SAN FRANCISCO -- Over his four-year career, Warriors big man Kevon Looney has assumed the role of the reclamation project.
In his first two seasons, hip surgeries limited him to 58 of a possible 164 games. By 2017, a strict diet and training regimen, combined with his ability to switch on defense, helped him become a key contributor on a championship team.
During this preseason, without playing a minute, Looney is assuming a new role: an indispensable defensive veteran.
With Looney sidelined by a hamstring injury, Golden State gave up more than 115 points per game in the exhibition slate. Now, back in the lineup, Golden State hopes his presence can bring badly needed defensive stability.
"We're thrilled to have Loon back," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Wednesday afternoon. "He's so important to what we do."
Looney's return comes as the Warriors find themselves in transition. With Klay Thompson's knee injury and eight new additions to the roster, the team has struggled to find a defensive identity. Through five preseason games, the Warriors posted a 108.6 defensive rating. In the preseason opener against the Lakers, they were outscored 66-36 in the paint, allowing 22 points and 10 rebounds to Anthony Davis.
"They one of the best teams in the league," Kerr said. "They're huge and so they really exposed a lot of our weaknesses."
Looney's importance to Golden State didn't come quick. Seven months into his rookie season, Looney underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right hip, his second in a span of a year.
In 2017, Looney traveled back to Los Angeles and trained with former UCLA Bruin Rico Hines. Out of shape from various injuries and a lack of playing time, Looney struggled during his first week back on campus. Throughout the summer, Hines ran Looney through a gauntlet of full-court pick-and-roll drills. During his first week, Looney routinely crumpled over after the 45-minute running sessions. By October, Looney had shed more than 30 pounds to take excess weight off his surgically repaired hips.
He came into training camp in the best condition of his career.
Eight months later, his talent came in handy against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference finals, when he posted a 91.7 defensive rating.
In last year's postseason, with Durant out with a calf injury, Looney was one of Golden State's best defenders, helping the team reach its fifth straight NBA Finals. The performance was enough for Golden State to sign the forward to a three-year, $14 million deal in the summer, making sure to keep the defensive anchor in the Bay.
To show Looney's importance to the team, Golden State sent owner Joe Lacob to his meeting in Los Angeles on the first day of free agency to seal the deal. With the new roster, Looney -- along with the Warriors-- finds itself in unfamiliar territory. No longer the prohibitive favorites to win the title, the team is filled with unproven young players surrounding remnants of a Hall of Fame core.
The new era has forced Looney, a man of few words, into a new task reserved for veterans.
"He talks defensively, he calls out schemes," Kerr said. "Three years ago he didn't say a word and he's learned talking is such a key component defensively, especially for the big guys because they're anchoring the defense, they're behind the play."
Looney has had the benefit of some great veteran teachers.
"Last couple years, we've had a lot of veteran presence," Looney added." From Andre [Iguodala] to Shaun [Livingston] to Zaza [Pachulia] to [David West], you've had guys like that who have seen every different type of coverage so now we've got a lot of young guys. We've got to learn through trial and error somewhat, so me being one of those guys that's been through a lot of things and I've had a lot of people to learn from."
On the eve of his fifth season, Looney has one more task to complete: Get back in basketball shape.
"It's not where I want it to be," Looney admitted. "Just because I haven't been able to play a lot of five on five but my body feels strong. I just have to get used to playing in game shape. "I've been able to ramp it up on the court and been doing a lot of off the court conditioning but I feel comfortable and I feel good enough to go out and play my minutes and be safe out there."