Back on September 22, 2017, Greg Papa and I were in the midst of broadcasting our daily show on 95.7 The Game from the Rakuten Performance Center for Golden State Warriors media day.
During the first hour of that broadcast, we notice former first-round pick Kevon Looney emerge from the locker room to take his customary photos and answer questions from the media.
It was easy to notice how much weight Looney lost, but that didn’t matter, as Papa and I wondered if he’d be on the roster by opening night. A month later, the Warriors decided not to exercise Looney’s fourth-year option that’s worth up to $2,227,081 million.
The decision to let Looney become an unrestricted free agent after the season is one that the Warriors front office may regret, especially after he’s blossomed into a dependable role player during the 2018 postseason.
If you look at the box score of the Warriors 119-106 victory in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Monday, nothing is sexy about Looney’s line: 25 minutes, two points, four rebounds, one assist and a steal. Boys and girls, sometimes you have to look beyond the numbers.
Looney was switched onto Rockets’ guard James Harden incessantly, but, that wasn’t a problem for him. He contested over 19 shots, didn’t bite on any pump fakes, and ran the floor well, beating Rockets center Clint Capela to his spots in the post. Looney, the first sub off the bench, definitely made his presence felt.
The Rockets were hell-bent on getting Looney switched onto Harden, something he had expected, but it felt like that was the only play the Rockets had in their offensive game plan.
“I expected (all the isos), but I didn’t expect it that much, like that,” Looney said. “It felt like for five minutes straight, I was getting iso’d every play. It’s not easy. You might stop [Harden] two times in a row, but then he might hit two tough shots.”
Warriors head coach Steve Kerr felt comfortable leaving Looney on an island against Harden, citing his defensive IQ, as well as his basketball acumen.
“Looney’s out there for a reason,” Kerr said. “He’s an excellent one-on-one defender, has great length, and it’s not easy scoring on him, whether at the rim or on the perimeter. He sees the game, he understands tendencies, and he doesn’t bite on pump fakes and tends to understand that he can bother people and challenge them without fouling, and that’s a valuable trait.”
Looney won’t receive many Most Improved Player votes, as Victor Oladipo is the favorite to win the award, but many here in the Bay Area didn’t think he’d be on the roster, let alone a key contributor at this stage of the playoffs. It’s one of the best stories in the NBA Playoffs right now.
It’s mind-blowing to think that this gangly 22-year-old — not a great leaper, having undergone two different hip surgeries (right hip in August 2015, left hip in April 2016) and having played a combined 461 minutes in the two previous seasons — could see a big bump in his bank account this summer, whether he gets paid by the Warriors or another franchise looking to scoop him up.
But, let’s live in the present. For a guy many doubted, Looney is relishing his role for this star-studded team, happy to be trusted by Kerr to become a defensive anchor. Looney didn’t think he’d be cut in training camp; he believed that he could help the Warriors. He’s certainly made a believer out of me.
“I knew I was going to have a spot on this team. I felt confident in myself and my body coming into camp,” Looney said. “I knew I put in a lot of work, and I made a great jump from the year before, and even just from the summer league. I know I can get better.”