SAN FRANCISCO — The day before Kevin Rooney played the best game of his career, he sat in the hallway of the Chase Center in San Francisco, thinking about how his role had changed since Golden State drafted him in 2015.
This is a team known for having smaller lineups. That’s how it won the championship that year. At 6-foot-9, Rooney is considered short despite having a wingspan of over 7 feet.
Rooney chuckled, then he thought a little more.
“The league has changed a bit, and now I’m more of a traditional center in the NBA,” said Rooney, thinking of the way people sometimes talk about Golden State. “So it’s kind of weird to me. Sometimes when they say ‘they don’t have any sizes’ it feels like a slap in the face.”
Looney isn’t usually the most talked-about member of the Warriors. He was drafted less than two weeks after Steve Kerr coached the Golden State Warriors to their first championship and went to four straight NBA Finals and two championships. After overcoming early injury woes, he’s become a key addition to the Golden State Warriors’ roster, one of only five players in the league to appear in 82 regular-season games this year.
Golden State can already count on him in this year’s playoffs. He didn’t start in Games 1-5 of the Western Conference Semifinals series against the Memphis Grizzlies, then started and grabbed 22 rebounds in Game 6 of the winning series.
On Friday night, Rooney had 21 points and 12 rebounds in a 126-117 comeback against the Dallas Mavericks in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals series. It was the first time he scored more than 20 points in a single game since his only season at UCLA. It was also the first time since 1977 that a Warriors center had 20 points or at least 10 rebounds in the playoffs.
“We saw the work he did to make it happen,” Golden State guard Stephen Curry said. “Now, in the playoffs, taking the next step. He brings a lot of joy to what we do in the locker room. I would call him the muse of the locker room. He just has a good demeanor … He’s a bridge between veterans and young people. It’s been amazing to see him fit into the role.”
Kerr called Rooney “everybody’s favorite.”
Forward Draymond Green called him a professional guru.
“He was the same pro today, and when he came into the league, he was like that,” Green said.
Rooney may have shown Green professionalism and composure, but the truth is, when Rooney was drafted, he was a wide-eyed 19-year-old just trying not to spoil anything.
His job is to adapt, not stand out, as this team has been going strong since the title. As the only rookie, he doesn’t have anyone with a shared experience to talk about what that was like and what he should do.
“It was absolutely daunting,” Rooney said.
That July, he arrived in Las Vegas after playing in the NBA’s Summer League, when teams field their rosters of young players and NBA hopefuls. His team’s veterans were attending the Players Union awards ceremony in Las Vegas when Andre Iguodala texted him one night asking him to bring some doughnuts.
“It’s like 1 a.m.,” Rooney said with a smile. “I don’t even know if he’s serious. On day one, I was already scared. I didn’t want to screw up on day one.”
He attended the awards show, but when the team took the stage together, he said he was too shy to join them. That shyness persisted early in the season, as the team went 24-0 to an NBA-record 73 wins.
“They used to joke that I didn’t speak for the first six months,” Rooney said.
In addition to asking for the donuts at 1 a.m., Iguodala put Rooney under his own protection to help him adjust. Green would invite Rooney to spend time with him just to make him feel more comfortable in this new environment.
That helps in the dressing room, but Rooney will have other challenges. He underwent hip surgery before the start of his rookie season. Then he suffered another hip injury in his second season.
Rooney, who never missed a game in college or high school, called the injury “devastating.”
“We didn’t know what we had,” Kerr said, noting that the team didn’t accept Rooney’s contract option for a fourth season because he didn’t play much. He continued: “Then he had a great year in his third year and was like, oh, we might lose this guy.”
Rooney is acutely aware of the group’s questioning of him, but he takes comfort in the support of his teammates.
“Always having the respect of my teammates keeps me going, it makes me feel good about myself and know I’m doing the right thing,” Rooney said. “Even if the fans — your game might be bad, the fans might say you’re not good enough, someone might say you’re not good enough — but when you get your teammates to say, ‘Man, I’m not’ regardless of what the data lines say, I wanted to be there with Loon, ‘It’s a huge honor.'”
Looney has been inactive in the playoffs for the first two seasons. But in his third season, he started to play a big role for the Warriors and contributed to their championship run in 2017-18. He often defends the best players.
The 26-year-old is a veteran on a team that has recruited young players who are going through their first postseason. Rooney knew what that was like and tried to help guide them through the process.
If Golden State wins another championship this year, it will feel even more special considering his contributions.
“To have an impact, start a lot of these games, playoffs, play for the team, play a big role in the playoffs, that means a lot to me,” Rooney said. “Being able to close games and win games and play for my team is kind of like the cherry on top.”