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It’s time to give Kevon Looney his deserved flowers

He’s not the ideal center, but one the Warriors have often counted on.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Golden State Warriors Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Every team needs at least one player who flies under the radar and does everything on the margins.

Kevon Looney still hasn’t gotten all the flowers he truly deserves. His talent pales in comparison to his more acclaimed and celebrated teammates. He has a two-time MVP on his team in Stephen Curry, with another All-Star in Klay Thompson. Draymond Green is the superior defensive talent and offensive playmaker.

Even the discussions surrounding the youth movement has shoved Looney to the sidelines in several ways. Jordan Poole’s potential as an explosive scorer and secondary playmaker has been monitored closely. Jonathan Kuminga’s faster-than-expected development is drawing plenty of eyes.

Most importantly, the status of James Wiseman — the man widely expected to supplant Looney as the Warriors’ number-one center someday — has garnered more attention this season.

When examined through the lens of raw statistics, it’s not surprising why Looney doesn’t receive enough attention. His 6.2 points per game is on track to become the second-highest mark of his career. He’s hauling down 7.2 rebounds per game, a career high. His 1.6 assists per game is also on track to become the best mark of his career.

He’s not exactly stuffing the stat sheets in a manner befitting a number-one center. But the Warriors have been completely fine with Looney being a well-fitting piece of the puzzle, rather than the keystone that serves as their foundation.

Perhaps the number one factor that determines a role player’s success on the Warriors is how well he can play off of Curry. Shooters are a given; the spacing they provide allows Curry to operate with room, while Curry’s gravity in turn provides them with the requisite breathing room to drill their shots.

Non-shooters, on the other hand, must be cognizant of the fact that defenses won’t pay them much heed when Curry’s presence suctions attention away. If your outside shooting leaves a lot to be desired, you must be able to set screens, combine with Curry on two-man actions, be a playmaking hub, or take advantage of cutting lanes that are created by Curry.

When the topic of well-fitting pieces comes up, Looney should receive consideration as the face of such a concept. His fit with Curry isn’t as lauded as Curry’s fit with Green, but he serves as a sufficient substitute. Looney is a capable roll man, especially on empty side screen-and-roll actions; Curry drawing two around the screen often provides Looney with an open roll lane.

Whenever he’s placed in the role of being the decision maker on the short roll during 4-on-3 situations, don’t count Looney out when it comes to making the correct reads. While he’s not on Green’s level in that department, he’s shown on more than one occasion that he has the decision-making chops to know when to attack on the roll and when to pass to a cutter or roamer in the dunker spot.

On-ball screens are one-half of Looney’s value as a Curry partner. His off-ball down screens are famous (or infamous if you’re a stakeholder from opposing teams) in terms of how rock solid they are, especially during the Warriors’ bread-and-butter low-post split action.

It’s often mind boggling how opposing bigs are slow to react to an action that everyone and their mother knows the Warriors are going to run, but their mindset of dropping back against a non-scoring and shooting threat such as Looney allows the Warriors big man to wipe out Curry’s defender on splits.

Among 174 players who have played at least 35 games this season and who average at least 20 minutes per game, Looney is 21st in terms of screen assists per game (2.9) and 20th in points generated from screen assists (7.4) — a testament to his synergy with an elite movement shooter in Curry, and marks that should be higher, given how Curry’s scoring efficiency and shooting success have taken significant nosedives.

Looney’s value on offense isn’t limited to screen-and-roll actions and off-ball down screens; he also has been an offensive rebounding machine this season. He has rebounded 13.1% of the Warriors’ misses this season — an offensive rebound percentage (ORB%) that overwhelmingly leads the team. Among 174 players who have played at least 35 games and who average at least 20 minutes, Looney’s ORB% is third overall.

Being the clean-up man is often a thankless and unglamorous job. Looney is there to wipe away misses; his positioning under the rim and timely jumps make up for his lack of height and verticality. At minimum, it gives the Warriors an extra possession; at most, it places Looney in a position to go up for put-backs and add to the Warriors’ second-chance-points tally.

On the other end of the floor, Looney’s far from being a bona fide rim protector — he hasn’t averaged at least one block per game during an entire season, and his career average of 0.6 blocks leaves a lot to be desired — but in the same way that he’s solid as a connector on offense, he’s also solid as a defender who doesn’t exceptionally stand out, but who’s just there.

He survives in a variety of conservative pick-and-roll coverages such as drop and meeting ball handlers at the level of the screen, especially when partnered with a capable on-ball defender who can stay attached to the ball handler.

Looney isn’t going to break up many lob attempts by virtue of being largely ground bound. He’ll also get blown by at times when he operates within that precarious space between the ball handler and the roll man.

But he’s astute enough to maintain his presence within that space, which gives ball handlers enough pause to hesitate, resulting in passing windows getting shut and ball handlers being forced to go up for a jumper or floater, which Looney has often contested decently.

Looney is arguably the most deceiving perimeter-defending big in the league. His slow feet and lack of overall speed make him a common target on switches. Ball handlers are keen on drawing him out toward the perimeter and isolating, thinking they have the advantage.

As is the case when he’s defending the pick-and-roll, Looney isn’t perfect when defending a switch. He’ll get blown by against overwhelming quickness and athleticism. But he does seem to do better against shiftiness and trickery. Hesitations and handles don’t seem to faze him. He rarely bites against fakes, a testament to his seemingly endless well of defensive discipline.

Just ask Bojan Bogdanović on the possession below:

With the Warriors’ general preference for small-ball lineups — most of them with Green at center — Looney has seen more minutes on the bench (1,293) than on the floor (973) this season, despite being their starting center. That is understandable, given that at their utmost best, the Warriors’ combination of speed, spacing, and playmaking with a small lineup — all of which are traits that a generational player such as Green provide — are what has made them elite.

But Looney is no slouch when he’s on the floor. The Warriors outscore opponents by eight points per 100 possessions during those minutes. They are nearly six points per 100 possessions better on offense with Looney as the five, some of which can be attributed to his value as a screener in an offense that heavily counts on off-ball screening to free up its shooters.

Looney may not get enough praise for his blue-collar work. But the team appreciates his value and his fit within the system — which may be the reason why they aren’t keen on looking for another big man on the market.

He’s not the most athletic and the most eye-popping, nor is he even the best big man on his team. He’s most likely hit his talent ceiling, one that is nowhere near as high as the young man the team is grooming to replace him.

But Looney just fits. He’s almost always at the right place at the right time. It’s not sexy or aesthetically pleasing — but most of the time, it’s winning basketball.

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