SAN FRANCISCO -- Whether it's Chase Center, Madison Square Garden, the Alamodome or any other arena, Kevon Looney's pregame routine stays the same. The Warriors center waltzes onto the court and turns back the clock.
Before assistant coaches Dejan Milojevic and Hilton Armstrong put the big man through the ringer, Looney stands under the basket, steps with his left foot, lifts his right knee and finishes a right-handed layup. As the ball trickles through the net, Looney catches it, steps with his right foot, lifts his left knee and completes a left-handed layup. The mini one-man dance goes on and on.
The scene is Basketball 101 for a three-time champion. The title of what Looney is doing game after game is the Mikan Drill, something everybody goes through to a degree when they first start playing organized basketball.
Kevon’s father, Doug Looney, used to show him old clips of Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell battling each other. The man who showed his son the value of a hard day's work, often working two jobs himself in Milwaukee, is the same person who introduced a base floor that would let Looney climb to unthinkable heights.
"It was probably the first drill I did," Looney told NBC Sports Bay Area in the Warriors locker room after a win over the San Antonio Spurs on Jan. 13, a game in which he scored 14 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and missed only one of his seven shot attempts. "My dad had me out there, that's the first drill he had me doing. I've been doing it since first grade."
Armstrong and Milojevic are each fans of Looney starting his pregame routine with the Mikan Drill to get loose. Neither are as big of advocates of it as Ron Adams, who had finished his first season as a Warriors assistant when Golden State grabbed Looney with the last pick in the first round of the 2015 NBA Draft.
By the time Looney became a Warrior, Adams, now 75 years old, already had five-and-a-half decades worth of coaching to his name, having started his career at Fresno Pacific as an assistant in 1969. Looney was young but beat up at 19 years old when the Warriors drafted him, and he was joining the hottest new commodity in the NBA with Golden State fresh off winning its first championship in 40 years.
Once Adams got ahold of him, it was time to start at ground level again. Looney had no reservations there. The proof was right in front of him now.
“We started off with really basic stuff,” Adams said. “And the Mikan Drill, not only for big players but smaller players, is a really critical drill and there’s many variations of it. Basically it teaches you an awareness around the rim and it teaches dexterity with either hand and just the kinesthetic feel of the rim and backboard that I think you need. Kevon was always highly, highly coachable.”
“It just kind of confirmed all my teachings growing up, and even in the NBA they still want you to do it,” Looney said. “So I just kept it in my routine.”
The drill drew its origin from Hall of Fame center George Mikan, who learned it as a clumsy 6-foot-10 freshman at DePaul University under the tutelage of an innovative 28-year-old coach Ray Meyer. It has served as a centerpiece to skill sets for players big and small since the 1940s and will continue to long after Looney’s career ends.
Like a golfer gripping his club, a baseball player freshly taping his bat or a football player slipping on a new pair of gloves, for Looney, it’s all about feel. His hands used to be a weakness.
Through reps after reps, Looney has turned into a top-tier rebounder, he’s an artist at keeping plays alive by tipping off-target shots and now snatches passes that are hard to catch at a much-higher rate.
Part of that is starting with the basics, day by day by day.
“It just helps me get a feel for the ball,” Looney explained. “I get a lot of tough catches underneath the basket and I gotta be able to finish. It’s something I try to work on and just get warm and get my rhythm and get my touch right.
“A lot of layups aren’t easy, so I made sure my touch was right.”
Coming off the biggest contract of his career, a three-year, $22.5 million deal after being what Steve Kerr calls a “foundational piece” to the Warriors’ championship last season, Looney is going into the NBA All-Star break having his best season in his eight-year career. He’s averaging 6.8 points and 8.8 rebounds, playing 23.3 minutes per game, and has made 65.6 percent of his shots. All are new career highs.
His previous bests were 6.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 21.1 minutes per game -- all from a season ago. Looney had a 57.1 field goal percentage last season, and his previous high of 62.5 percent came in the 2018-19 season when he averaged 18.3 minutes per game. He has converted 75.6 percent of his attempts right around the rim, between zero and three feet from the basket.
When the Warriors drafted the 6-foot-9 Looney, they envisioned him becoming a small forward or power forward down the road. Now, standing shorter than a long list of centers around the NBA, he’s one of the most respected rebounders in basketball, especially on the offensive glass.
