'23 Season Review: Kevon Looney relishes doing the dirty work
Is Looney the greatest center of the Steve Kerr Era?
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”.
Kevon Looney 2022-2023 stats: 7.0 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 2.5 AST, 63% FG% (career high)
Daniel: When Kevon Looney was drafted in 2015 in the first round, I had guessed he would be long, rangy stretch-4 who could defend multiple positions and get buckets.
Instead in his early years he was looking like a cautionary tale of a guy whose body was betraying him before his career got going, as he was beset by chronic injuries to his hips. Anytime you hear “hip surgery” and “basketball player’s future” it’s never a good look. But don’t take my word for it, just ask his head coach Steve Kerr:
"I don't know if he's going to make it in the league," Kerr told ESPN as he recalled the conversation.
Repeating that sentence out loud hurt Kerr. He had been a longtime advocate for Looney since he was drafted No. 30 overall out of UCLA by the Warriors in 2015.
Given Looney's injury history -- he played just five games his rookie season and 53 his sophomore season -- and the fact that he couldn't play more than 20 minutes a game and was limited in practices because of hip surgery, Kerr had to ponder moving on from the big man.
But Looney and the Warriors kept their relationship together, and Looney has made good on the hopes the Dubs had when the first selected the Bruin.
In fact, Looney’s emergence as one of the greatest rebounders and defenders in the game today is a major reason the Dubs jettisoned the 7-foot #2 overall draft pick James Wiseman who was supposed to supplant the less athletic Looney at the center position. But the 6-foot-9 Looney can single handedly alter games with his phenomenal screening, defensive versatility, and rebounding grit.
Dr. Tom: The 2022 playoffs was when Looney really began to level up as a “complete” player, in my mind at least. It’s when he stopped being one in a rotation of centers to the center. The 2022-23 season continued that arc that began with the 2022 championship. He was someone who had to be accounted for, someone who you counted on to make contributions that led to wins rather than being surprised.
The two games against the Philadelphia 76ers, when he was matching up against league MVP Joel Embiid, really showed that. Now, I must note that the Warriors did lose the game in Philadelphia, but they were playing without Curry, Green, and Wiggins. The fact that they kept it close was pretty remarkable.
Looney’s defensive work on Embiid was about as good as you could ask for. Embiid did get his points, but he had to do a lot of it from the free-throw line/only shot 47.8% from the field in that game. When you’re matching up against the eventual MVP, you know you’re not going to stop him but if you can make him really work then you’ve done a good job. Looney, meanwhile, finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and a season-high 9 assists. Looney isn’t just one of the centers they can use. He can be the center that Kerr’s offense really demands, specifically in terms of the center as a distributor of sorts.
Daniel: I love that point about Looney’s impact on the passing game and I want to get back to that (like this 9 assist game here).
But on the topic of his defense: Looney is undersized against the behemoths like Embiid and Nikola Jokic, and is a disadvantage athletically against superfreaks like Anthony Davis. That’s why Dub Nation has been clamoring for a BIG big man for years. But despite Loon’s physical weaknesses, he somehow finds a way to get his work done.
AND he’s also switching out on to the perimeter to cause issues for quicker ball handlers. Check out the matchup data from the regular season when Looney was a primary defender on these stars:
Damian Lillard 7-of-19
Trae Young 7-of-17
Luka Doncic 7-of-17
Giannis Antetokounmpo 4-of-13
This dude is hella good at making things difficult for the opposition despite his lack of overt physical gifts. And he’s a monsterrr when it comes to rebounding.
Dr. Tom: Looney had 17 rebounds in that win against the Cavaliers in Cleveland when Steph, Klay, Draymond, and Wiggins all sat out! He also had 20 rebounds (including 10 offensive rebounds) in a double overtime win over the Atlanta Hawks.
Daniel: I’d have to call this Hawks game probably the quintessential Loon game I’ll remember from last year’s regular season. In a slog against a mid Hawks team, the Warriors kept shooting themselves in the foot with turnovers and bad shots. But Loon Dawg was there to clean up the glass time and time again, finally being rewarded for his hustle and grit with a monster effort play winning the game for the Dubs.
“When you first came to the league, usually when you get an offensive rebound, you are taught to just go back up and try to get your own points. But I remember Ron Adams kept yelling at me to kick it out, we have Steph Curry and Klay on our team, pass it to them. And it’s been working for me and gives them a lot of opportunities to give them open shots.”
Looney led the league in offensive rebounds during the regular season (274) and the Warriors scored a league-best 349 points off the second-chance opportunities he created.
Waittt Loon LED THE LEAGUE IN OFFENSIVE REBOUNDS?! Let me confirm using advanced scientific data research from Stat Muse:
Marcus Thompson II of the Athletic reported on Looney’s prowess on the boards:
“Rebounding is something that I’ve always enjoyed,” Looney said. “Just getting down in the paint and getting physical and doing the dirty work. … I made a lot of strides this year. I feel like I’ve always been pretty good at it. I always have my moments. But this year I’ve been way more consistent, and really more locked in on it, and that’s been able to make a difference.”
What Milojević, the 45-year-old Serbian basketball lifer, has done is build on Looney’s rebounding talent. Though grabbing boards is often branded as a matter of desire, Milojević believes it’s a skill like any other. He takes pride in saying the big men he’s worked with, most notably Nikola Jokić, are good rebounders. Milojević definitely noticed how Wiseman collected 15 rebounds in 42 minutes over two games in his G League stint.
One of the key elements is positioning. What many would call an intangible nose for the ball is to Milojević simple math big men can learn. They look at film, and data, pay attention to ball trajectory — all with the idea of getting Looney an early beat on where the ball is going.
