried in a deep Golden State Warriors frontcourt. Is Looney a feel-good story, or a feel-sorry one?

Kevon Looney had been invited to the 2015 NBA Draft, but he had left the green room by the time his name was called. The Golden State Warriors were able to nab Looney, a lottery hopeful, with the final pick of the first round, mostly due to a reported new problem with a hip that he had already had surgery on.

Coming off a championship, the Warriors were the most loaded team in the league. They could afford to wait for Looney to get healthy, and once he returned, they would theoretically have a steal.

But there’s a reason injured players fall in the draft: Not all health problems are temporary. Looney made his way back to the court by January of his rookie year, but spent the rest of the season bouncing between Oakland and Santa Cruz, between the court and the trainer’s table.

He appeared 53 games in 2016-17, his second year, but his hip again became a problem late, causing him to miss the entire postseason. Unable to trust Looney’s health or his development, the Warriors drafted Jordan Bell this past June. Stamina and athleticism had been a major problem for Looney through two seasons, and Bell fit the profile of an energy big.

Entering training camp, Looney had to fight for three things: A roster spot, minutes and a guaranteed contract for next year. He came into the preseason slimmed down, toned up and ready to run, earning him the Warriors’ final roster spot.

Steve Kerr loves to keep every player on his roster involved, and also wants to reward the work Looney put in over the summer. Still, minutes are hard to come by in Golden State’s crowded frontcourt, and Looney’s only two October appearances came in games that Draymond Green departed from. While the second of those two games was a career night for Looney (his nine points, five rebounds and 4-of-4 shooting in 11 minutes helped the Warriors come back from 18 down against Washington), it was not enough to see his 2018-19 option get exercised on the Oct. 31 deadline.

That does not mean that Looney will not be a Warrior next season. His performance against the Wizards sparked a career-best stretch for the 21-year-old, who has now appeared in four consecutive games. It helps that all four games have been blowouts, but if he keeps playing the way he is, it will be tough for Kerr to take away his minutes.

Looney has always been a long, instinctual rim runner and a smart positional rebounder. After struggling with stamina and vertical athleticism during his first two seasons, he is finally supplementing his wingspan and basketball I.Q. with speed and bounce. Looney is averaging 1.2 blocks per game — a remarkable figure in just 12.8 minutes — and is shooting 72.7 percent from the floor. The sample is tiny, but the eye test supports the notion that this is more than a blip.

Golden State’s frontcourt is loaded, and Looney is still at the bottom of the pecking order. Zaza Pachulia and David West provide far too much as rebounders, passers and veteran leaders to be supplanted. JaVale McGee is still the preferred offensive spark plug, while Bell is the more versatile defender.

For Looney to play, he’ll have to prove that his distinct combination of skills is worth a niche role. Maybe he can come close to McGee as a rim-runner and shot-blocker, while offering more as a rebounder and all-around defender. Maybe he can defend and switch almost as well as Bell, while providing more muscle inside. The development of a jump shot would work wonders for his value, but thus far, his stroke is only theoretical.

The pressure will be on Looney all season. Kerr may love him for how hard he’s worked, but the Warriors’ front office will be looking harder for reasons to let him go than to keep him. They opted to exercise Damian Jones‘ 2018-19 option, and would prefer to enter next season with only him, Bell, a couple minimum veterans and maybe one more big on a two-way contract.

With that being said, the Warriors have shown no signs that they will skimp on the margins. They signed Nick Young to the $5.2 million mid-level exception and paid $3.5 million for the rights to Jordan Bell, when they could have brought back James Michael McAdoo and Ian Clark for less than $3 million combined. If Looney proves to be a valuable player, they will make him an offer, even if that means adding an extra guaranteed deal to next year’s books.

Looney suffered through a draft night fall, two injury-marred seasons and a declined contract option. Finally healthy and hustling, he has one more chance to prove his worth to the Warriors. He’s off to a good start.

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