CHASE CENTER — After not playing at all during the preseason due to a hamstring strain, Kevon Looney will start at center for the Golden State Warriors on opening night at the Chase Center, but he’ll be on a minutes restriction.
The forward who’s been called a foundational piece by head coach Steve Kerr won’t play much more than 20 minutes against the Los Angeles Clippers, but he’ll be backed up by 6-foot-10, 240-pound Marquese Chriss, who started four of the Warriors’ five preseason games.
“Maybe four runs of five minutes or so would be what to look for,” Kerr said. “[Director of sports medicine Rick Celebrini] will keep me updated as we go. If he’s feeling good and he can go longer, we may change that. It’s a mark we’re looking at.”
Looney played in two scrimmages this week, including a Wednesday session that lasted as long as an NBA quarter, and came out of it fully healthy.
Last season, Kerr repeatedly praised Looney’s toughness, athleticism and strength, as the former UCLA star took advantage of minutes available because of a season-ending injury to Damian Jones and the half-season recovery of DeMarcus Cousins.
Looney played in a career-high 80 games with 24 starts, setting career highs in minutes (18.5), shooting (62.5%), rebounds (5.2 rpg), assists (1.4 apg) and scoring (6.3 ppg). In the playoffs, he fought through a painful costal cartilage fracture and played in 21 postseason games, averaging 20.6 minutes, shooting 68.8% and averaging 4.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 7.1 points.
Looney came back healthy for training camp, but soon strained his right hamstring, which, combined with injuries to Alen Smailagic (ankle) and Willie Cauley-Stein (mid-foot strain), allowed Chriss — a former lottery pick pushed to the fringes of the NBA after playing for three teams in three seasons — to seize his opportunity.
Brought into camp with no guarantee — Golden State was hard-capped and could not fill their 15th roster spot with even a minimum deal — Chriss averaged 9.4 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.4 assists, a steal and a block in 22.4 minutes per game.
Chriss is a power forward by trade, but he’s shown no compunction about banging with true NBA-sized centers in the preseason, so it looks like he and Looney will get the bulk of the center minutes, with Omari Spellman spelling them at times, until Cauley-Stein returns at some point after the end of the month, when he’s due to be re-evaluated by the team’s medical staff.
While Alec Burks won’t play in the opener — the first Warriors game in San Francisco since Jan. 29, 1971 at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, a 106-100 win over the Buffalo Braves — he’s very close to returning to full action from an ankle injury.
Like Looney, Burks missed the entire preseason with an ankle injury, but in a prolonged two-on-two session on Wednesday — teaming with Luke Loucks against Nick Kerr and Ky Bowman — Burks showed an explosive burst, full mobility, elite ball handling and a smooth, precise shooting stroke.
Golden State brought Burks in to compete for the three-guard spot with Glenn Robinson III and Alfonzo McKinnie. McKinnie — on a deal that wouldn’t be guaranteed until January — was waived to make room for Chriss, and Robinson emerged as an unexpectedly solid offensive contributor on the wing, to go along with his stout defense.
Burks, when he returns, will likely come off the bench, but having 429 NBA games under his belt, he’s the rare veteran in a group of nine newcomers, eight of whom are 23 years old or younger.
“What we like about Alec is that he’s been around this league for a while, he knows what he’s doing,” Kerr said. “He’s got good size on the wing, and we lack that on the wing, both offensively and defensively. When he’s ready, I think he’s going to make a big contribution. He’s just now coming back from the injury, getting his conditioning, so it’s going to take some time, but I think he can make a big impact.”
Kerr has humored multiple repeated questions about the newness of Chase Center (the team has occupied it for months, and has already played three preseason games there) over the last week, and fielded more on Thursday.
While he praised the energy in the building and the facilities, and was happy that he’s seen some familiar faces — ushers, security guards and the like — he did have one complaint.
“I’ve been locked out of my office a few times after games,” he said. “True story. I pondered wearing my keycard over my suit coat to make sure I could get up to my office at halftime.”
Kerr’s office has a picture window overlooking the two practice courts, across a hallway from a matching office for general manager Bob Myers.
Kerr ended his pregame address with a not of condolence for Shaquille O’Neal, who on Thursday lost his sister Ayesha Harrison-Jex to cancer at the age of 40.
Kerr orchestrated a trade with the Miami Heat for O’Neal while the general manager of the Phoenix Suns, and played against him during the latter stages of his own career with the Bulls, Trail Blazers and Spurs. O’Neal is normally part of the TNT national broadcasting team set to broadcast the opener on Thursday, but is taking personal time off to mourn.
“I want to send our condolences to Shaquille O’Neal and his family,” Kerr said. “Everybody here, with the Warriors, is thinking about Shaq and his family and we sent along our best, and hope to see Shaq back on the set soon.”