OAKLAND — With 1:24 left in the Warriors’ Game 1 win over the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals, Damian Jones approached the scorer’s table. He got a low-five from Jordan Bell, who flashed a wide grin as he was subbed out. The Oracle Arena crowd stood and applauded.
It had been just over five months since Jones tore his pectoral muscle against the Detroit Pistons and underwent reparative surgery. After five months of grueling rehab, two months in a sling and weeks of preparation, Jones returned to the floor.
With an open roster spot thanks to injuries, Golden State re-activated its young center, who, until the injury, was having a breakout season. Not only did he get into the game, but he scored three points, and may wind up factoring into the Warriors’ plans for the remainder of the postseason.
“It was great. It was much appreciated,” Jones said of his reception. “It’s been a long road since December, trying to get back healthy and stuff. I really appreciate all the claps and cheers.”
Jones initially went down on Dec. 2 in a 111-102 loss to the Pistons. He went up for a rebound in the final seconds of the third quarter, and his left hand got caught between the neck and shoulder of Detroit center Andre Drummond. His arm twisted, then hung limply as he trotted back up court, before he was removed. Hours later, he underwent an MRI at nearby Henry Ford Hospital, confirming the tear.
Jones had torn his right pectoral 12 days before the 2016 NBA Draft while doing a bench press workout with the Orlando Magic. The Warriors picked him 30th overall, but the rehab essentially wiped out his rookie season.
The injury curtailed what was shaping up to be a breakout season for the 23-year old center. After the 2018 NBA Finals, head coach Steve Kerr had put an arm around Jones and told him that the 2018-19 season would be his.
With DeMarcus Cousins, who signed over the summer, taking the first half of the season to rehab an Achilles tear, Jones played in 24 games and starting 22, averaging 17.1 minutes per game. He shot 71.6% from the floor, and averaged 5.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game.
“As we said earlier in the year, Damian adds something to this team that we don’t have, which is a lob threat,” said forward Draymond Green. “You know, when you have a lob threat like Damian, what he does for your floor space, it’s very similar to what you — putting a shooter on the perimeter will do for your floor space.”
The hardest part about the last five months, Jones said, had been keeping his arm in a sling. He began working out on the court even with that limitation, and by February, he began light shooting drills. In his stead, two-way player Marcus Derrickson or Damion Lee served as Golden State’s backup centers.
Cleared for contact last week, Jones participated in 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 scrimmages over the weekend.
“I felt pretty solid. My range of motion was pretty good,” Jones said.
Golden State had declared Jones out as of morning shootaround, but when the team arrived at Oracle, the training staff said he was a full go. About an hour and a half before tipoff, Golden State player development coach Luke Loucks approached Jones and told him that he’d been cleared. Jones knew there was an open active roster spot, but was still surprised. That didn’t last long. As he and Green locked eyes in the layup line, Green could tell he was ready to go.
“He looked at me like, ‘Yeah,’” Green said.
“He’s been working unbelievably hard, and he’s such a great kid,” said head coach Steve Kerr.
With the Warriors leading by 17 with 2:30 to go, Kerr subbed in Bell, Jonas Jerebko, Jacob Evans, Quinn Cook and Alphonzo McKinnie.
“I saw when he called time out at the 2:30 mark, something like that, putting guys in, I was like, ‘Hm, maybe I’ve got a chance to go in,’” Jones said.
A minute later, he was in. With 18 seconds to go, he bullied his way along the baseline and hit a layup against former No. 10 overall pick Zach Collins.
“Just attack,” Jones said of his mindset. “I’ve been working since I’ve been able to get back to playing, attacking the rim, doing different things around the rim, working on my touch. Just having that attack mode in my mind. It felt good. First bucket in a while.”
After the game, on Instagram, Jones posted a photo of him ducking past Collins, with a text caption: “Feels good to be back!!!”
It may not have been just a cameo appearance. Like Patrick McCaw last year, coming off a spinal contusion to play in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals, Jones could wind up getting meaningful minutes as Cousins works back from a torn quad, and Kevin Durant works back from a strained calf. His range and athleticism would play well against Portland, and would certainly be as much an asset now as it was when he was first inserted into the starting lineup.
“I’ve seen all year since the Detroit game in the weight room rehabbing for this entire season, and to see him get out there and get an opportunity to play tonight was key,” Green said. “I wouldn’t be shocked if sometime in this series, he’s thrown out there for some real minutes. Because like I said, he adds something that we don’t have, so I’m happy for him. Kind of caught me by surprise.”
As for whether Jones sees himself as part of the rotation moving forward, he was a bit more cautious.
“We’ll see how things go,” he said. “[I’ll] just continue to be prepared for anything that happens.”
“It’s good to have him back out there,” Green said.