Amongst the takeaways from the Warriors' loss to the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday was how Golden State struggled against Phoenix's size.
The Warriors are relying heavily on small-ball lineups -- as they have for the past several years -- and while they've found success against other top centers such as Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, Deandre Ayton proved to be a tall task.
Right now, Kevon Looney is the Warriors' only true center. And after struggling against the Suns on Tuesday, it's clear that Golden State will need a productive game from him Friday to beat Phoenix.
Everything Looney has done this season suggests he should be able to have a positive night. For the majority of the early season, Looney has been an unsung hero for the Warriors.
"It's not obvious what he does," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "He's not a guy who's going to wow you with his athleticism or shooting skill or anything. It's more subtle, what he does for our team. But we all recognize it because we've been watching it for years."
The most obvious attribute Looney brings to the Warriors is his presence on the glass. His team-high 6.6 rebounds per game is one of the reasons why the Warriors are the third-best rebounding team in the league.
"Within a game, it does kind of feel like a hot streak," Looney said about high rebounding games. He pulled down 17 against Minnesota a few weeks ago. "The ball starts to find you. Usually, when I start getting a lot of rebounds in the first quarter, I start usually getting a lot throughout the game. It's something that I focus on -- creating extra possessions for our team. It's big for me. This year we have a great rebounding team and that's something I take pride in."
But as Kerr said, most of the work Looney does won't make headlines. It's stuff that won't show up in the stat sheet and will only be reflected by his net rating. And even that doesn't fully capture how important Looney's role is to the Warriors.
"It's all the details in switching on the guards, it's boxing out, the physicality in the lane, vertically at the rim, setting screens offensively, always being in the right spot," Kerr said.
Looney's ability to switch onto guards is especially important for the Warriors in their matchup against the Suns and Chris Paul. The trick is to stay in front of Paul without fouling -- something that is easier said than done.
Looney is adept at shading ball-handlers and forcing them to beat him his way. Of course, he struggles against the quicker guards in the league, who force Looney into recovery mode.
But the good thing about Looney is that he understands how to compensate for his shortcomings -- most notably his speed -- with his IQ and positioning. His teammates also understand his limitations and help him out.
"He is a true anchor to this team," Juan Toscano-Anderson said. "Defensively, I mean, he's not getting all the steals, he's not getting all the seals or blocks and all that stuff, but he's definitely holding us down and we all know we can count on him. He knows this system inside and out. He knows his role, he knows guys' tendencies."
The last thing Toscano-Anderson mentioned -- the fact that Looney knows his teammates' tendencies -- is his biggest strength on the offensive end.
Sometimes it looks like Looney is moving in slow motion when making his way to the hoop, whether it's on a drive or even elevating for a dunk. It just feels slow.
But that's OK because the Warriors aren't looking for him to be a big-time scorer. He needs to be a helper.
"He knows how to play our style, knows how to pair with Steph (Curry) and Draymond (Green) and that's not easy for anybody to just pick up because it's pretty unique," Kerr said.
His screens are almost perfectly angled and held just long enough to take defenders out of the equation. Like Green, he knows exactly where Curry is going when the Warriors star is in relocation mode, and more often than not, Looney will successfully get him the ball.
Yet everything Looney does flies under the radar.
"I just don't think it's as sexy as people want it to be," Toscano-Anderson said of Looney's role.
And that's probably true. But, when facing a long team like the Suns, Looney's impact is apparent. The Warriors need his size.
Of course, the Warriors' loss to the Suns isn't just on him. But in a game that had viewers wondering if having the additional length of James Wiseman would have changed the outcome, the importance of Looney was highlighted.
Looney doesn't mind flying under the radar. He doesn't mind being a star in a role that doesn't get all of the attention. All he cares about is impressing the guys he plays for and with.
"My teammates give me a lot of credit, my coaches give me a lot of credit," Looney said. "So as long as they give me a chance, give me time to play, that's all I really care about."