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.