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Expectations of rookie grows as he takes on more minutes

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Patrick McCaw has had an atypical rookie experience, playing for one of the best teams in the NBA. He entered the season with low expectations, but due to Kevin Durant’s injury, he’s had to take on a much larger role. (Stan Olszewski/Special to S.F. Examiner)
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OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors paid the Milwaukee Bucks $2.4 million for the second-round pick they’d eventually use on Patrick McCaw.

They knew what they were getting: A former coach’s son with a reputation for being an intelligent player with a mind for the game.

It’s no wonder he got to build his knowledge of the game; he regularly keeps in touch with his father, Jeff McCaw Sr., after two years at UNLV.

“I always call him, because he expects it,” McCaw said earlier this week. “Even if I don’t play, he’s going to break down the entire game to me. … His knowledge and what he knows about the game is crazy and helps me out a lot.”

Expectations for McCaw scaled rapidly when Kevin Durant went down for at least four weeks with an injured left knee on the last day of February. Instead of being a gadget player off the bench, he has started nine of the team’s last 10 games without the former MVP.

In the process, McCaw has experienced some highs (playing one of his best games of the season at Chicago a night after Durant was injured) and an absolute low (scoring two points on 0-for-12 shooting across 42 minutes).

“That night it was hard for me to go to sleep,” McCaw recalled. “It was probably the worst basketball game I ever played in my life.”

The rookie said that night opened his eyes to the reality that he wasn’t playing on a small stage anymore.

Assuming a spot in the starting lineup has also made him realize how much of an impact he can have just by playing defense, which is typically the side of the floor that slows rookies as they try to assimilate to the speed of the pro game — especially so in a niche-defense like that of UNLV, which presses the entire game.

“The NBA game is so different from the college game,” Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said after practice Friday. “I think he’s really gained experience, learned tendencies of opponents, gotten into scouting reports. Can’t help but get better when you get playing time like he has.”

And when you’re constantly seeking out more information, as McCaw does with veteran teammate Andre Iguodala during their shared time on the bench, development will naturally follow.

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That growth has manifested on the defensive side of the ball as the Warriors establish a new, tougher identity without Durant. Instead of allowing opponents to bully McCaw and his slight frame, he’s found ways to be stout without leaning on the old tactics he used to get away with at lower levels.

“He’s got really good hands, but he’s not been able to use them because he’s a rookie and they’re calling fouls on him,” Iguodala said. “He’s got to use his feet and stay solid.”

As McCaw adjusts to a larger workload — he’s seen 13 more minutes of playing time per game since Durant was put on the shelf — he’s also had to alter his own approach. His scoring hasn’t shot up with more opportunity for a few reasons. First, he’s joining a starting rotation that already features Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and their roughly 35 shots per gamer. Second, putting the ball in the basket can be fickle depending on how he’s shooting from night to night, just ask fellow reserve Ian Clark who’s just now emerging from a weeks long slump that saw him losing significant minutes.

The aspect of the game the player has the most control over is on the defensive end of the floor, so that’s where his — and the Warriors’ — focus has been.

“[McCaw] has great instincts, you saw it from Day 1,” Thompson said. “He’s amazing in the passing lanes, he’s got great hands and he’s gotten better every game just being Pat. Always real smooth with what he does and he’s going to be a great asset for this team for a long time.”

When asked how he does it while being skinnier than most of the players he’s facing, Thompson — always quick with a Showtime Lakers comparison — said he could see McCaw growing into a Michael Cooper-type defender, with ability to use his lankiness to disrupt opponents while also not allowing himself to get pushed around.

And if there’s one thing Durant’s proven in the league, it’s that you can carve out a more-than-solid career despite being the thinnest guy on the floor.

McCaw will get a solid chance to add strength — if not bulk — during his first offseason as a pro, a crucial time for any rookie seeking to make an impression before his next contract. Iguodala believes the floortime he’s getting right now will be particularly valuable much more down the road.

“You’ll see the lasting effects later in his career, year 10 or year 9,” the 12th-year pro said.

In the meantime, Iguodala has been warning the rookie about not coming to expect this kind of success throughout his career.

“It’s just trying to get him to understand the delicacy it can be at times as far as winning a lot,” Iguodala explained. “It can seem easy. Like it’s routine. It’s really a rare situation for him to be in on a team that wins so much.”

Iguodala is convinced that McCaw’s mindset, which is “at a higher place in general, not just for his age, will help him avoid those pitfalls.

In the near term, McCaw will continue to prove he’s a smart player on and off the floor. With his teammates, he has one simple way of establishing his maturity: By being quiet.

“He doesn’t say much,” Kerr said. “… And he shouldn’t say much. He should sit back, learn and observe.”

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