OAKLAND — Time stops when Jordan Bell soars into the air to catch a lob.
The supremely athletic rookie rises up, seemingly hangs above the rim, and throws down the dunk. Midway through the first quarter of the Golden State Warriors’ 96-81 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday night, Bell produced one of those trademark moments, slamming a Draymond Green lob.
Starting his sixth game in a row and his second consecutive in the frontcourt alongside Green and Kevin Durant, Bell put up seven points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a pair of blocks.
A night after becoming the second member of the 2017 draft class to record a 20-10 game, the outing was the latest in a string of memorable performances for the ex-Oregon Duck. It came amid a lethargic showing for the Warriors at large.
“[It was] a hell of a streak and we flush this one down the toilet and move on,” head coach Steve Kerr said after his club’s 11-game unbeaten run reached its end.
Bell continues to seize the opening he’s been afforded as left shoulder soreness has kept Zaza Pachulia out of the lineup for seven of the last eight games.
Just before tipoff, as the starters huddled in front of the bench, Pachulia leaned in and whispered something into Bell’s ear. The 15-year vet and the Golden State neophyte have developed a fast rapport.
On Friday night in the win over the Los Angeles Lakers, Bell benefitted from a no call on what appeared to be an egregious travel. The Warriors posted the play on Instagram, prompting Pachulia to comment “travel” and Bell to banter back “learned it from you.”
After that win, Green praised Bell the student.
“He’s a sponge,” Green said. “He’s one of those guys who you talk to and he sits there and looks you in your eye [and] shakes his head yes and asks questions. [He’s] very curious and that’s a great trait to have.”
It’s difficult to envision a better environment for soaking up NBA knowledge than Bell’s current surroundings where he can count Green, Durant, Pachulia and David West among his teachers.
While the situation at center has shades of 2014 — when Green supplanted a hamstrung David Lee — the chances of Bell replacing Pachulia remain relatively remote — at least for now.
“Probably,” Kerr said when asked if Pachulia will slide back into his starting role when healthy. “He’s been great for us. I think he’s started every game since he’s been here. I just want to make sure he’s healthy. So, if he can play next game, he’ll probably start.”
Kerr did leave room for equivocation.
“I’m not going to commit to anything. We’ve got to see how he goes and how everything else falls into place.”
As Pachulia made his way through the locker room before Saturday night’s loss, the Georgian big man said he’s targeting the Christmas Day showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a potential return date.
Impending return aside, the idea of Bell replacing Pachulia in the starting lineup is complicated by the reality that they are such different players.
Pachulia is a 6-foot-11 bruiser. He’s a master screener who helps the free-flowing offense thrive. Bell, who’s listed at 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot wingspan, stands out for his speed and jumping capabilities in a league flooded with athletic anomalies. Before the win over the Lakers, Kerr joked that between Green and Bell he wasn’t sure who was playing the four and who was playing the five.
At this early junction, Bell is most proficient as a shot blocker and a lob dunker. He’s no Pachulia when it comes to the less flashy but nonetheless crucial skills — like setting impeccable screens.
Even as Pachulia looms, the twists and turns of the NBA season could have Bell sticking around in the starting lineup. After losing to the Nuggets, the Warriors announced that Green underwent X-rays on his left elbow following a fourth-quarter tumble. The results were negative but the Warriors have erred on the side of caution whenever a player has been banged up this season.
Whatever role he grows into, Bell certainly grasps his place in the Golden State ecosystem. He explained as much during his now-famous postgame interview on NBC Sports Bay Area after dropping 20-10 on the Lakers.
Jordan Bell knows the keys to success 😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/HHhU5sMlE1
— Warriors on NBCS (@NBCSWarriors) December 23, 2017
“Run every single time and pass it to the light-skinned dudes and the skinny dude.”