The main attraction on Monday night at Oracle Arena wasn’t the preseason game taking place between the Warriors and the Jazz but instead the return of Stephen Curry to the NBA hardwood. The crowd welcomed him back with a rousing ovation during player introductions and again when he hit his first jumpshot with three minutes left in the second quarter. Curry would eventually pull himself out of the game to ice and rest what was an expected sore ankle.
Despite Curry’s early exit, there were some bright spots for the Warriors including David Lee’s 19 point, 14 rebound, 5 assist, 4 steal performance. But perhaps what stuck out the most in the Warriors’ narrow 83-80 victory over the Jazz was the play of their rookie center, Festus Ezeli.
Ezeli started the game in place of the recovering Andrew Bogut and provided the Warriors with a steady presence inside, especially on the defensive end. He battled with the likes of Al Jefferson and Enes Kanter all night and didn’t look to be overwhelmed or outplayed. In fact, he helped keep Jefferson (who is a very good post player) to two points on 1/8 shooting. “It was a good test of my defense in the post. I knew they were good low-post scorers” Ezeli stated. “I just tried to stay down on shot fakes and just play defense like I know how to.”
The Vanderbilt-product finished the evening with four blocks (one of which was an absolute volleyball spike of Mo Williams’ shot and another being a huge block at a key point in the game of Randy Foye’s floater) and changed many more shots along the way. For someone who hasn’t played organized basketball all that long, Ezeli has great timing for blocking and challenging shots. He sealed the deal for Golden State by bothering Foye’s last second attempt to tie it up and prevented what most people with a pulse fear and dread – overtime in a preseason game.
Ezeli has clearly already eclipsed Andris Biedrins as Golden State’s primary backup to Bogut and with good reason. He seems dead-set on proving that he belongs in the league and will do everything in his power to do that as well as do everything necessary to help his team win. With Biedrins, it’s easy to question his desire and motor given how the past few years have gone for him but you simply can’t do that with Festus.
Even with a solid performance under his belt, Ezeli knows he isn’t quite where he wants to be yet. “[There's] still some improvements to be made. My defense is coming in pretty well, just gotta keep working and get better on offense.”
He may not have to look far to find a way to work on improving as he says he is constantly learning from the man ahead of him on the depth chart, Andrew Bogut. “Every time I’m on the court he always has something to tell me. Like just now, talking about my defense there at the end, I kinda lost discipline there so he was kinda telling me what to do, how to guard. He’s a really good defensive player and anything I can learn, I try to listen to whatever he has to say.”
A tandem of both Bogut and Ezeli will play a big role in getting the team back into the playoff picture this season. It’s not easy getting two seven-footers (Festus is 6’11″ but I’m going to round up) to patrol the paint for you but the Warriors now have that luxury and won’t have to trot out undersized centers for 30+ minutes of a game.
With all the hype surrounding Harrison Barnes, it’s been easy for people to forget about Festus and what he brings to the table but I have a feeling once the regular season rolls around assuming he keeps up his hard work and continues to be a defensive presence, the fans at Oracle will be rocking “Festus for the Rest of Us!” t-shirts in no time.
Here’s hoping that someone caught on to that Seinfeld reference.