For a role player who never complained about his shots or playing time, Golden State Warriors Kevon Looney admitted that something else was bothering him about his seven-year NBA career.
“People put the injury label on me,” Looney told NBA.com. “I’m proud to be a tough guy and do all the dirty work. So being a man who was not healthy messed with my mental state.
That reality, however, didn’t shake Looney’s determination. After raising concerns about his long-term health in the first six NBA seasons, Looney remained steadfast throughout the 2021-22 campaign. Looney became one of five NBA players to appear in all 82 regular season games, including Phoenix’ Mikal Bridges, Dallas’ Dwight Powell, Washington’s Deni Avdija and Detroit’s Saddiq Bey.
The Warriors face the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday (9 ET, TNT), and Golden State claims it’s progressed that far for the first time in three years for reasons beyond Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Thompson argued, “We wouldn’t be where we are today without Kevon Looney.”
For literally every game – which now includes 11 more of the postseason run – Looney fulfilled his expected role as a reliable defender, rebounder and screen setter, both as a starter or reserve. The Warriors valued Looney’s availability and reliability so much that they gave him the match ball after their last game of the regular season. In fact, Warriors coach Steve Kerr cited Looney’s season-long durability as one of the season’s highlights, along with Curry overtaking Reggie Miller for the NBA’s record three points and Thompson’s return after a 2 -year absence.
“It’s a huge deal for ‘Wage’, and it’s a huge deal for me,” Kerr said. “It is always an incredible honor for a player to play 82 games and as a coach to be able to rely on someone 82 times. It’s amazing, especially because it’s ‘Wage’, given what he’s been through in his career.”
Injury battle arrives at NBA debut
Ironically, Looney never missed a game, both when he starred for four years as a high school prospect (Hamilton High in Milwaukee) and one year as a college star (UCLA). However, shortly after the Warriors selected Looney at number 30 in the 2015 NBA Draft, Looney spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the field.
He played in just five games in his rookie season for reasons other than playing on a title-competitive roster. Before the season even started, Looney had surgery for a torn labrum in his right hip. Shortly after the playoffs began, Looney had surgery for a torn labrum in his other hip. Looney’s second season didn’t do much better. In addition to his 20 healthy scratches and three appearances on the inactive roster, Looney also missed six regular season games and 12 playoff appearances due to a strained left hip.
Unlike those in his draft class, Looney was under no pressure to play immediately due to the Warriors’ solid championship base. Unlike those in his draft class, Looney initially didn’t have a chance to prove he belonged in the NBA.
“I’ve always had the confidence that I could come back. But I’d always get really close and something strange would happen,” Looney said. “I have always had confidence in the training staff and in myself. But I don’t know if everyone had faith in me.”
Looney admitted that even some of his close friends remained skeptical about his health. More importantly, though, Looney thanked his parents and the Warriors’ players, coaches and front office staff for their continued support. Still, Warriors general manager Bob Myers admitted that Looney’s early injuries played into “a little bit” when the team refused to exercise its fourth-year option before the 2017-18 season, making him an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
“We didn’t look at him like we were done with him,” Myers told NBA.com. “We’re thinking, ‘Let’s see what this year brings and have a chance to re-sign him.'”
The Warriors’ gamble worked both to lower their luxury tax bill and to protect themselves from Looney’s precarious health. After averaging career highs in points (4.0), shooting percentage (58.0%), rebounds (3.3), minutes (13.8), and games played (66), Looney returned on a one-year minimum contract for veterans. Looney then accepted a three-year, $15 million deal the following summer, after posting new 2018-19 career highs in points (6.3), shooting rate (62.5%), rebounds (5.2), minutes (18.5) and games played (80).
By this time, Looney felt that he would no longer be spending much time in the trainer’s room. wrong. Looney missed the entire 2019 preseason after straining his right hamstring. He then played in just 20 regular season games amid overlapping issues with neuropathy (20 games), left abdominal pain (18), and left hip pain (six).
Have these developments ever affected Looney’s confidence that he could ever stay out of the trainer’s room and the doctor’s office?
“I’ve always believed I could get well,” Looney said. “That’s something I have control over. My diet, my routine and my body’s learning are all things I have control over.”
