OAKLAND — Three days after his reach-back dunk on a Kevin Durant lob, the Golden State Warriors are still talking about Damian Jones’s slam in Seattle.
“It was great,” forward Draymond Green said of the third-year big man’s third quarter bucket in Friday’s exhibition win over the Sacramento Kings. “That’s what we need from him, to be that threat at the rim, that lob option. He’s obviously more than capable of it.”
Jones regularly puts on such shows in practice. His length, athleticism and bounce, especially at a listed seven feet, are a rare combination. It’s why head coach Steve Kerr, as the Warriors made their way off the court at Quicken Loans Arena following Game 4 of the NBA Finals, put his arm around Jones and told him this year would be his year.
While DeMarcus Cousins has seemed to make sooner-than-expected progress as he returns from a ruptured Achilles, Golden State still needs a starting center. Jones could very well be that guy, but he’ll still have to battle with Jordan Bell and Kevon Looney, the latter of whom will start the Warriors’ third preseason game on Monday night against the Phoenix Suns.
“DJ, this is his first real chance to play,” Kerr said Monday. “We knew we were going to put him in Santa Cruz last year with our veteran roster, and guys at the center spot. This is the first year he’s had to really compete for a chance to start, and I think he’s done a great job. He played really well in Seattle.”
After spending the majority of the last two seasons with G League affiliate Santa Cruz, Jones, 23, will start his third straight preseason game on Monday. He’s averaging 5.5 rebounds and has played 27 minutes.
With Jones, Bell and Looney, Golden State is much younger in the middle than last year’s post rotation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“They’re bouncing off the wall,” Green said. “They’re excited. They bring that energy to the game. All three of those guys are more up-tempo. I think it’ll help push the pace even more, and just having their excitement is fun.”
The new batch’s average age is under 23, if you don’t count 6-foot-10 forward Jonas Jerebko (31).
Last season, Golden State’s center rotation consisted largely of Zaza Pachulia (34), JaVale McGee (30), David West (37), along with Andre Iguodala (34) in small-ball, Hamptons Five situations. Now, McGee is with the Lakers, West has retired and Pachulia is with the Pistons.
Though the seven-foot Jones has gotten three straight starts, Kerr has said he’s leaning towards a center-by-committee. Bell and Looney both played significant parts during last year’s Finals run, and that experience can’t be discounted
“It may be again it may be something we do match up-wise, as far as who we’re playing against each night,” Kerr said during the team’s media day in September. “I think Jordan, Loon and Damian all represent kind of a different style, different size.”
After spending two years in uncertainty, Jones is happy to have not just a shot, but his coach’s confidence, expressed in the midst of a celebration, after the team won its third title in four years, and second in a row.
“Hearing that is pretty encouraging,” Jones said at the Warriors’ media day. “Two years, just like uncertain of everything but having that you go into the summer on your mind give it your best and just hoping for a big year to come up and just preparing for the best.”
Golden State will rest veterans Shaun Livingston, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green on Monday. That means a lot more time for players competing for a roster spot. The Warriors will start Jones, Looney, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and one of the candidates for the remaining two spots: Danuel House.
“We’ll get a good look at all our young guys,” Kerr said.
With Patrick McCaw still not in camp — he didn’t sign Golden State’s qualifying offer, and did not sign a subsequent two-year offer — it’s more and more likely that the Warriors will have to fill his spot. Candidates include House, 6-foot-8 forward Alfonzo McKinnie, guard Kendrick Nunn, 6-foot-7 forward Marcus Derrickson and 5-foot-10 guard Tyler Ulis, who is on an Exhibit 10 contract, which means he would either be paid the minimum salary on a one-year deal, or be converted to a two-way player.
“I just show up for practice, and whoever’s there, that’s who we coach,” Kerr said. “These young guys are doing a great job … I’m especially fond of this group. They have done a great job. They have brought energy and have put a ton of work in. They are coming into practice before everybody else, before the older guys, so they can be up to speed on everything. They have lifted the level of play in training camp.”
Kerr has said the priority is to fill a wing — which they have to do by Saturday — and House would certainly fit the bill.
With Phoenix last year, House played in 23 games (three starts), averaging 6.6 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 17.5 minutes per game after signing a two-way deal on December 8.
With G League affiliate Northern Arizona, he averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.10 steals in 32.9 minutes per game. He began the G League season with Rio Grande Valley appearing in 15 games and averaging 17.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.00 steals in 31.3 minutes per game.