HOUSTON — Jordan Bell‘s next chance to remind folks of his vast potential comes this week, maybe as soon as Monday night. Should he flourish, forgive him if he jogs over to hug Warriors teammate Kevin Durant.
For seven weeks, Durant’s voice has been echoing about Bell’s head and not because they’ve been talking every day. It’s what Durant said back on April 5 that continues to influence Bell.
The Warriors had lost by 20 at Indiana, with coach Steve Kerr using such words as “pathetic” and “embarrassing” to describe his team’s effort. There was no joy, and no comfort, either, other than the team flying back home to the Bay Area.
Durant saw an opportunity help a teammate and seized upon it.
“On the plane back, KD came over and sat next to me,” Bell recalled to NBC Sports Bay Area. “And we were talking about hoops and how much he loves it. It was a deep conversation. It made me look at him totally differently. It was like, ‘Damn, this dude really loves basketball.’ Everybody around here says they love playing basketball, but he was saying he wants to die playing basketball. I never felt that way; I want to die in my sleep, something peaceful. He loves it on a totally different level.
“Ever since that conversation, it’s been different. I really love basketball, too. So why wouldn’t I go hard and respect the game like he respects the game?”
Bell in recent weeks has rededicated himself to the game and to his teammates. After tumbling from the playing rotation for several reasons, the forward/center is working his way back and has reached a point where Kerr now says Bell could play meaningful minutes against the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, which begin Monday in Houston.
That was the plan back in January, when the Warriors saw star quality — before Bell’s stunning rise took a few detours.
Bell’s first three months in the NBA allowed the Warriors to fantasize about their immediate future. Despite being a second-round draft pick, he was rapidly developing into a player they knew they would need. At 6-foot-9, he was quick and agile and stunningly efficient for a rookie. His metrics, from field goal percentage to defensive rating, were extraordinary. His defense, in particular, jibed with the way the league operates these days, with big men able to switch out on small men.
The Warriors, players and coaches, would watch Bell soaring above the rim and view him as necessary in their effort to thwart the team growing into their greatest inter-conference threat: the Rockets. He would be the X-factor, the antidote to Houston’s quick, agile and efficient center, Clint Capela.
“He’s perfect for that,” Kerr thought at the time.
And then the ride started to stall. In the first minute of a Jan. 17 game at Chicago, Bell sustained a severe left ankle sprain and missed 14 games over five weeks. He has been trying to catch up ever since, and now he appears ready to remind folks he is more like the baller that captivated Warriors fans in his first 60 days than the dude who has spent most of the last 60 days mostly cheering from the bench.
Bell landed there by taking shortcuts, which can happen in the glow of early success. He was recovering from injury, but even when he was feeling better he didn’t seem fully committed. There might an occasional tardy arrival. He did not, for example, seem to realize that “optional” practices were for veterans, not rookies.
Meanwhile, Kevon Looney, a third-year player who has endured surgery to both hips, surged past Bell and into the playing rotation. Looney knew not to take anything for granted. Not nearly the athlete Bell is, Looney is sound fundamentally and had earned the respect and trust of his teammates.
In retrospect, Bell concedes he had to be humbled.
“Oh, definitely,” he said. “It was coming easy and then I wasn’t playing with the same intensity. I was comfortable for a while. I still tried to play hard, but I wasn’t playing the same.”
The coaches noticed and wondered if maybe Bell had taken his early success for granted. Teammates also noticed, and it eroded some of the trust he had gained.
That’s where Durant comes in. He noted Bell’s work ethic had diminished from earlier in the season, when he was an eager pup trying to make a strong positive impression. He was, in a word, coasting.
“I told him no matter what we do here — because it’s a different organization, where we’ve got a lot of veterans, guys that have won before, guys that know their routine — that as a rookie you might not want to follow those examples,” Durant told NBC Sports Bay Area. “You might have to come in on off days or show up before shootarounds.
“Guys like Draymond (Green), Klay (Thompson), myself, we might get to pick and choose our spots, but that’s because we’ve been in it for so long. It was like me saying, ‘Jordan, you have to dive right in, see what you are. See what your groove is and figure it out from there.’ “
Bell cites a number of reasons for his midseason dip. Twelve days after returning to the lineup from the sprained left ankle, he sustained a less severe sprain of his right ankle. That cost him three games, over eight days. When he returned for good, neither his confidence nor his production was the same.
It was as if the game he thought he mastered by December had evolved to something altogether different in March.
“I realized it’s a learning experience,” Bell says. “Just learning basketball, there’s so much you think you knew. But there’s a whole bunch you haven’t gotten to. It’s like you think you’ve finished the book, and then there’s a 12-volume series that you have to go through.”
Bell is eager to be coached hard, even by teammates, Green in particular. Bell aspires to be similar to Green, gritty hard-nosed player willing to do whatever it takes to win. Green earned that reputation partly because he wouldn’t be an All-Star without a total commitment. Bell, a superior athlete, imagined he would take an easier road.
“I know how young guys have to adjust and I had wanted him to figure it out on his own,” Durant said. “Let him see how he wanted to approach games and practices. And like a lot of young players, you’re trying to figure out the balance. I just told him that no matter if you play or not, your work ethic and your commitment to the game has to stay the same.”
Bell is listening. How could he not? Durant is an MVP, a four-time scoring champ and a nine-time All-Star. The Hall of Fame awaits his induction.
“Even though I see him every day, I was surprised at how hard he goes in every single drill,” Bell said. “If we’re doing layup lines to start practice, he’s the first one dunking — and hard as hell. Maybe everybody hasn’t had a chance warm up, but he’s like, ‘Let’s go.’
“He told me, ‘The reason why I go so hard is that I really love basketball. I love this game.’ He’s always talking about wanting to get better, just keep getting better, one percent better each day. Just seeing him do it, I tell myself that ‘I’m not going as hard as KD right now, so let me pick it up.’ “
Bell played a total of 12 minutes during the five-game, first-round series victory over the Spurs. He played 24 minutes in the five-game dispatch of the Pelicans. With Kerr’s belief in matchups and Capela playing a key role for the Rockets, the coach would love to see Bell earn 15-20 minutes per game.
“He’s done a really good job the last few weeks, working hard and staying in engaged,” Kerr said. “He’s played well when we’ve thrown him out there, and I wouldn’t hesitate to put him out there in this series.”
If it works out, and Bell can come close to offsetting Capela, he can thank Durant. If it doesn’t play well, Bell can keep listening to his veteran teammate until he gets it right.
“I just tried to encourage him and let him know that I understand, that I was a rookie too,” Durant said. “And I’m always here to talk if he needs it.”