clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Kevon Looney thrives in performing the unnoticed work

The unnoticed has suddenly become much more noticeable — and highly appreciated.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Occasionally, one’s value as a basketball player comes from barely being noticed.

Kevon Looney doesn’t mind that he’s not the featured player in any of the lineups he’s inhabiting. In most of those configurations, he’s probably the fifth scoring option. He can’t create his own shot; his limited footspeed and athleticism as a relatively small five doesn’t even profile him as an ideal play finisher.

By default, Looney is often considered the “dirty work” man as well as the person who’s tasked for “cleanup” duty. Setting screens isn’t the most glamorous job description in basketball, but someone has to do it. Boxing out and clearing space for yourself or for your teammates to get a rebound is a thankless job.

Those are skill sets people will most likely notice you failing to do them — and get on your case rather voraciously — instead of acknowledging you being successful and good at them (e.g., James Wiseman).

But there’s a reason Warriors fans rarely complain about Looney: because all the things the Warriors have needed from him, wanted from him, and have come to expect from him are being met — with a couple of bonuses to boot.

Looney has paid his dues and proven his worth. He’s most likely reached his ceiling, that of a role player limited in doing a few things and nothing more. But what has made him such a beloved figure in the organization and the fandom is precisely those few things that he can do — and that he can do those things pretty damn well.

In many ways, him being able to nail his role down to a tee frees his more featured teammates to do what they do best. Need a ball screen to free Steph Curry up for a pull-up or drive to the rim? Need someone to set a split-cut screen for Jordan Poole or Klay Thompson? Need someone who can switch on the perimeter to allow Draymond Green to roam as a help-side defender? Need someone to box out for Andrew Wiggins to fly in for a rebound?

A one-size-fits-all solution to every scenario above is everything Looney can provide.

His 7.7 rebounds per game is on track to surpass his career high of 7.3 last season. His 2.4 offensive boards per game is just a shade under his career mark. Always at the right place at the right time, Looney makes up for physical and athletic shortcomings with an impeccable sense of timing and positioning:

Looney competes with Green on a nightly basis as the team’s best screen setter, which makes them natural screening partners for Curry, Thompson, and Poole. The synergy Looney has developed with the Warriors’ movement shooters was cultivated upon his own capability as a fundamental screener.

He has an astute understanding of screening angles. He times his screens perfectly — when and how long they should be set to impede the defender’s progress. That makes him not only an excellent traditional pick setter on ball-screen actions, but also allows him to act as a handoff hub on several of the Warriors’ freelance sets they’re so fond of running:

Looney has even shown flashes of something that Green has been unquestionably elite at: short-roll passing.

Looney is averaging career marks in assists per game (2.9) and assist rate (15.8%), a testament to the evolution of his role within the Warriors. He’s far from being the young injury-riddled version of himself that wasn’t tasked with a heavy burden of decision making and processing; nowadays, he’s become an indispensable hub and connector.

What has arguably made him stay on the floor, however, has been his defensive chops. Again, his limitations in terms of physical gifts prevent him from reaching the highest echelons of NBA defense. He won’t be winning selections to All-Defensive teams because of those limitations.

But there’s no shame in being a tier below that, not when there are other high-level defenders occupying the same floor as him. Doing his job on defense and doing it well has highly contributed to his staying power.

Defensive versatility is the name of the game for the Warriors, and while Looney doesn’t aesthetically profile as a versatile anchor, he makes fools out of everyone who thinks he’s nailed to only one or two coverages. He can play drop and navigate the middle ground perfectly. He can go up to the level of the screen; he can hedge and recover.

He has shown that he can switch out on the perimeter and defend shifty and crafty ball handlers. Faster guards can blow past him and attack his front foot, but Looney rarely ever gets beaten by trickery and guile. His well of discipline is near-bottomless:

Even without Curry, Green, and Wiggins, Looney did his job and did what he was supposed to do: thrive in performing the unnoticed work. But without three of the Warriors’ main stalwarts, the unnoticed was suddenly thrust into the limelight.

It’s impossible to ignore a near triple-double: 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists against the Philadelphia 76ers. Looney would be the first to tell anyone that such stats don’t matter, especially when the Warriors failed to garner a victory.

But to acknowledge work that’s gone under the radar and has been mostly underappreciated is to acknowledge the value Looney brings to the team every time he dons a Warriors uniform. It’s to affirm that the main man in the middle is no longer being taken for granted, that he is being given the praise and due flowers he has been deserving of all this time.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Golden State of Mind Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of Golden State Warriors news from Golden State of Mind