This summer, during one of his daily pick-up games at UCLA’s Student Activity Center, Golden State Warriors forward Kevon Looney was guarding Los Angeles Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley. Forward Jordan Bell — preparing for his first season with the Warriors by working out with Looney in Los Angeles — was on Looney’s team.
“I set a screen, they switched, and Kevon was up top,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘Damn, I’ve got to get ready to help.’”
Guarding Austin Rivers, Bell backed all the way into the paint, ready to help take away a Beverley lay-up. Off the pick, the 6-foot-1 Beverley couldn’t get by the 6-foot-9 Looney.
“I was surprised how good he was, sliding with the guards,” Bell said. “Like, in college, he guarded me.”
Looney dropped 30 pounds this summer while playing in one of the most exclusive pick-up games in the country every day at his alma mater. Along with playing against some of the NBA’s best, he improved his body, and his defensive versatility. That’s why, against the pick-and-roll-heavy Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals starting Monday, he’ll be an X-factor.
“All these playoff games, he’s been stepping up big for us, and that’s why he’s the sixth man, pretty much this entire playoff run,” said Golden State forward Draymond Green. “He’s really been key in what we’ve been doing, especially on the defensive end.”
In the two years after he was drafted by the Warriors 30th overall in the NBA Draft, the former five-star, one-and-done at UCLA underwent two hip surgeries, and played just five games with the Warriors in 2015-16. Not used to the 82-game NBA grind in his second season, Looney gained weight and wore down, falling out of the rotation despite playing in 53 games. He sat for the playoffs.
“It effected me a lot,” Looney said. “Being injured was something new, that I’d never experienced, so when I got injured, I gained weight. I had to change my diet, had to change my lifestyle.”
In order to stay in the NBA, he had to prove that not only could he stay healthy, but that he could bring value.
“The first two years, I didn’t feel great on the court,” Looney said. “Body-wise, I always had little injuries popping up, so I just wanted to make a change, going back to where I used to play at. I always played at a leaner weight. When it comes to the NBA, they always tell you you’ve got to get stronger. I thought that meant ‘gain weight,’ but I switched it, went to a smaller size, and it’s been paying off for me.”
Also paying off: Those pick-up runs in Westwood. The gymnasium at the SAC — formerly called the Men’s Gym — has been the site of legendary pick-up games for decades. On prospective student campus tours, names like Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Reggie Miller and Russell Westbrook are recited as former participants. Having played a year in Westwood before embarking on his NBA career, Looney knew the lore.
Among those in attendance this summer: Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Lebron James, James Harden, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Myers Leonard and Westbrook.
“I was in horrible shape when I got there,” Looney said. “I was coming off injury, so I couldn’t play for a couple months. I came in there the first couple weeks, it was tough, I was starting a new lift program, and going to play basketball. I was really tired, I was really dragging out there, but as the summer went on, I got much better.”
The games’ organizer, Rico Hines, instituted a 10-second shot clock, and mandated that defenders had to switch on every screen. It’s what he did against Beverley, and it’s exactly what Looney will have to do against Chris Paul and Harden off the Rockets’ relentless pick-and-roll.
“I hadn’t seen him play since college, so I wasn’t aware of the capability he had,” said Bell, who played Looney’s Bruins while at Oregon. “It’s a huge improvement over where he was in college. I think now, he’s getting more of his confidence back. At first, he was a 19-year old in the NBA, and it must have been hard, but I think he’s definitely finding his rhythm, he’s in the right spots.”
“I got a lot more confident,” Looney said, “and I carried that over to the season.”
Looney was extremely effective against the Rockets in the teams’ second meeting, when he scored seven points and pulled down a career-high-tying eight rebounds in the Warriors’ 124-114 win over Houston. He effectively defended Paul and Eric Gordon, altering shots and taking charges.
In the Warriors’ three games against Houston, Looney averaged 11 minutes on the floor, scoring 4.3 points and pulling down 3.3 rebounds.
As the eventual go-to small-ball center, Looney helped the Warriors get out in transition.
“As long as we’re rebounding the basketball, not fouling and putting them on the free throw line, we’re able to get out in transition, and that’s where we’re dangerous,” Green said.
Looney averaged just 4.2 minutes in his five games as a rookie, then 8.4 minutes in his second go-around. This season, he averaged 13.8 in 66 games, and in the playoffs, he’s averaged 21.3 minutes in 10 games, averaging 4.8 rebounds, 0.4 blocks, 0.8 steals and 5.0 points, shooting 53.3%.
“He can switch. He does a good job on guards,” said Warriors head coach Steve Kerr. “Obviously, they’re an isolation team, once everything shakes out, so he’ll play a big role in this series, staying in front of Harden and Paul, and also protecting the rim.”
When the Warriors have started their small lineup — call it the Death Lineup or the Hamptons Five, whichever you prefer — it’s been Looney coming off the bench to replace Andre Iguodala. In the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference Semifinals, Looney pulled down four rebounds, hit a shot and dished out an assist to Green, while holding Anthony Davis — who had gone 10-of-21 over the first three quarters — to just five shots.
While Houston is all about the pick-and-roll, the Rockets hoisted an NBA-leading 42.1 three-pointers per game (the Warriors average 29.1). Beyond just defending in the post, the 6-foot-9 Looney can get out to the perimeter and close out on shooters, better than Iguodala. Starting Looney instead of Iguodala with Curry, Green, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant also allows the Warriors to get into their regular substitution pattern quickly.
“Kevon’s been doing it for a while now, so it’s like Steph Curry hitting a three — nothing to be surprised about,” Bell said. “It was still an exciting playoff moment — you were really excited you got it done — but we expect that out of him.”
With the Warriors headed into the Western Conference Finals — billed by many as the ‘true’ NBA Finals — they will face a Rockets’ offense is designed to get both Paul and Harden in iso situations, where they can target Stephen Curry, the weakest defender in the Warriors’ Hamptons Five/Death Lineup group. Looney will be key in defending those isos, switching onto guards, as well as defending center Clint Capela.
“He’ll play quite a bit against Capela, but he can also guard [P.J.] Tucker and [Luc] Mbah a Moute,” Kerr said. “The whole key these days, defensively, is can you guard multiple positions and multiple actions, and he can do that. He’s a valuable player for us.”