STEVE KERR SAT in his Vancouver hotel room pining over one of his players during the Golden State Warriors‘ preseason trip to Canada in 2016.
He called assistant Chris DeMarco to his room, and the two sat and discussed their then-second-year center, Kevon Looney.
“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.
The team declined to exercise Looney’s fourth-year option before the 2017-18 season, which made him an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
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.
That conversation, those thoughts, now seem like ages ago for Kerr. And somewhat unbelievable given how crucial Looney has been for the Warriors — especially this season.
Now healthy, Looney is a two-time iron man, having played in all 82 games in consecutive seasons. He’s the third player in franchise history to grab at least 20 rebounds in multiple games in the same playoff series. He has found a voice for himself to become a leader off the court, as well. He is Golden State’s ultimate X factor.
“I think Loon [Looney] is one of the best centers in the league,” Kerr said after Game 7 of the Warriors’ first-round series against the Sacramento Kings. “I really do. People don’t recognize because he’s not dunking and shooting 3s and all that stuff. But this guy is a flat-out winner and he’s a machine.”
NEARLY TWO YEARS after Kerr and DeMarco had their conversation about Looney’s future, the Warriors found themselves in a 2018 Western Conference finals series against the Houston Rockets.
A fellow small-ball team that featured James Harden and Chris Paul, the Rockets thought Looney was a center they could switch their guards onto and have them cook. But what happened was the opposite.
Six minutes into the first quarter of Game 1, Looney got switched onto Harden. Harden stood just outside the 3-point line, quickly dribbling the ball between his legs, sizing Looney up and figuring out where he could whip by him. Harden took a jab step forward before quickly retreating. He passed the ball but immediately got it back. He tried again to whip by Looney. But once again, there was nowhere for Harden to go, as Looney mirrored his every move and made sure his hand was in Harden’s face when he launched a 3-pointer.
This moment and series finally showed how successful Looney could be for Golden State.
Looney came off the bench through the first two games of the series, but after Andre Iguodala injured his knee, Looney moved into the starting lineup. In Game 4, he was switched onto Paul. Like Harden, Paul tried to dance his way around Looney to the hoop. Like Harden, Paul didn’t find success. Everything had clicked.
“We finally realized, ‘Oh my god, he can switch,'” Kerr said. “That was the first time I was like, ‘Oh wait, now we see something.’ We already have all these other guys who can switch. So you put him at the 5 and he can switch onto a guard — he has that big body that fights for rebounds, now there is a place.”
That “aha” moment was one Looney had been working toward for years.
“I got tested at the highest levels in the biggest series,” Looney told ESPN. “I gained a lot of confidence in that series in myself, and I think my teammates and the staff really did, too.”
A big piece of the Warriors’ trust in Looney has come from his willingness to be low-maintenance on a team full of big personalities, do the dirty work and be flexible with whatever is asked of him.
“When you are part of a team and are watching guys sacrifice and do all the things to win, and it’s not just the guys at the end of the bench but the top players too, you fall in line,” Looney said. “Your ego doesn’t matter. During my first couple of years, I was hurt. I didn’t even play. So I just watched what it took to be a championship team. I learned that if Steph [Curry] is making sacrifices, my little ego doesn’t matter here. I learned that early and I kept that.”
The Warriors are famous for their small-ball lineups and elite shooting, so Looney has been dubbed the rebounder — their lone true center who clogs the paint and grabs any loose ball his 6-foot-9 frame and 7-foot-4 wingspan will allow him to.
His rebounding has steadily increased over the past two seasons, but it’s not a newly learned skill set. Coming into the league, Looney saw it as his best trait. He studied film with DeMarco on how to anticipate where the ball was going to bounce, and, most importantly, how to kick it out to Curry and Klay Thompson.
“Loon, more than anything, understood these are the things I need to do that are going to help this team win,” DeMarco told ESPN. “Creating more opportunities for Steph and Klay is going to give me minutes. It sounds simple, but it’s really difficult to do. … With Steph, his shooting is his elite skill. It’s the same with rebounding and Loon. It’s his elite skill.”
In the Warriors’ first-round series against the Sacramento Kings, Looney’s presence on the boards was instrumental, as he recorded three games with at least 20 rebounds. Nine of his 20 rebounds in Game 3 — played without Draymond Green (suspension) and Gary Payton II (illness) — came on the offensive glass. Looney also led the Warriors in assists (nine) as his teammates shot 9-for-9 on his passes. It was a performance that led Green to suggest he be the one to come off the bench in Game 4 once he returned from his suspension, instead of Looney.
In Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Lakers, Looney grabbed 23 rebounds. But since May 2, he has returned to the bench in order for the Warriors to counter the Lakers’ Anthony Davis.
The Warriors’ ability to rely on Looney to crash the boards and be OK with reduced minutes makes him even more important to the team.
“[Looney is] as tough as they come, but he just understands,” Kerr said. “He’s a realist. He sees things very pragmatically and understands you just do your best every day and the circumstances are what they are.”
THIS SEASON, LOONEY has taken it upon himself to be a mentor to his younger teammates. He sees himself as a bridge between the Warriors’ “two timelines” — at age 27, he’s a little older than the younger players such as Jordan Poole and Jonathan Kuminga but still younger than the veteran championship core.
“Now I am trying to pass that message to the new guys coming in — these guys are willing to do anything to win. You have to be willing to do the same,” Looney said.
As Golden State navigated last October’s fallout of Green punching Poole — an incident Kerr called the “biggest crisis” the team has dealt with since he was hired — the Warriors coach said Looney was instrumental in keeping the locker room together.
“He’s so quiet, that if you don’t pay attention you may not realize he has become the moral compass of our team,” Kerr said last fall following the punch.
That kind of leadership has advanced leaps and bounds since the days when Kerr said he had never even heard Looney speak.
His actions have gone somewhat unnoticed by Warriors fans until recently.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Looney said. Now hearing the “LOOOOON!” chants from the crowd is enough to make him feel appreciated.
And the gratitude he receives from his teammates is what keeps him going.
“I’m just happy for them to view me as their peer,” Looney said. “For me to come in as a young guy, I had to gain their trust and earn their respect. For me to be able to do that — and those guys are Hall of Famers, they’ll be remembered in basketball history forever — for me to be looked at as a peer, as a brother, that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”