What James Wiseman learned most from Kevon Looney’s breakout season

LAS VEGAS — When the Warriors hired Dejan Milojević as an assistant coach last August, the most important part to his title was missing. Milojević isn’t officially referred to as James Wiseman’s Personal Coach. He might as well have been when Golden State signed the long-respected Serbia coach who was a three-time MVP of the Adriatic League. 

Milojević’s biggest claim to fame on the sidelines is being Nikola Jokić’s coach in Serbia when the now two-time NBA MVP played for Mega Basket. The Warriors, with their first prized big man prospect in ages, sought Milojević’s services in hopes that he could mold Wiseman, a 7-footer full of potential but still in clay form. As Wiseman’s health progressed behind the scenes throughout the 2022 NBA playoffs, he and Milojević were inseparable on the court. 

About an hour before Wiseman’s Las Vegas Summer League debut, there Milojević was, walking into the arena with Steve Kerr. 

“He’s showed me a lot of compassion in terms of what I need to work on,” Wiseman said to NBC Sports Bay Area on the latest episode of Dubs Talk in an interview one day before his Las Vegas Summer League debut. “But he’s also given me a lot of constructive criticism, and me being willing to learn and observe — I take it as OK, I need to just do better the next day and just develop my game. I don’t look at as an arrogant perspective in terms of I’m the No. 2 pick and I don’t gotta listen. I don’t do that.

 

“I really just want to listen and try to be the best that I can be, and he’s given me a lot of information right now and he’s most definitely developing my game.” 

What Milojević and the Warriors couldn’t truthfully know upon his arrival is how much of an impact he’d make on the player Wiseman was supposed to replace when he was drafted by the Warriors in 2020. While Wiseman was stuck to wearing street clothes all season long from complications to his surgically-repaired right meniscus, center Kevon Looney enjoyed a breakout season.

Looney played only 20 games thanks to a handful of injuries and health issues the season before the Warriors used their top pick on Wiseman. This past season, Looney played all 82 regular-season, earned MVP chants from Dub Nation to send the Memphis Grizzlies home in the Western Conference semifinals and was given a three-year, $25.5 million contract as a free agent to stay in the Bay. 

And as he watched, Wiseman was a sponge to Looney’s play on the court and what he has to say off it. 

“Watching him as a person, he’s a very humble person,” Wiseman said. “Also, he has a lot of wisdom, especially for his age. Kevon is what, 25, 26? For Kevon to be that age and have a lot of wisdom, I just take that in. I ask a lot of questions. I’m very curious. Just seeing his process and what he had to go through and me asking questions, especially throughout the playoffs when he was playing at a high level — really playing at a high level the whole year.

“Really seeing that just gave me a lot of motivation. It gave me a lot of motivation and to just keep working every day, just keep striving to be the best that I can be.”

Now a seven-year veteran and three-time champion, Looney didn’t turn 26 years old until this past February. He’s always felt much older, and his maturity reflects someone in their mid-30s much more than their mid-20s.

Kerr is one of the biggest Looney fans not only in the Warriors building, but throughout NBA circles. A five-time champ himself as a player, Kerr knows players like Looney are a must to keep adding rings to the collection. Looney knows the system in and out. His numbers aren’t going to jump off the page on most nights, yet he makes the right plays and makes those around him better. 

Though they have much different skill sets, the above is why Kerr believes Looney is the perfect example to observe.

“James spent a good part of this year watching Loon, watching tape of him, asking questions of him,” Kerr said after the season on June 22. “They’re very different players, as you said, but playing the same position.

“What makes Loon so good is the nuance in his game. He understands how to set the right screen at the right time for Steph and Klay, and he knows when to roll and he knows when to dive to the rim, when to get to the pocket if Steph is getting blitzed. He knows how to make the weak side pass out of the double-team.

 

“This stuff doesn’t just happen. He’s worked at it. Loon’s first two years he never played. He was injured, too, just like James has been. There couldn’t be a better mentor for James than Loon.”

Wiseman wasn’t in the room when Kerr gave that answer last month. It’s clear he has been hearing those exact sentiments for a long time, and it’s ingrained how imperative it was for him to be a pupil and study for afar. 

Just like Looney’s value isn’t lost on Kerr, it couldn’t be more obvious to who should one day be the future of the position Looney plays for the Warriors.

“Really just his IQ and his love for the game,” Wiseman said to NBC Sports Bay Area when asked about what he can take and add from Looney’s game. “I’d say his IQ most definitely. Him being able to work the system and be able to get [Steph Curry] shots and get Steph open shots, and [Klay Thompson] as well. And then him working with [Draymond Green] as a counterpart.

“I just see that and it just makes my eyes wide because it’s like, man, I can be in this system and I can play at the same high level as Kevon Looney is playing. So that just gives me a lot of motivation.”

RELATED: Wiseman, Warriors agree on his development for big offseason

It could have been natural for Wiseman and Looney’s relationship to be shaky or uneasy at times. First for Looney with Wiseman being drafted so high as an expected replacement for him. And then for Wiseman with Looney thriving in his absence and re-signing as priority No. 1 for the Warriors over the offseason.

That isn’t the case, though. Both have dealt with their fair share of adversity as Warriors. Both can call themselves champions, and both co-existing as a center tandem only makes the reigning champions that much better. 

“I listen and observe,” Wiseman says. “I don’t have any jealous or malice intent. I love to learn and try to be the best that I can be.” 

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