'21 Season Review: Kevon Looney stepped up to the challenge
The #30 pick in the 2015 draft survived injury woes to be a trustworthy center on a thin Golden State roster.
The following is a conversation on Kevon Looney’s season between Daniel Hardee and Thomas “Dr. Tom” Bevilacqua, the author of “Golden Age: The Brilliance of the 2018 Champion Golden State Warriors”.
Daniel: Kevon Looney overcame a painful history of missing games to become the Golden State Warriors most reliable big man option in a 2020-2021 season decimated by bad injury luck. Looney played in 61 games (that’s 20 more games than his teammates James Wiseman and Marquese Chriss combined). He also had 34 starts and averaged 19 minutes per game, both career highs. He also averaged a career-high 3.4 defensive rebounds per game.
Who woulda thunk Looney would be Golden State’s healthiest center in a pandemic-shortened NBA season riddled with injuries?
I was most proud of him during a dangerous stretch of basketball the Warriors had to survive during April when they were teetering on missing the play-in tournament. Two glorious moments stuck out for Dr. Tom and myself during that anxious time: Golden State’s victories over Denver on 4/12 and Philadelphia on 4/19.
In those two contests the under-the-radar Looney further cemented his importance to this franchise by performing defensive masterclasses on MVP candidates Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid.
Dr. Tom: Jokic definitely wasn’t great against Looney in that game (he was held to 3-of-8 shooting with 3 turnovers with Loon guarding him). Looney also had 11 rebounds (4 offensive boards).
But that Sixers game was a season-high in rebounds for Looney (15), a career-high in minutes (33), and he was a major factor in Embiid shooting 8-of-21 from the field. Embiid shot 4-of-14 with 2 turnovers when guarded by Looney.
Daniel: Sheesh, Embiid stoppers don’t grow on trees! This is a great example of how Looney was instrumental in Golden State’s top-5 defense. He basically destroyed Philly’s game plan at the point of attack in that clip.
Dr. Tom: And like… destroyed doesn’t even really cover it. It was just him: He was THE big man. Here’s Steve Kerr talking Looney’s defensive prowess:
“It’s using his length defensively. He rarely draws fouls. When he’s guarding the rim, he has a great way about going vertical, being in the right position in order to go vertical, and being able to defend without reaching.”
Being a lockdown big man for 30+ minutes in games against MVP-tier giants is asking a lot for someone who’s had durability issues and, though he’s very important, isn’t a “just leave him out there for most of the game” big man.
His game is obviously different from Jordan Poole and Eric Paschall but in a lot of ways the Looney model should be the one that those players follow (or the path that the Warriors take them on).
Daniel: Right, maximizing your time on the floor by mastering the system. Let’s go back for a second: Can you expound a tad on why he isn't a "just leave him out there" big guy?
Dr. Tom: Maybe I’m being too critical but if you’re a player who’s really just doing work around the rim your field goal percentage needs to be a bit higher-- he shot 54.8% from the field this season. In 2018-19 he shot 62.5% but that’s looking like more of an outlier.
I believe that’s partly due to the lack of a mid-range/catch-and-shoot game. He shot 39.1% from 5-9 feet and 35.7% from 10-14 feet. He was 65.9% from less than 5 feet. He doesn’t really take guys off the dribble or show a lot of post moves; which you don’t need to do if you’re playing more focused/limited minutes. But if you’re just out there for extended minutes as the only center option, you’ll have to do it at some point.
Daniel: Yeah looking at his shot chart it’s very clear that he’s a consistent threat only around the basket, although he occasionally surprises folks with a slick mid-range jumper.
He’s is an opportunistic scorer around the rim and will definitely try to eat on an offensive putback or if he's fed under the basket. But he's a relatively groundbound and undersized (6-foot-9) center who doesn’t explode through bigger defenders.
So if his defenders don't guard him from anywhere outside the paint and feel comfortable recovering to contest his shot since he’s not catching lobs or dunking with authority, Golden State’s spacing clogs up. Against better teams that are defensively connected that poor spacing makes it harder for the Warriors to score, especially with the jumpshot-reticent Draymond Green sharing the court.
Dr. Tom: I don’t think Looney is consistent enough on offense to be out there for extended minutes, even granting that you don’t need much more when you’ve got Steph and (eventually) Klay. But also playing… maybe not 4 on 5 but like… 4.5 on 5 can only work in focused stretches.
Daniel: Totally. But that brings us to Looney’s remarkable understanding of his base role: patiently helping his teammates who are shooters/scorers get efficient shots with brilliant screens and timely passes. Our own Apricot illuminated some of that earlier this season in an Explain One Play showing Looney operating out of the post split.
Dr. Tom: Looney finished with 197 screen assists (3.2 per game) that led to 493 screen assists points, slightly higher than Green’s 192 screen assists (3.0 per game) and 487 screen assist points.
I don’t like to use screen assists as evidence. It’s the same statistic that people more interested in spreadsheets than basketball use to convince us that Rudy Gobert is a dominant big man when we all know even the most mediocre 90s big man would absolutely dominate him.
Daniel: Hahaha wow!
Dr. Tom: Brad Daugherty and Rik Smits look at the league now and say “Damn, that’s all you have to do? And they’ll even invent statistics to make you look good?”
Of course, it helps when you’re setting screens for the greatest shooter of all time Stephen Curry to get those numbers.
Daniel: Remember that story from The Athletic that Looney wasn’t pleased with how the Warriors were setting screens and gave a private lesson along with Green?
There were multiple times this season where Looney stepped in as a veteran and directed the newer players on and off the court. Loon’s reminder to his teammates that they needed to pay more attention to feeding the ball to Curry went a long way towards helping the two-time MVP take his second scoring title.
Can you believe the #30 selection from the draft right after the first title of the Golden Empire is now a 25-year old two-time champion and “elder” statesman? Some guys might get mentally affected from being yo-yoed in and out of the starting lineup in favor of a wide-eyed rookie like Wiseman, but Loon was a true professional through it all.
Speaking of Wiseman, if you were in his position, what do you think you could learn from watching Looney this season?
Dr. Tom: One thing is that if you just do the basic things of the Warriors offense you’ll be put in good positions on the court. Wiseman should be looking at Looney and what he did this past season and say “if I just do those things, I’m going to be set up to succeed and then I can add in all of the other things I can do because I’m so talented”.
They obviously want more out of Wiseman than they do out of Looney but you’d still want your big to do some of those things because it fits so well within that system.
Daniel: One last question…
If Kevon Looney were a character on The Sopranos, who would he be?
Dr. Tom: Hmmmmm I mean he’s going to be one of the outside/peripheral guys, almost like a Bobby Baccalieri. Also like… kind of came out of nowhere to play a role in the family.
Daniel: Hahah LOYAL MEMBER OF THE FAMILY.
Okay Dub Nation, what impression did Looney leave you with this season?
Looney is the ultimate pro. He steadies the whole team.
Good win for the Jazz but I think the Clippers will win that series. I watched a lot of fatigue-related Ls for the Warriors this season and that's what I thought happened to the Clippers tonight. Cruised in the first half but then the 7 game series and altitude caught up with them against the fresher Jazz. Barely even saw Kawhi try to take over at the end, I don't think he had the legs. I think that might be why Lue used such a big rotation too.
Jazz definitely have one of the best playoff crowds. Hope Conley gets back soon.