Kevon Looney's lifestyle change has allowed him to reach a new level

Kevon Looney's lifestyle change has allowed him to reach a new level

SALT LAKE CITY -- There was a time, not long ago, when folks around the NBA wondered if Kevon Looney's unforgiving hips could make it in the league. And the feeling among many Warriors fans was, well, that’s OK.

The Warriors drafted Looney nine days after winning their first championship in 40 years. They had Stephen Curry, their first MVP since moving to the West Coast in 1962. They had Steve Kerr, a coach in whom they could believe. They had Klay Thompson and Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes, none older than 25. The future looked bright.

If Looney, selected with the team’s No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft, didn’t work out, no problem. The Warriors, playing the high risk/reward game, were open about his challenges, conceding from the start that he was a risk due to damaged hips that might not withstand the rigors of the NBA.

Two years and two surgeries later, in 2017-18, Looney was a solid contributor as the team won its third championship in four seasons. He started at center in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

This season, as the Warriors chase their third consecutive championship, Looney clearly has a future in the NBA, probably with the team that drafted him.

“He’s just gained more confidence,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr says. “He’s more talkative; he’ll speak up in meetings. He knows he belongs. That’s really a key time in every player’s career, when you might make it the first couple years but you don’t really feel like you belong. He knows. He knows he belongs now. He’s going to have a long career, and a very productive one.”

Looney’s journey is about sheer perseverance and the highest levels of discipline. He always felt he could make it, so even in the darkest hours, when those surgically repaired hips were keeping him in the gym by day and awake at night, he never stopped believing.

“I know how far I’ve come,” he said. “It was frustrating coming back from the injuries. It was my first time going through something like that.”

Looney, 22, looked good last year. He still had a hitch in his gait, but he generally got where he needed to be. Through this training camp and the season opener on Tuesday night, he looks even better. The hitch is slight and he’s noticeably quicker.

The summer of 2017 was the first time he actually worked on his game, instead of going through rehab. The summertime is when most players seek to grow their games. After two seasons simply trying to get back to where he was, this was most encouraging.

But this past summer, spending endless hours in Los Angeles honing his game - even playing some one-on-one with teammate Kevin Durant -- is when Looney reached another level. It showed when the Warriors gathered in September.

“I’m excited about the growth I see in Loon,” Durant says.

“He had a great summer,’ Kerr says. “He looks great. For the second summer in a row, he’s put his body in position to perform at a high level. He’s been our best big in camp, and he had a fantastic first game.”

Looney played 18 minutes Tuesday night, finishing with 10 points and 10 rebounds. He was a team-best plus-23.

The single most significant factor in Looney’s progress was his devotion to conditioning. Seeing the results noted fitness trainer Amoila Cesar achieved with former Lakers forward Julius Randle, Looney reached out to Cesar in 2017, followed the regimen and came away with a new and far more sculpted physique.

A component of that is Looney developing a newfound dedication to diet, something that had been stressed earlier by veteran teammate Andre Iguodala, the team’s resident health nut.

“I wasn’t in shape my first two years,” Looney said. “I lifted hard, but I didn’t always eat right. I used to eat fast food a lot. I had to cut out fast food, cut back on most all fried foods, especially catfish and hot wings.

“Andre was telling me about this for two years, and I didn’t take it seriously until I had to.”

Looney dived into foods he once avoided. Kale. Spinach. Broccoli. Cauliflower. He rarely reaches for bread and even more rarely allows himself the guilty pleasure of his beloved flaming hot Doritos.

He doesn’t go to the dietary extremes to which Iguodala subjects himself -- no red meat, for example -- but Looney is reaping the benefits of a cleaner diet.

“I see something like that for Loon, and it’s got to be his routine -- but for the rest of his life,” Iguodala said. “I’m just trying to help him out.

“You don’t have to eat like me. But you have to be conscious of what you’re eating. You have to know yourself, know your body and know your DNA makeup. All of that plays a role into how long your career will be. You’ve got to have that in the back of your mind.”

When you sculpt your body well enough to go from the fringes of the NBA to a bright new future, it becomes easier to walk past the snack aisle at the grocery store.

The surgeries and lifestyle changes have erased all doubts about Looney having an NBA career. He’s past the can-he-make-it stage. He’s entering the how-good-can-he-be phase.

Which, at such young age, is a wonderful place to be.

Andre Iguodala's absence would hurt Warriors now but could help long term

Andre Iguodala's absence would hurt Warriors now but could help long term

OAKLAND -- Andre Iguodala did not participate in practice Thursday and is questionable for the game Friday night at Utah, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

If Iguodala is unable to play, Kerr will have go deeper into a bench with several untested players. That’s in stark contrast to what Iguodala brings as a veteran with a knack for stabilizing the team at both ends.

