By John Krolik
Special to The Examiner
The Warriors’ starters have been a crucial part of their hot start. Steph Curry is playing at an MVP level. Draymond Green is the team’s key decision-maker on offense and the lynch pin of the team’s defense. Jordan Poole has done a fantastic job filling in for Klay Thompson. And Andrew Wiggins has transformed himself from a ball-dominant scorer to an all-around player.
However, the Warriors’ secret weapon this year has been their depth. The Warriors’ collection of young players and veterans on the bench has allowed them to keep up a level of energy throughout the full 48 minutes their opponents have simply been unable to match. Here are the players who have given the Warriors a boost of energy off the bench this season.
The face of the Warriors’ bench mob has to be Gary Payton II. Despite his Hall of Fame pedigree, Payton had one of the most winding roads imaginable to a full-time spot in an NBA rotation. Not recruited out of high school, Payton had to spend two years at Salt Lake Community College before transferring to Oregon State, where he was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year two seasons in a row. After going undrafted in 2016, and bouncing between the NBA and the G-League for five years, Payton was signed by the Warriors last offseason after winning the G-League Defensive Player of the Year award. He won’t be defending that award anytime soon, because it sure looks like Payton is in the NBA to stay.
Payton has been a revelation for the Warriors this season. The 6’3” guard plays much, much bigger than his listed height thanks to his 6-8 wingspan, solid frame and ability to get very high off the ground very quickly. One could be forgiven for thinking Payton is a frontcourt player instead of a guard. Payton’s forays to the rim are frequent and spectacular, and he’s accounted for 18 dunks this season. As a point of reference, Kevon Looney, the Warriors’ de facto starting center, has 15. The fact that Payton’s dunks often come at the expense of players taller than him have made him the Warriors’ most reliable source of posters, and it’s hard to quantify the energy that comes from Payton rising up over a defender and slamming it through.
Payton can dunk from just about anywhere at any time, and while the southpaw has shot a respectable 36.1% from beyond the arc this season, he knows what his main strength is. When Payton isn’t dunking, he’s generally trying to get himself in position for a dunk. He runs the floor like a madman in transition, constantly looks for lanes to the rim when he does put the ball on the floor. He’s in constant motion in the hope an alley-oop pass will come his way, and will often put himself in the “dunker’s spot” under the basket. If he gets the ball, he’ll dunk from a standing position, which is something 6-3 guards don’t usually do. As a result, 65% of Payton’s shots come from within 10 feet of the basket, and he shoots 82.4% on two-point shots, the latter of which is simply a mind-boggling number. Rudy Gobert, a 7-1 center who takes 98% of his shots from within 10 feet and currently leads the league in field goal percentage, shoots “only” 73.5% from two-point range.
The result of all of this have been some shooting percentages that would be eye-popping for a center, and are almost unheard of from a guard. Payton is shooting 67.1% from the field, and despite an iffy 63% free-throw percentage, his true shooting percentage — a measure of shooting efficiency that takes into account field goals, 3-point field goals, and free throws — is currently 72.8%.
Naturally, Payton’s offensive proficiency is only half the story. That should come as no surprise to anyone who’s familiar with Payton’s closet full of defensive honors in college and the G-League. Or anyone that remembers his father, perhaps the NBA’s best defensive point guard of all time. But it’s still impressive to watch. Payton is almost never out of position, is strong enough to keep his man from getting to the spot they want to go to and those long arms of his are constantly active. He plays the passing lanes for steals, and can also flat-out pick the pocket of whomever he’s guarding, which doesn’t happen to NBA point guards very often.
Payton has 29 steals this season. On the Warriors, only Steph Curry (36 steals) has more. When you consider that Curry has played 686 minutes this season to Payton’s 282, it’s that much more impressive. In fact, Payton currently leads the NBA with 3.7 steals per 36 minutes. Chicago’s Alex Caruso is in a distant second with 2.8 steals per 36 minutes. For some very understandable reasons, minutes are hard to come by in the Golden State backcourt. But if he played starter minutes? Payton would quite possibly be recognized as the best on-ball defender in the NBA.
All of the above means Payton has had a mammoth impact on the Warriors in the 15 minutes or so he does play per game. When Payton is on the floor, the Warriors outscore their opponent by a full 28 points per 100 possessions – Golden State is 21.6 points per 100 possessions better when Payton is on the floor than they are when he’s on the bench.
Every time Payton throws down one of his thunderous dunks, hops off the rim and immediately goes in a defensive stance to pick up his man full-court, he gains more fans among the Warrior faithful, and his production has more than backed up his increasing popularity.
John Krolik is a freelance contributor to The Examiner.