Damian Jones sets sights on Warriors' starting center job

Monte Poole
NBC Sports BayArea

OAKLAND -- Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee are employed elsewhere. Andrew Bogut is retired. DeMarcus Cousins is rehabbing. So the Warriors, for the first time in seven years, will begin training camp without a designated starting center.

Competition is open, coach Steve Kerr says, but logic dictates second-year man Jordan Bell's 13 starts as a rookie give him an edge.

It's conceivable that fourth-year man Kevon Looney, who made four starts last season, will emerge from the pack.

The third competitor played 174 minutes in his first two seasons and has never started an NBA game.

Damian Jones is the underdog. With the thinnest resume, he has the most ground to make up to earn Kerr's trust. Furthermore, he'd like to persuade general manager Bob Myers to pick up the team option for 2019-20, his fourth season.

"This is a big year for me, so I'll have to treat it as a contract year," Jones conceded to NBC Sports Bay Area this week. "The team option is coming up (an Oct. 31 deadline). I'm going in with the mindset that I'm playing for something. Something big."

Jones, selected in the first round (30th overall) of the 2016 draft, has spent most of his first two seasons in Santa Cruz, toiling with the G-League Warriors. The NBA Warriors could afford to be patient with the 7-footer because they had a platoon of veteran big men.

That patience is fading. It has to. The Warriors are determined to get younger, and center is the obvious place to start. But Jones has to prove he can contribute to a championship-caliber team.

In short, Jones has to prove he can contribute to a championship-caliber team.

"I want to be the starter," he said.

"But I'm willing to do all the things that they ask me to do," he added. "That's what I have in mind, going to camp with a full commitment of giving my all."

Jones' most visible asset, aside from height, is athleticism. He can sprint the floor with any big man in the league and jump with most of them, too. The Warriors spent last season privately debating how much of a gap existed between Jones and McGee, who brought similar attributes in a veteran's body.

If Jones, 23, is able to fill the role vacated by McGee, the Warriors will be delighted. It's what they envision and Jones knows it's what they want.

"They talked about me having a JaVale type role, so I'm keeping that in mind," Jones said, recalling his exit interview in June. "That means a lot of effort plays. I'm cool with that. A lot of the things JaVale could do, I can do. I can catch lobs, like he did. All the screen-and-rolls, running the floor, blocking shots that JaVale did, I can do, too.

"He's got height and length on me, but I feel I'm a little more explosive and a little bit quicker."

Just as McGee had his liabilities, so does Jones. Some are the same. Neither is particularly instinctive, and neither is a natural scorer. The Warriors can live with that from Jones, as long as the effort is consistent and the All-Star teammates feel they can trust him.

Jones hasn't gotten many chances, but he seized one last April in Oklahoma City. Having lost two of three previous games to the Thunder, the Warriors were out to make a statement against Kevin Durant' former team despite being without Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.

In a close game before a howling and hostile crowd, Jones thrived. He played a season-high 14 minutes, finishing with eight points, two rebounds and one block. There was plenty of cheering in the locker room after the 111-107 victory.

"That was for DJ," Kerr said after the game. "He's been down in Santa Cruz all year. The guys down there have really developed him well.

Damian deserves a lot of credit; he's really, really worked hard. You could see the type of physical presence he has out there. It was a fun opportunity to see what he can do."

The Warriors want more of that. They need more of that. Until Cousins is cleared to play, it's up to the youngsters and Jones is the one with the longest road.

"It's a big opportunity for me," he said. "I don't have all the veterans ahead of me, so I just have to go out there and prove what I can do: Rebound, defend, sprint the floor. Those are the main things we really need. If I do those things, I think I'll be solid. Everything else will fall into place."

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