By C.J. Peterson
Special to S.F. Examiner
SAN JOSE, Calif. — Taking the ball past half court at the five-minute mark of the first quarter on Friday, Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry looked to his left as a surprisingly-free Damian Jones cut to the basket out of his sightline.
Without even glancing at the cutting Jones, Curry threw a spot-on lob towards the rim resulting in a thunderous slam dunk, igniting a raucous crowd at SAP Center in San Jose, Calif. It was one of three first-quarter buckets for Jones, who finished the preseason finale with 16 points in 22 minutes.
After losing JaVale McGee to the Lakers in free agency this offseason, the Warriors have been looking for a player who can replace the center’s ultra-explosive play. With his energetic offense in Friday night’s 119-105 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, Jones showed why he’ll be starting at the five in the regular-season opener against Oklahoma City.
“He’s been really good,” said head coach Steve Kerr. “He’s so athletic and he runs the floor hard. He’s starting to get a feel for where he’s supposed to be and he’s made some nice plays and we’re really happy with him.”
For Jones, absorbing McGee’s former role is something that he’s been expected to do ahead of the 2018-19 season.
“Rim running, setting screen, diving hard and being an outlet for the pass,” said Jones post-game. “I’m getting pretty comfortable.”
Twelve days before the Warriors selected Jones in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, the Vanderbilt product suffered a torn pectoral muscle.
After returning to action from his injury in November of that year, Jones averaged 10 points, four rebounds and one block in 31 games for the Santa Cruz Warriors, Golden State’s G League affiliate. It’s where he’s spent the majority of his first three years as a pro.
“It means a lot coming in injured in 2016 and going to the G League after that and working my way up,” said Jones. “Having this opportunity is great. It just shows that all the hard work pays off.”
After getting right in 2016, Jones played in 45 games for Santa Cruz in 2017, ramping up his production to 15 points per game, shooting 67 percent from the floor.
Last season, he averaged 4.9 points in 9.5 minutes per game in the regular season for Golden State, upping his production to 6.5 points per game in the playoffs.
As Kerr and Jones walked off the floor after Game 4 of last year’s NBA Finals in Cleveland, Kerr put his arm around Jones and told him that 2018-19 would be his year.
On Friday, Kerr announced after the game that Jones will be the starting center on Tuesday night. This was news to Jones, too, as Kerr had just notified him of getting the nod shortly before addressing the media.
What Jones will be able to provide the Warriors long term is a question that Golden State will have to wait and see to answer. As for now, though, they’ll be happy to give the explosive and energetic big a chance to earn a solidified role as a starter.
“When you have shooters on the perimeter who draw a lot of attention, ideally you have a lob threat at the rim to provide even more spacing,” said Kerr. “That’s what DJ [Damian Jones] does and we are really pleased with what he’s doing.”