Looney is one of 14 players in the NBA to average 3.0 or more offensive rebounds per game this season, and ranks sixth in offensive rebound percentage and sixth in total rebound percentage, per the NBA’s advanced stats. Over the Warriors’ final three games before vacation mode kicked in, Looney grabbed 13 or more rebounds in three consecutive games for the first time in his career and became the first Warrior to do so since Draymond Green in April 2015.
Even the way he beat the buzzer in double overtime to beat the Atlanta Hawks on Jan. 2 was emblematic. Looney first fought for a misfired 3-point attempt from Klay Thompson and tried to tip it back in. He then grabbed his own miss and in an instant kissed the ball off the glass for the first walk-off win of his life. In the Warriors’ final home game before the break, Looney beat the buzzer by seizing another sailing three from Klay and gave Golden State two more points for a happy halftime to cap off a 42-point second quarter.
Does any of this surprise Kerr, who might be the leader of Looney’s fan club? Not in the slightest. He has been there every step of the way. The Warriors coach has long vouched for Looney’s value to the team. It was last season Kerr believes Looney made his biggest breakthrough rebounding and finishing around the rim, the season the Warriors’ center of the future and former No. 2 overall pick, James Wiseman, couldn’t play a single game due to complications from knee surgery.
“I think Dekki has really helped with that,” Kerr said. “But I think more than anything, Kevon just gets better and better each year because he’s smart and he understands the game. And each year, he’s adding a little bit to his game. He understands, I think now, angles to get to using his pump faking but then stepping through and getting to the other side of the rim, using the rim as his protection.
“Whereas early in his career, it was pump fake and go straight up. His footwork is much better now, which has led to more opportunities.”
If Kerr could sculpt a big man for his system, Looney’s brain would bring it to life. Along with his long list of other stats, he also is averaging a career-best 2.6 assists this season and only 0.5 turnovers per game, his best mark since becoming a regular starter. Monte Morris (5.4) is the only player in the NBA with a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Looney’s 5.3.
The Warriors as a whole allow the second-most turnovers per game, but not to Looney’s doing.
"Loon is such a breath of fresh air for this team,” Kerr said. “When you watch the tape, it makes sense. If nothing's there, he picks the ball up and he moves it on. And just making a jump stop and picking up the ball and moving it is one of the most important skills in basketball. It's why every basketball camp you go to, you do jump stops and pivot work and footwork. The power in that, it goes unnoticed by fans and players alike. But that's what Loon is to us. He'll catch, he'll pivot, he'll step through and finish or he'll move the ball on.
"The game is so simple when he's out there. And frankly, we need our other guys to learn from Loon. Loon … Loon is a godsend for us."
The Mikan Drill doesn’t simply serve as an aid in Looney’s on-court performance. In the days of praying to go viral, quick clips telling the whole story and being more interested in clout than counting rings, Looney's the antithesis. Kerr semi-sarcastically uses a Cheesecake Factory menu to best describe his center. Looney's the opposite of the spiral-bound eyesore.
Instead of skimming through pages and pages of growing hangry off indecision, Looney knows who he is and what he brings to the Warriors. Appetizer, dinner, dessert. Limitations can be a power, when used correctly.
Starting with a drill nearly as old as the game itself, Looney has built upon his game to become indispensable to a dynasty. Beginning at Level 5 gets you nowhere. A strong surface to strengthen does.
"The fundamentals are the most important thing in basketball," Looney said. "Once you get that down, then you can start doing all the stepbacks and all the fancy, pretty looking stuff. Until you learn the basics and the fundamentals, none of that stuff is going to work.
"I think that's huge for the kids to develop, and us too."
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Since Looney first joined the Warriors, the spotlight has belonged to the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, Andre Iguodala and other stars. Then there's Looney, whose career first was defined more by doubts and question marks than being a symbol of consistency.
Injuries derailed large chunks of the first six seasons in Looney's career. He eventually changed his diet and now is one of the first players on the practice court every day, going through yoga stretches to get his body right. The Warriors declined his fourth-year option before the 2017-18 season, signed him to a three-year, $15 million deal the next summer and then drafted who was supposed to be his replacement in 2020, all to see that experiment end as Looney has racked up his consecutive regular-season games played streak to 169 straight.
No matter what has been thrown at him, Looney has stayed the course. There have been needed changes, though the foundation has remained the same, earning him the highest honor from the Warriors' elder statesman.
"Of all the people I think I've ever coached, there's no one I respect any more than him," Adams said, echoing the words of many others.