Dr. Tom: Looking at Looney’s splits, you can see the connection (it’s slight but it’s there) between his rebounding and the games the Warriors won. Looney’s rebounding, which is so important for this team that elsewhere is so undersized, was what led to wins.
Look at the game against the Boston Celtics on December 10th, 2022. Looney has 15 rebounds, including a season-high 12 defensive rebounds. They dominated the Celtics, who finished the season as a top-ten rebounding team, on the glass in that game AND the Warriors were without Andrew Wiggins for that game.
Remember the March 11th 2023 game against the (admittedly, Giannis Antetokounmpo-less) Milwaukee Bucks? You see Looney finishing with 15 rebounds (including 7 offensive rebounds) in a really needed Warriors win.
Daniel: Looney had 9 games during the regular season where he had at least 15+ rebounds. That’s tied for 12th best in the league with Deandre Ayton, and more such instances than Evan Mobley (7 games) or Joel Embiid (5 games).
During the playoffs Looney had 5 such games, ranking only behind Anthony Davis (6 games) and mega big man Nikola Jokic (8 games). We went from not knowing if Looney would even be able to stay on the court because of injury issues to watching him dominate the boards with a rarified fury.
And if we’re looking at Golden State players since the ‘99-’00 season (combining regular and post season stats) Looney ranks sixth in total games with 15+ rebounds, right behind Danny Fortson at 23.
And all that dominant rebounding absolutely translates to the postseason. Just ask Domanatas Sabonis, this year’s anointed rebounding champion of the NBA and 7-foot-1 brute who loves to get physical in the paint. Looney swarmed Sabonis at every turn, limiting the All-Star to 26-of-55 shooting (47%) and 11 turnovers in their matchup.
Looney averaged 15.1 rebounds (!) in that 7-game series while Sabonis could only muster up 11 boards per game. Sabonis was routinely on the wrong end of the fight on the glass when Loon was around. Here’s what Sacramento fan favorite publication The Kings Herald had to say:
Domas will be the subject of a lot of scrutiny in the days and weeks to come. He finished with a respectable stat line of 22 points, 7 assists, and 8 rebounds, but most of that production came in the first half and in garbage time with the game already out of reach. Sabonis struggled this entire series against Kevon Looney.
It’s a difficult line to walk when discussing Sabonis, because his shortcomings were a big reason the Kings lost this series. But Sabonis’ play this year is also a huge part of why the Kings were the 3 seed to begin with. Sabonis is critical to Sacramento’s success, this was just a terrible matchup and a terrible series for him
TERRIBLE MATCHUP YOU SAY??
Check out this excerpt from the SF Gate detailing how Looney crushed Sabonis’ will to help the Warriors vanquish the Kangz:
Domantas Sabonis was an All-Star and the fulcrum of a historically great offense this year. Compared to Kevon Looney, though, that’s nothing.
Sabonis was outperformed at nearly every turn by Looney throughout this first-round series. Save for his 24-point performance in Game 2, the 26-year-old was quiet in part due to the defense that the Dubs’ frontcourt put on him, but mostly because of Looney’s astounding rebounding abilities that kept Sabonis off the defensive glass.
Nowhere was that more pronounced than in the Warriors’ 120-100 victory in a do-or-die Game 7. The two big men engaged in a box-out battle whenever a shot went up in the air, with Looney emerging as the victor almost every time. This wasn’t just one big man dominating another, this was the Dubs’ iron man outclassing the damn rebounding champ.
In the third quarter alone, the Warriors had 13 offensive rebounds, and Looney was responsible for seven of them. That stretch more than earned him half-cheeky comparisons to established Gods of the Glass, whether Dennis Rodman or “late 70s Moses Malone crossed with UCLA Bill Walton.” At one point on ESPN, broadcaster Mark Jackson even criticized Sabonis for face guarding Looney, saying, “This is not Wilt or Moses Malone,” though the Sacramento star might have been forgiven for thinking that.
Big Loon is anything but fragile.
Dr. Tom: I know it was surprising for Kings fans and the Sacramento press, but people who’ve actually watched the Warriors weren’t shocked by this at all. I knew Looney was going to be able to diminish Sabonis’ effect on the game. Sabonis is a star player and he’d still be able to get some of his numbers. But Looney was going to make sure that was not going to be how the Kings could win the series. It wasn’t a pleasant surprise. You knew it was how things were going to play out.
Daniel: I know we’re spilling a lot ink gushing over Loon’s impact from a defensive and rebounding standpoint, but I promised I’d get back to talking about what he’s doing on the offensive end. Loon isn’t going out and scoring 40 points a game from his position, but in Coach Kerr’s offense that’s not his job.
He’s got the Splash Bros and Andrew Wiggins orbiting around him while Draymond Green orchestrates as a point-forward. Loon’s biggest job is wiping out defenders with physical screens, making correct passes when the ball gets into his hands, and finishing with touch around the rim when he does get it in scoring position.
Did you know that Steph Curry shot 36-of-72 from beyond the arc this past season when he shot after receiving a Looney pass? That’s 50%! Loon’s got some magic on his passes.
Dr. Tom: One of the main things that kicked off this Warriors run in 2013 was the trade for Andrew Bogut and thus he became the kind of… ideal of the dynastic Warriors center (at least to start a game/not counting the Death Lineup or the Hamptons 5).
But… is Kevon Looney the best singular center the Warriors have had in this run? Now, I think the Zaza/McGee/Looney mix-and-match in 2018 was the best platoon they had. But in terms of one singular center, has Looney surpassed Bogut? Though this season didn’t end the way we all wanted, seeing Looney continue the trajectory that really started with the 2022 title has me thinking it might be him over Bogut.