SAN FRANCISCO – Russell Westbrook had something to say, and he made sure those around him heard his words after one of Rico Hines’ famed offseason runs at UCLA over the summer.
“Listen up!” Westbrook yelled out.
Raising his voice wasn’t so much for people to hear him, but to make sure everybody soaked in a message from someone who has been part of Hines’ summer sessions for nearly a decade. Someone whose respect radiates throughout the room, yet rarely is one to give an inspiring speech in front of the group.
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The former NBA MVP and member of the league’s 75th Anniversary Team was giving the floor to Warriors center Kevon Looney. First, he shared his admiration for Looney, too.
“What he does is very important, man,” Westbrook said in front of a group of fellow NBA players. “He’s been in the league for a long time for a reason. Not because he’s super athletic and does all these crazy tricks and s--t. But he does his job, man. He does his job every single night.
“He’ll tell you, though. He knows.”
Looney’s message essentially is how he has gained so much appreciation inside and outside the Warriors. It’s how he has overcome so many obstacles, including the Warriors seemingly looking at him as an afterthought years ago and him proving everybody wrong.
Golden State Warriors
It’s why Warriors coach Steve Kerr emphasizes how instrumental Looney is to the Warriors’ success and culture whenever he gets the chance.
“Continue to work on your game and find out what you’re great at,” Looney said. “Everybody’s trying to add too much to their game. Focus on one thing you’ve become really good at and hold onto that and it makes a big difference.
“They don’t want everybody else out there shooting shots, doing too much. Find your role, find your niche and you can play for a long time and make a lot of money. Focus on that in the summer time to get good at it.”
The concept of finding what you’re great at and building upon that instead of trying to reach for too many hats at once is something that has been pounded into Looney by Hines, a longtime trainer and coach who is in his first season as a Philadelphia 76ers assistant. Hines spent four seasons as a Warriors player development coach from 2006 to 2010 before spending five seasons as an assistant at St. John’s, three seasons with the Sacramento Kings’ D-League affiliate, three in Sacramento and last year on the Toronto Raptors staff.
That way of approaching the game also has been a product of Looney learning from Warriors teammate Draymond Green. Looney’s rookie year was Green’s fourth for Golden State, and his first as an NBA All-Star. Looney watched how Green made defense his calling card, one that will make him a Hall of Famer down the road.
Green knew he had to be everything David Lee wasn’t. Though Lee was an All-Star in Green’s rookie year, Draymond, starting with his defense, proved his value was much more than what Lee could provide the Warriors. Green first became great at something, allowing himself to grow off his defensive building blocks. Looney’s first few NBA seasons were hampered by injuries and health issues, but he kept searching for what he could be great.
And surprisingly, the first thing he turned to wasn’t rebounding.
Zaza Pachulia was ingrained as the Warriors’ starting center his two seasons in the Bay Area, and Looney knew he had to give Kerr something that Pachulia didn’t to be given more opportunities.
“I had to be able to switch on defense and be a defender, guard multiple positions,” Looney said to NBC Sports Bay Area. “I really had to study. I played a lot of 1-on-1. That’s what kind of made me different from what Zaza and different bigs were doing on our team. So me being able to switch got me on the court.”
As Looney developed and cemented his spot in the Warriors’ rotation as a switchable big defender, that’s when he was able to turn his focus more to rebounding. It’s an area he always felt he was strong in. The Warriors adding assistant coach Dejan Milojević, ironically to coach the center the Warriors expected to one day supplant Looney in James Wiseman, pushed Looney to new heights in that aspect of his game.
“I felt like, man, if I really lock in on this and really pay attention to the detail, I can be elite at it,” Looney said. “That’s something that Dekki, when he came here, he challenged me to it.
“He said, ‘You’re a great rebounder, you got to be great. Really go after it.’ Once I really focused in on that and added that to my game, I think it took me to another level.”
Then take someone like 21-year-old Jonathan Kuminga, the Warriors’ former lottery pick who is entering a crucial third season after an impressive preseason. If you ask Kuminga which position he plays, he’ll say all of them. If you ask him what he wants to be better at, he’ll say everything.
Kuminga wants to go for it all and has shown flashes of himself being on the trajectory of greatness the Warriors envisioned when they drafted him No. 7 overall in 2021. It’s great for an ultra-talented young player like Kuminga to sharpen a handful of skills and always strive to be the best version of himself, yet Looney believes that still can start with the same approach he takes. Kuminga took on the tough task of stepping into Andrew Wiggins’ role when the All-Star wing was out last season, and Looney believes if Kuminga continues finding what he’s great at first, all his other skills can shine more seamlessly.
At practice, Kuminga takes on the challenge of guarding the opposing side’s best scorer. Whether it’s Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Wiggins or anybody else, no words need to be said by Kerr or any other coaches. Everybody already knows who Kuminga is taking on.
“You don’t have to ask him,” Looney said. “First thing I know is he’s gonna be right under Steph’s jersey picking him up full court. He doesn’t like switching off him, he’s gonna take on the challenge.”
As important as Looney’s message was when he was put on the spot, the act of him even doing so meant just as much. Hines joked before Westbrook got everybody’s attention that Looney hasn’t spoken up once in front of the group in eight years. Hines might not have been joking, too.
Looney is there every day of Hines’ runs and the coach tries to get one of his best pupils to open up every year. Like he does with the Warriors, Looney constantly is talking during games and is an open ear to any questions thrown his way. Hines tried to convince Looney to give everyone a talk the week before, and Looney’s resolution was he’d fulfill Hines’ wish at the end of the summer.
Until Westbrook paid his respects, and there was nothing else for Looney to do but share his wisdom with all eyes on him.
The reality is, Looney’s leadership is as needed as ever going into the 2023-24 season. Green still has the loudest voice in the room, Curry’s mere presence holds as much weight as anybody in the league and Golden State added another strong personality full of accomplishments in the arrival of Chris Paul. The Warriors also lost one of the franchise’s most important minds and voices with the retirement of Andre Iguodala, only increasing Looney’s value -- seen and unseen.
“I think this year I’m definitely getting more comfortable using my voice,” Looney said. “I think they’re leaning on me to say more and they ask me more questions and help me be more of a leader. I definitely feel like I’m ready for it, I’m trying to develop into it.
“But I still like doing a lot of my talking on the sidelines, in the locker room and on the court. I don’t talk to talk but I talk all the time. I don’t care how you’re feeling that day. I’m going to make sure our day-to-day process is great.”
Nobody understands their role and has perfected it in a Warriors jersey better than Looney. There’s a void left behind, and the best way for it to be filled is Looney continuing to authentically be the player and person he is every day, the part of basketball and life as well that he knows how to be great at best.
“Loon is Loon,” Kerr said. “He's not all of a sudden going to start talking just because Andre’s gone. Remember, Draymond is still here.
“What makes Loon so respected in the locker room is his actions. Day in and day out, I think I've said this, he’s a metronome. It's just every day. There's a rhythm to his routine, and it's so consistent. He's put in so much work over the years that the guys love him and respect him and every once in a while, he will say something but you know, when he says something, it's very meaningful.”
For so long it felt like so many people were finding ways to change Looney’s game. Now what the Warriors need most from their indispensable center is to remain the same as long as possible, no matter who comes and goes from the roster.