HANG TIME WEST – Still no word on whether Andrew Bogut will be in the starting lineup opening night, whether he will return to action Wednesday at Phoenix with limited minutes off the bench or whether he will be out entirely as the recovery from a fractured ankle goes much longer than he or the Warriors anticipated. He received a positive update from the doctor and moved into five-on-five work in practice, and that is all that is known.
This is about to become about Festus Ezeli one way or another. If Bogut does start at center, it certainly won’t be with starter’s minutes for a while, and a lesser or non-existent role means leaning on Ezeli more than anyone imagined. The outset of a highly anticipated season, a run of talented centers immediately in front of them, and a rookie who arrived as the last pick of the first round has to be a difference maker.
The chance for Ezeli to make a slow transition into the NBA world disappeared as the timeline on Bogut’s recovery was constantly being pushed back, from expecting to be ready for training camp to planning to play in at least a few exhibition games to the current prognosis that it is very possible he will miss regular-season games. And not just the usual assortment of regular-season games. Before the end of the first full week of games, Golden State will have faced the Suns (Marcin Gortat), Grizzlies (Marc Gasol), Kings (DeMarcus Cousins) and Lakers (Dwight Howard), along with the defensive presence of DeAndre Jordan with the Clippers. Ezeli has to be ready now, whether Bogut is in uniform or not.
Regarding him as road kill would be a big mistake. Ezeli is already a pretty good defender, plays physical at 6-11 and 255 pounds and has good court instincts, an intangible that is especially noteworthy given that the Nigeria native, by way of Vanderbilt, did not play organized basketball until 2007. The Warriors love his mind and attitude. Now imagine that with two or three years of NBA experience.
“Our starting center position was wide open with Bogut not being ready, and he (Ezeli) earned it,” coach Mark Jackson said of (at least) the exhibition games. “He earned it because of his defensive presence and also because of his professionalism. He’s one of the first guys in the locker room, he’s one of the last to leave, he comes back later and watches film. He wants to be a big-time player. He absolutely gets it on the defensive end.”
A lot of teams are going to regret letting Ezeli drop to No. 30 in June. At worst, the Warriors have a long-term answer at backup center, a valuable piece in the league, and he will be in the league longer than several players picked earlier.
Monday, one of the other Golden State rookies officially made the opening lineup — Jackson said Harrison Barnes, the No. 7 pick, will start at small forward ahead of Brandon Rush and Richard Jefferson. The third rookie, second-round selection Draymond Green, will make the team, but minutes will be hard to find.