For a role player that never complained about his shots or playing time, Golden State Warriors Kevon Looney admitted something else bothered him about his seven-year NBA career.
“People were putting the injury label on me,” Looney told NBA.com. “I take pride in being a tough guy and doing all the dirty work. So, to be a guy that was not healthy messed with my mentals.”
That reality did not mess with Looney’s determination, though. After spending his first six NBA seasons sparking concerns about his long-term health, Looney stayed durable throughout the 2021-22 campaign. Looney became one of five NBA players to appear in all 82 regular-season games, including Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges, Dallas’ Dwight Powell, Washington’s Deni Avdija and Detroit’s Saddiq Bey.
The Warriors host the Dallas Mavericks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Wednesday (9 ET, TNT), and Golden State contends it has advanced this far for the first time in three years for reasons beyond Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Thompson argued, “we would not be where we’re at without Kevon Looney.”
For literally every game — which now includes another 11 from the postseason run — Looney fulfilled his expected role as a dependable defender, rebounder and screen setter, as both a starter or reserve. The Warriors valued Looney’s availability and dependability so much that they presented him with the game ball following their final regular-season game. Warriors coach Steve Kerr even ranked Looney’s season-long durability as among the team’s season highlights along with Curry overtaking Reggie Miller for the NBA’s all-time 3-point record and Thompson’s return following a 2 ½ year absence.
“It’s a huge deal for ‘Loon,’ and it’s a huge deal for me,” Kerr said. “It’s always an incredible badge of honor for a player to play 82 games and as a coach to be able to rely on somebody 82 times. It’s amazing, particularly for it to be ‘Loon’ given what he has been through in his career.”
Injury struggles arrive with NBA debut
Ironically, Looney never missed a game both when he starred four years as a high school prospect (Hamilton High in Milwaukee) and one year as a college standout (UCLA). Shortly after the Warriors selected Looney at No. 30 in the 2015 NBA Draft, however, Looney spent more time in the trainer’s room than on the court.
He played in only five games his rookie season for reasons beyond playing on a title-contending roster. Before the season even started, Looney had surgery to treat a torn labrum in his right hip. Just after the playoffs began, Looney had surgery to treat a torn labrum in his other hip. Looney’s second season did not fare much better. Beyond his 20 healthy scratches and three appearances on the inactive roster, Looney also missed six regular-season games and 12 playoff appearances because of a strained left hip.
Unlike those in his draft class, Looney did not face pressure to play immediately because of the Warriors’ sturdy championship foundation. Unlike those in his draft class, Looney lacked the opportunity initially to prove he belonged in the NBA.
“I always had faith that I could get back. But I’d always get really close and then something freakish would happen,” Looney said. “I always had trust in the training staff and myself. But I don’t know if everyone had faith in me.”
Looney admitted even some of his close friends remained skeptical about his health. More importantly, though, Looney credited his parents as well as the Warriors’ players, coaches and front office staff for offering unwavering support. Still, Warriors general manager Bob Myers conceded that Looney’s early injuries factored in “a little bit” when the team declined to exercise his fourth-year option before the 2017-18 season, which made him an unrestricted free agent the following summer.
“We weren’t looking at him as if we’re 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 with trimming their luxury tax bill and protecting themselves from Looney’s uncertain 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, veteran’s minimum deal. Looney then accepted a three-year, $15 million deal the following summer, after posting new career-highs in 2018-19 in points (6.3), shooting percentage (62.5%), rebounds (5.2), minutes (18.5) and games played (80).
By then, Looney sensed he no longer would spend much time in the trainer’s room. Wrong. Looney missed the entire 2019 preseason after straining his right hamstring. He then played in only 20 regular-season games amid overlapping issues with neuropathy (20 games), left abdominal soreness (18) and left hip soreness (six).
Did these developments ever affect Looney’s confidence that he could ever stay out of the trainer’s room and doctor’s offices?
“I always had faith that I could get healthy,” Looney said. “That’s something that I can control. My diet, my routine and learning my body, those are all things I can control.”
How Looney tweaked his diet & training
The Warriors 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. Yet, Looney also further grasped the importance of working both hard and smart.
So, Looney further researched an issue that contributed to his injury-riddled season two years ago. Then, Looney dealt with 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 based in Woodland Hills, California, to learn more about what contributed to his digestive issues. Following numerous tests, Allen concluded that Looney’s gut was “highly compromised.” Allen also discovered that Looney had what he called “bad bacteria,” which inflamed his stomach and reduced his nutrient absorption. The Warriors’ training staff and Allen also agreed that Looney’s gastrointestinal issues worsened his nerve pain.
“The biggest thing I did was not only fix his nutrition,” Allen told NBA.com. “What was way bigger than fixing his nutrition was fixing his gut.”
Looney stopped consuming various meats, sugar, processed foods, dairy, gluten, nuts and cinnamon out of a belief that those foods contributed to his pain and congestion. Looney became a pescatarian and also frequently drank what Allen called a “cleanse shake,” which has vegan-based protein aimed to lower Looney’s inflammation while strengthening his liver, gallbladder and pancreas. Allen estimated that Looney also takes about 50 different supplements, which the Warriors have tested out six months in advance.
“I’ve never seen any team so disciplined,” Allen said. “They had been working and trying to get Kevon healthy for a while. They were very invested in him.”
Looney attributed those changes directly toward playing 61 games last season in the NBA’s reduced 72-game schedule. Considering he still nursed a sprained left ankle that sidelined him for 11 games, however, Looney sought 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 dabbed in jiujitsu training in previous offseasons, both to boost his conditioning, footwork and strength. But Looney found Muay Thai helpful with improving his hip mobility and balance, in hopes of preventing future injuries.
For 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 to improve his range of motion. Looney then participated in a martial arts workout that focused on mastering various kicking and punching techniques. Mulanney estimated those sessions usually lasted an hour longer than intended because Looney “just wanted to keep going.”
“He was a really hard worker, extremely intelligent and very fast learner,” Mulanney told NBA.com. “But the last thing you want is for him to come away with some kind of tweak. That concern was certainly at the forefront of what we were doing.”
Does that mean Looney could not beat anyone up as he often does on the court?
“Nah,” Looney said, laughing. “It was more of a technique thing. I would spar with [Chris] sometimes and he would play around with me and not try to hurt me. But he let me get some hits on him a couple of times.”
Once the 2021-22 season started, Looney then added Joga 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 also has helped alleviate soft-tissue injuries and tightness.
“It got me in tune with my body,” Looney said. “When I do that, I’m able to better communicate with the training staff what I’m feeling.”
Lately, Looney described himself as “feeling loose and feeling freer.” After completing a full regular season without struggling with any injuries or fatigue, Looney became just as valuable in the Warriors’ postseason run.
In the first round, Looney became one of the Warriors’ primary defenders on Nuggets center Nikola Jokic. In the second round, Looney played a significant factor in the Warriors’ decisive Game 6 win over Memphis. Brown listened to Green and Curry vouching for Looney to start in Game 6, and he delivered with four points and a playoff-career high 22 rebounds. Afterwards, Thompson called Looney the team’s MVP.
The moment validated Looney’s self-professed motto as he sought to prove all season he could evolve from injury prone to Ironman.
“As long as I’m healthy,” Looney said, “I’m going to be good on the court.”
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