How Looney Adjusted His Diet and Exercise
The Warriors have never questioned Looney’s work habits. Warriors assistant coach Mike Brown described Looney’s preparation as “off the charts,” a sentiment that partly explains the Warriors’ loyalty to him. But Looney also further understood the importance of working both hard and smart.
So Looney further investigated an issue that contributed to his injury-riddled season two years ago. After that, Looney suffered an inflammation in his stomach that caused him discomfort even when he ate healthy foods. Looney reported feeling these symptoms earlier in his career, but the problem worsened significantly in 2019-20 as he routinely struggled with constipation and nausea.
That prompted Looney to work with both the Warriors’ training staff and David Allen, a clinical nutritionist in Woodland Hills, California, to learn more about what contributed to his digestive problems. After numerous tests, Allen concluded that Looney’s gut was “very affected.” Allen also found that Looney had what he called “bad bacteria,” which inflamed his stomach and reduced his nutrient absorption. The Warriors and Allen training staff also agreed that Looney’s gastrointestinal problems aggravated his nerve pain.
“The most important thing I did was not just improve his diet,” Allen told NBA.com. “What was much bigger than repairing his diet was repairing his gut.”
Looney stopped consuming various meats, sugar, processed foods, dairy, gluten, nuts and cinnamon out of the belief that those foods contributed to his pain and congestion. Becoming a pescatarian, Looney also often drank what Allen called a “cleansing shake,” containing vegan protein-based proteins to reduce Looney’s inflammation while strengthening his liver, gallbladder, and pancreas. Allen estimates that Looney also takes about 50 different supplements, which the Warriors tried six months in advance.
“I’ve never seen a team so disciplined,” said Allen. “They had been working for a while trying to get Kevon healthy. They were very invested in him.”
Looney directly attributed those changes to playing 61 games last season in the NBA’s abbreviated 72-game schedule. However, as he still sustained a sprained left ankle that sidelined him for 11 games, Looney tried to make more changes.
Looney also spent six weeks last summer completing Muay Thai training sessions with Chris Mulanney, a strength and conditioning coach and personal trainer, at a mixed martial arts gym. Looney had already done jiu-jitsu training in previous seasons, both to improve his fitness, footwork and strength. But Looney found Muay Thai helpful in improving his hip mobility and balance, hoping to prevent future injuries.
Four days a week, Looney worked with Mulanney on what he called “a lot of technical work.” The sessions started with Looney completing a series of squats and lunges in hopes of improving his range of motion. Looney then took part in martial arts training that focused on mastering various kicking and punching techniques. Mulanney estimated that those sessions usually lasted an hour longer than intended because Looney “just wanted to keep going.”
“He was a very hard worker, extremely intelligent and a very quick learner,” Mulanney told NBA.com. “But the last thing you want is for him to get away with some tweak. That concern was certainly at the forefront of what we did.”
Does this mean Looney couldn’t beat anyone up like he often does on the field?
“No,” Looney said with a laugh. “It was more of a technique thing. I would spar with [Chris] sometimes he played with me and tried not to hurt me. But he let me hit him a few times.”
Once the 2021-22 season kicked off, Looney then added yoga sessions to his game-day routine, an enhanced yoga-adjacent workout that focuses on improving posture, breathing, concentration, flexibility and mobility. He reported that routine has also helped relieve injuries and soft tissue tightness.
“It brought me into harmony with my body,” Looney said. “When I do that, I can better communicate with the training staff what I’m feeling.”
Lately, Looney described herself as “feeling loose and free.” After completing a full regular season without struggling with injury or fatigue, Looney became just as valuable in the Warriors’ postseason run.
In the first round, Looney became one of the Warriors’ main defenders over Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. In the second round, Looney played a major role in the Warriors’ decisive Game 6 win over Memphis. Brown listened to Green and Curry vouch for Looney to start in Game 6, and he delivered four points and a playoff career high 22 rebounds. Then Thompson called Looney the team’s MVP.
The moment confirmed Looney’s self-proclaimed motto as he spent all season trying to prove he could go from injury prone to Ironman.
“As long as I’m healthy,” Looney said, “I’ll be good on the field.”
Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for NBA.com. You can email him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter†
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