Remember when the Warriors were supposedly interested in JaVale McGee as possible insurance for Andrew Bogut? Chris Broussard had a source and everything! McGee’s contract demands might have made that a non-starter, but in reality the Warriors have had one of the better backup centers in the league for about a month now.
“I’m getting my athleticism back. With injuries you never know how that stuff goes, but I’m happy to be back with the team again and playing,” Festus Ezeli said after the Warriors obliterated the Hawks on Wednesday, thanks in part to 10 savage minutes off the bench in the second half from the third-year center. “I’m happy to be feeling good again.”
Happy is a funny word, because Ezeli is playing like a man with some pent-up anger. Just ask Tyler Hansbrough, who baited Ezeli into a minor skirmish and a one-game suspension a few weeks ago. And who could blame Ezeli for feeling frustrated? After a rookie year in which he played 78 regular season games (including 41 starts) and played 11 minutes per game in two playoff series, Ezeli didn’t just have a sophomore slump. He had a sophomore sabbatical, and not by choice. Knee surgery in the summer of 2013 was supposed to keep him out until midway through the regular season. Then it was February. Then March. Then the Clippers were in town for a first round series, and Ezeli was able to warm up but not suit up for a team that desperately needed someone other than Jermaine O’Neal to mix it up with DeAndre Jordan.
The Warriors didn’t bring back O’Neal; Bob Myers noted before the season that Ezeli and Ognjen Kuzmic could complement Bogut just fine. But Kuzmic has been a Santa Cruzian for most of this season, and Ezeli was saddled with another injury, this time to his ankle. Just when it seemed like he was on his way to becoming the player the Warriors expected when they drafted him at the end of the first round, he missed over a month.
After the ankle healed, Steve Kerr brought Ezeli back slowly. Eight minutes in a blowout win in Sacramento, followed by five games on the bench. Three minutes against the Spurs, followed by three more DNP-CDs. The plan was to get Ezeli significant run against Boston on March 1, but he fouled that up with the suspension.
(Bogut’s take: “Hansbrough woulda got his ass kicked.”)
Since that moment, we’ve seen the best of Ezeli. The day after his suspension was one of his best games as a pro: 14 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes in a two-point loss to the Nets. That production has carried through this month.
March averages per 36 minutes (traditional): 17.4 ppg, 13.1 rpg, 4.4 bpg
March averages per 36 minutes (advanced): +15.2/game, Ortg: 122, Drtg: 96, 64.4 ts%
He’s also making 57.1% of his field goals and shooting 85.7% from the line (12-for-14). Some of the shots he’s making, which include turnaround hooks with precise footwork, are things we haven’t seen before. He’s even dunking like Shaq on occasion …
Ezeli credits his observation period throughout 2013-14 and the new coaching staff for his improved offensive game and overall play.
“I had a whole year last year where I was off and I was just watching the game. I was learning. Even though I wasn’t on the court and wasn’t doing court exercises, I was watching tape and all that,” Ezeli said.
“Ron Adams is my coach. I work with him and I work with Luke Walton. I work with Jarron Collins. The whole coaching staff in general has been great for us this year.”
Adams is the main architect of the Warriors’ defense, which leads the league in several statistical categories including opponents’ field goal percentage and defensive rating. While Bogut is a bonafide rim protector, Ezeli might provide some of that and a little something extra: the lateral quickness to take part in the balletic switching that marks this team’s defensive attack.
“We’re a very defensive-oriented team and that’s great because it kind of makes my job easier sometimes. They can handle the things out on the perimeter and I can control the paint,” said Ezeli.
“But if I have to get out on the perimeter and switch that, I don’t mind that either.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t take advice from Bogut, who, with apologies to Jordan in L.A., has been the league’s best defensive center this season.
“I’ve got all the guys on the team that I watch and I learn from,” said Ezeli. “(Bogut is) somebody that I lean on and I talk to about different guys. He’s been in the league a while so he always has some kind of knowledge to drop on me. Scouting reports, or whatever it is that I need to know about the game that we’re about to play. He just tells me what I need to know.”
Bogut’s scouting report on Ezeli:
“He’s been really good. He puts in a lot of work in practice. He’s more comfortable with the game, I think. At times his rookie year, he was still learning. More comfortable now, he feels like he’s in the game. He’s going to be physical, he’s going to rebound, he’s going to block shots.
“He’s … I wouldn’t call it arrogance, but it’s confidence. He knows he belongs and can really contribute for us to be a championship contender. So, I’m really happy for him.”
Like Bogut, Ezeli is an intelligent player with a bit of a mean streak. Ezeli just hides it a little better, since Bogut is as outspoken as they come. But over the past month it’s seemed like Ezeli has been spiking opponents’ shots like an Olympic volleyball star, only angrier. Like all that energy and aggression from sitting, watching and rehabbing is coming out all at once. Maybe the McGee rumors lit a little fire too, who knows.
“It’s my paint, so it’s almost kind of trying to send a message,” Ezeli said. “I block shots and I block with a lot of intensity.”
And that’s why Ezeli’s minutes may not decrease when the playoffs begin. These Warriors are built on defensive speed/length/intensity, and the confidence-bordering-on-arrogance that Bogut described. After a rough year and a half, Ezeli is fitting in nicely. OK, maybe “nicely” isn’t 100% accurate.