It would have been easy for Nico Mannion to see his plane ticket to the G League bubble in Orlando as the start of his NBA career going awry. In a little over a year, Mannion had gone from elite prospect to second-round draft pick now on his way to the G League so he could get some time on the floor.
For a 19-year-old kid who is used to being at the top, that's a hard pill to swallow. But the Warriors didn't want Mannion to think he was being discarded after just six brief NBA appearances. They were honest with him and wanted him to know they still viewed him as a player with a bright NBA future. But in order to actualize that future, he must first get on the court and the G League bubble was the perfect place for that to happen.
“It means a lot," Mannion told reporters Wednesday of the Warriors' investment in him. "I could tell that they are bought in with me. They care about me as a player and a person. To start off, that’s really important for me. As a player, especially as a young player, your goal isn’t to go to the G League. But they kind of pointed out that it’s not a demotion and it’s more in the sense of development. If I can’t get minutes here it’s good for me to down there and just get a feel again. That’s how I looked at it. Just saw it in a positive way and they kind of helped me see it that way.
"They were great about it. Most of the guys, the players, the coaching staff were all watching, shooting me texts here and there, giving me calls every once in a while and just making sure I was good and telling me what they are seeing. All in all, it was a really positive experience and I’m really glad I did it. I feel a lot better now than I did before.”
Mannion arrived in Golden State with a lot of hype for a second-round pick. He reportedly told teams to keep passing on him in the draft once his slide began, believing the Warriors would be the perfect landing spot for him.
Of course, at 19 and with just one season of college basketball under his belt, the Warriors didn't plan on Mannion serving as Steph Curry's primary backup during his rookie season. Whatever they got from Mannion during this 72-game season played during a global pandemic would be a bonus. They wanted him to spend the year getting his feet wet, learning the speed of the NBA game and soaking up knowledge from the veterans he was surrounded by.
Mannion went to the G League bubble and thrived for the Santa Cruz Warriors. In nine games, Mannion averaged 19.3 points and 6.9 assists per game while shooting 40.5 percent from the field and 36.5 percent from 3-point range.
He was recalled, along with Jordan Poole before the Sea Dubs' season ended as the Warriors look to add depth and possibly shakeup their struggling second unit. Mannion returns to Golden State in a better place than when he departed.
“I’m very confident right now, coming into this," Mannion said. "Like I said I think that was the biggest thing for me was the experience because I think it had been 11 months since I played big minutes in a game. It’s hard to get into a rhythm and a flow in just practice and workouts. So being able to go down there and play those games, it was huge for me.
"I don’t know if I got a lot better but I feel way more comfortable. So I’m definitely going to be a better player just because of the comfortability factor. I’m more comfortable on the floor.”
Both Mannion and Poole cleared COVID protocols and will be available Wednesday night when the Warriors face the Portland Trail Blazers at Moda Center.
Steve Kerr told the media Tuesday that it's likely both Poole and Mannion will see time either Wednesday or Thursday when the Warriors finish the first half of their season in Phoenix against the Suns.
The Warriors signed Brad Wanamaker in the offseason to be the backup point guard, and while he has been able to get everyone in the right place in order to initiate the offense, he doesn't bring the ability to create that Kerr is looking for in the second unit. The Warriors hoped Andrew Wiggins would fill that role, but his recent offensive slump has put the Warriors' second-unit struggles into even greater light.
There's no reason to expect Mannion to return from the G League bubble and be thrust into Kerr's rotation. But he arrives feeling more like himself, with his NBA legs stronger and his confidence booming.
The Warriors were watching every second Mannion logged in Orlando. They messaged and called him to talk about certain aspects of his game, and he's looking forward to being able to pick the brains of Curry, Green and others more as he waits for his opportunity.
The future very well could be bright for Mannion. The Warriors believe in his ability and see him as a long-term fixture on the roster. They wanted him to see the floor, find his game and rediscover the belief in himself in the G League bubble.
He returns with all that accomplished, hoping to provide whatever is necessary to a Warriors team in the thick of the playoff race.