It’s a rare thing whenever the unsung moments suddenly become everyone’s favorite hit song.
But it’s happening right before our very eyes in the form of Kevon Looney, the Golden State Warriors’ undersized, 6-foot-9-inch center who has little athleticism to compensate for his lack of size at his position.
In the NBA, that unfortunate combination can quickly eat players up and send them to the doldrums of the league — or worse, it can entirely boot them out of it. If they don’t find themselves useful soon enough, the unforgiving nature of the best pro league in the world can cause them to be forgotten expeditiously.
In order to survive in the league with the chips stacked against you in terms of natural gifts, you have to be able to specialize in one thing and make it your trademark. In the case of Looney, that one thing happens to be a knack for knowing where the ball’s going to be once it misses the rim.
The phrase “nose for the ball” is often used to describe those who have an uncanny talent for anticipating the bounce of the ball on the rim and being at the right place to haul it in. In this series, Looney has the biggest proverbial nose of them all — and Game 5 against the Sacramento Kings proved to be no different.
Looney’s final stat line of four points, 22 rebounds, and seven assists is obviously going to have the rebounding part as the one that sticks out the most — and for good reason, since he’s just become part of an exclusive club.
Kevon Looney joins Wilt Chamberlain & Nate Thurmond as the only players in Warriors history to record multiple 20-rebound games in the same playoff series. Looney has 20 rebounds to go with four points and four assists.— Warriors PR (@WarriorsPR) April 27, 2023
To join two of the Warriors’ best big men in franchise history is a huge honor — and it speaks to how valuable Looney’s become to the team and the organization as a whole.
Looney outdueled his counterpart in Game 5 in terms of rebounds. Domantas Sabonis hauled in 10 boards — slightly below his season average of 12.3. Looney’s plus-12 on the boards compared to Sabonis included seven offensive rebounds, some of which kept possessions alive and gave the Warriors a chance to score against a disorganized and disoriented defense.
Looney trucks along unassumingly for the majority of half-court possessions — which, on occasion, works to his advantage. He only really needs to be proverbially loud when the ball is up in the air and is in danger of not finding nylon — and that’s when he makes his presence felt:
Looney has quietly become the playoffs’ leading rebounder with 14.4 boards per game. He overwhelmingly clears the rest of the field (those who’ve played at least 30 minutes per game, at least) in terms of overall rebounding rate (21.4%), defensive rebounding rate (29.1%) and offensive rebounding rate (13.0%).
He leads the playoff field in total rebounds (72), shares the lead with Anthony Davis in total defensive rebounds (51), and is tied with Nikola Jokić for second in total offensive rebounds (21).
Get all the flowers in the world and ship them to wherever Looney lives — but not just for his rebounding. What’s intrigued me the most has been Looney’s assists — and overall playmaking — during this series.
He’s averaging a playoff career-high five assists while putting up the third-highest assist rate on the team during the playoffs, behind only Draymond Green and Donte DiVincenzo — and higher than Steph Curry and Jordan Poole. Looney’s come a long way in terms of being a glue guy, which includes being a key cog in the Warriors’ intricate offense that relies heavily on big-man connective tissue.
Green has been the quintessential hub that unlocks the Warriors’ offensive weapons, but in this series where Steve Kerr has attempted to separate Green and Looney’s minutes in order to maximize spacing, having Looney act as a Green-doppelganger has been key to suffering little-to-no drop-off in playmaking.
What has allowed Looney to be in a position to make good decisions has been nuanced but key tactical decisions in the half court. Looney is far from being the ideal roll man due to his lack of verticality and speed— but scheming him to face as little help as possible makes his decision-making job on the roll much easier.
Case in point:
An emphasis on running empty-corner screen-and-roll action has been important — not just to generate efficient offense, but to put Looney in a position of advantage. When he initiates dribble-handoff (DHO) action with Poole, two defenders attach themselves to Poole around the handoff, releasing him to roll to the rim without a “tag” from the strong-side corner.
That means help must come from the weak side. The rotation comes over to stop Looney, but Andrew Wiggins cuts behind the help and makes himself available for Looney to dump the pass to him. Sabonis can’t recover on time to prevent the ball’s downward motion.
If no help comes from the weak side (or if it’s late), Looney finds himself with a free lane to the rim:
Reversing the angle of the empty-corner pick-and roll — with Looney rolling middle instead of on the side — yields the same result:
With Poole drawing two defenders again and being “ICE’d” away from the screen, Looney becomes available on the short roll. Once he receives the pocket pass, the advantage is there for him to use again, with Wiggins cutting baseline and only one defender left to defend the action. A well-placed lob completes the possession.
Looney’s connection with the Warriors’ offensive weapons deserves more run in the limelight. He’s still no Green in terms of delivery and prescience (and even audacity), but the difference in quality between the two isn’t as much of a gap as some people might think it is.
The reads he’s been making — as well as the placement of his passes — have been Green-esque:
This was probably the most eye-catching Looney assist of Game 5:
The set above is an old play for Kevin Durant that starts out with double-drag screens that flow into a classic low-post split action. In Durant’s place is Wiggins, who posts up on the left block after setting the first drag screen.
With De’Aaron Fox switched onto Wiggins, Sabonis is forced to drop back to show help, which leaves Harrison Barnes on an island having to navigate the split screen for Curry. He gets caught up in the screen, forcing Sabonis to shift his attention toward Curry — which leaves Looney free to slip to the rim.
With only Keegan Murray left to defend the backline, Looney finds Gary Payton II cutting baseline for the dunk.
The most bone-crunching Looney assist — quite literally — was on this incredible piece of shot-making by Klay Thompson that was made possible by a hard pick:
It’s the little things that have skyrocketed Looney’s value to the highest degree, even if the points scored doesn’t reflect it. He works in ways that may not be readily apparent or wholeheartedly appreciated — but it has been lauded by those who appraise his impact appropriately.
It’s why he’s second only to Curry on the team in terms of plus-minus in this series, where the Warriors have outscored the Kings by a total of 30 points in Looney’s 153 minutes. It’s why the Warriors have been outscoring the Kings by 10.3 points per 100 possessions during his time on the floor — again, second only to Curry.
The loudest of moments consisted of the shot-making exploits of Curry (31 points), Thompson (25 points), Green (21 points), and Wiggins (20 points). But it’s not farfetched to say they wouldn’t have been in a position to seal the deal if Looney wasn’t there as a calming and stabilizing force.
Even Green himself admitted as such:
Draymond Green: “Kevon (Looney) has become like an Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, a calming force.” pic.twitter.com/VhiljnAje1— Anthony Slater (@anthonyVslater) April 27, 2023