Warriors eye young trio for early-season starting role

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OAKLAND — This summer, the Warriors made a splash signing polarizing center DeMarcus Cousins.

The acquisition gave the team something it’d been missing: a multi-skilled big man with Hall of Fame-level talent.

However, with Cousins recovering from a torn Achilles, the youthful trio of Jordan Bell, Kevon Looney and Damian Jones will try to solve an early-season challenge: finding a starting center to supplement Cousins during his rehabilitation.

“I think that will unfold as we go,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said Monday morning. “It could be by matchup. It could be by how training camp goes. But we will give all three guys a chance and training camp will determine a lot.”

Last season, the three big men experienced different journeys to the floor. Bell, a multi-talented athletic forward, struggled to maintain consistency as the season went on. After a 15-game stretch in December, in which he averaged 7.6 points on 65 percent shooting, Bell’s season fell off after he injured his ankle in January. While Bell struggled, Looney carved his niche as a talented defender who could switch screens. His talent came in handy against the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, when he posted a 91.7 defensive rating.

As Bell and Looney found their footing in the NBA, Jones spent most of last season in the G-League, as the Warriors held six centers on the roster. While he appeared in just 15 NBA games, most of his encounters with the team came from a small TV in his Santa Cruz hotel room or a news alert on his iPhone. Nonetheless, the former first-round pick thrived in the developmental assignment, averaging 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.

“I think his mindset is that he paid his dues in Santa Cruz last year,” Kerr said. “He really put in a lot of work. I’m proud of him for what he accomplished last year. I think he got a lot better.”

“We’re going to need D.J. for sure, especially against the bigger centers in this league,” Kerr added. “I’m excited for him and for his opportunity and I think he’s going to do great.”

The competition of youth will also be a proving ground for the players. Looney, a known defender, spent hours in a UCLA gym last summer performing a myriad of hooks and jump shots, trying to carve out an offensive game. While Looney looked to expand his game, Bell tried to improve his diet, ditching sweets for the entire month of August.

“I think the work I put in this summer will shine during the season,” Bell said. “I have a year under my belt now, so I kind of know how things are ran as far as our team.”

The youth movement is a contrast from the Warriors’ frontcourt last season, when Zaza Pachulia, David West and JaVale McGee took most of the minutes. On Monday, the rest of the team didn’t seem to mind helping the young guys along.

“I know it’s going to take some time for them to kind of get their feet wet because they have a lot of responsibility, especially on the defensive side of the ball,” said forward Kevin Durant. “I’m looking forward to going out there and trying to help whoever it is at that position before DeMarcus comes back, and just trying to be the best teammate I can to them, as well, and hopefully it’s smooth sailing.”

The last challenge for the big man will come later in the season, when Cousins is expected back. With career averages of 21.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks, how will he be effective joining an All-Star-laded team midway through the season?

The Warriors’ aren’t sweating that, either.

“DeMarcus is one of those basketball geniuses that knows exactly who he is and what he needs to do to be effective, said Durant. “He takes a lot of charges and blocked shots, as well, and can kind of get off the glass and push. If he just plays his game, we’ll fit in around each other.”

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