“If he doesn’t play, that really affects everything,” he said. “But we’ll play a lot of people, like we usually do.”

Another concern is that the next two games, against the Jazz, and in Denver against the Nuggets, are at altitude. Iguodala’s absence, due to tightness in his left calf, would shorten the rotation considerably when players are needed most.

As it is, Kerr is indicated that the team is still getting into “game shape,” which could be an issue in Salt Lake City and Denver.

“The altitude will be interesting,” he said. “It’s one way of getting over the hump, I guess, is go to 6,000 feet or whatever it is.”

The altitude in Salt Lake City is a little more than 4,200 feet, with Denver another 1,000 feet higher.

Whereas Iguodala usually is the first player off the bench, that role likely falls to veteran Shaun Livingston, who brings similar size with slightly different skills. Livingston, however, is most effective when playing between 15 and 20 minutes.

That would open the door to playing time for Alfonzo McKinnie, whose strong preseason earned him a spot on the roster, as well as rookie Jacob Evans III.

“I’m going to throw everybody out there at some point,” Kerr said. “If Andre’s not playing, you’ll see Alfonzo out there a little bit more. Whatever the game calls for. But I’m not afraid to put anybody out there.”

The Warriors can only play those that are healthy. They’d like it if Iguodala can suit up. If he can’t, there will be some strange lineups featuring some new faces.

That might not be good for the games this weekend, but it should pay off over the course of the season.

Damian Jones is 'going to learn a lot' vs. next two Warriors opponents

Damian Jones is 'going to learn a lot' vs. next two Warriors opponents

OAKLAND -- The strenuous introduction of Damian Jones to the NBA that began Tuesday continues this weekend, when he makes his second and third career starts against two more top-10 centers.

The 7-foot center goes against Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert on Friday, when the Warriors face the Jazz in Salt Lake City.

And then on Sunday, when the Warriors go to Denver, Jones gets a load of Nuggets big man Nikola Jokic, perhaps the most comprehensively skilled center in the league.

“We’re going to stay with DJ. I don’t know for how long, but we’ll stay with him,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We have Gobert and Jokic coming up on this road trip. He has the size and the athleticism to deal with them.

“He’s going to learn an awful lot. To come out of the gates and face these centers, he’s seeing the best. It’s great for him. We’ll start him and see what happens.”

It’s not as if Kerr has much choice. Jones towers over the team’s other centers. He’s got three inches on Kevon Looney and almost four on Jordan Bell. Jones is maybe two inches taller than DeMarcus Cousins, who is not close to being cleared to play.

It’s Jones, by default and by logic, even if he is the team’s least experienced big man.

Jones made his first career start on Tuesday against Oklahoma City and entered with a plan. No way he could grapple with Steven Adams, conceivably the NBA’s top wrestler, so Jones used the one element where he had an advantage: Athleticism.

Phase I was successful. Jones and Looney made a positive impact, helping the Warriors beat the Thunder in the season opener.

What looms now is at least as challenging. Both games are on the road. Both are at altitude. And Gobert and Jokic are very different from each other -- and neither is much like Adams, either.

This is where the lessons of the past come in. Jones didn’t play much in his first two seasons, but his ears were filled with advice from veterans Zaza Pachulia and David West. Both are gone, replaced by a new source of wisdom: DeMarcus Cousins.

“I talk to DeMarcus about it. He’s been around, so he knows,” Jones said.

“He’s always taking him aside, giving him pointers, building his confidence up,” Stephen Curry said of Cousins.

“DJ is that one guy in our lineup that doesn’t have the experience so everyone is in his ear telling him this, telling him that, almost over preparing him,” Draymond Green said. “But for him to take in the information he needs to take in and also stay locked in on the task at hand is important.”

At 7-1, Gobert is the tallest center -- with the broadest wingspan (7-9) -- in the league. He’s a lob threat on offense. Defensively, he takes particular pride in protecting the rim, so he rarely strays from the paint. Jones is more agile than Gobert, though, so he’ll have to find a way to use that.

Keep a body on Gobert at one end, put him in the pick and roll on the other.

Jokic, at 7 feet, is all over the place. He’s not the strongest defender. He is, however, the slickest passing big man in the NBA; the Nuggets have sets in which they run their offense through him. Jokic comfortable on the low block, the high post, the top of the key and even launching from deep. He took 280 triples last season and made them at a rate of 39.6 percent.

Though Jones will start, there is no question Kerr will toss a variety of looks at Jokic. Looney could get more minutes. Jordan Bell will also be in the mix.

But the spotlight shines mostly on Jones.

“I’ll learn a lot,” Jones said of Phases II and III of his ongoing test.

Yes, he will. It might help when Jones moves into Phase IV next week. One night after facing Jokic in Denver, the Warriors return to Oakland to play the Phoenix Suns and impressive rookie center Deandre Ayton.