Warriors’ Festus Ezeli becoming a force

As Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin soared toward the basket ready to unleash a one-handed dunk when at his apex, Festus Ezeli met force with force.

The ferocious blocked shot during Wednesday night’s game awakened many to the rise of the Warriors center. Ezeli’s coaches and teammates already believed the 26-year-old possessed the talent to become one of the NBA’s best big men.

“Not a lot of people can go do that in the league,” Warriors forward Harrison Barnes said of Ezeli’s blocking Griffin in Golden State’s 112-108 win. “To be able to start off the season healthy, get a lot of minutes, and be able to do your thing, his confidence goes through the roof.”

Said Ezeli: “Every time I jump, I feel like I have a pretty good chance.”

Ezeli has shown off his defensive abilities and caught numerous lobs for dunks while starting the past four games in place of injured Andrew Bogut and facing the likes of Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan. 

“His job is to block shots, so don’t get got,” Andre Iguodala said of his teammate, who turned down the Warriors’ contract extension offer and is expected to receive a huge payday next summer.

“They’re going to pay you a lot of money to protect the basket.”

Ezeli, who could start again Friday night against the Denver Nuggets, can also run the floor better than Bogut.

For the 6-foot-11 Nigerian who lost the entire 2013-14 season recovering from knee surgery and didn’t begin playing the game until age 16, now it’s about continuing to grow his game on offense and confidence.

The Warriors want to fuel the fire of the gentle giant. After Los Angeles Lakers rookie Larry Nance Jr. dunked on Ezeli last month in a preseason game, he could only smile as he looked on his phone at the reaction on the Internet and his teammates joked that he couldn’t block shots anymore.

Warriors interim head coach Luke Walton said he teased Ezeli about the possibility of benching him for the Clippers game since he already had racked up 11 points and 10 rebounds against the Memphis Grizzlies two nights earlier.

Challenged to be more consistent, Ezeli had 12 points and one eye-catching block against the Clippers to mark the first time in his career he scored in double figures in consecutive games.

Rather than gloat after muscling Griffin’s shot out of bounds, Ezeli simply bounced the ball back to the referee. Ezeli later noted that he was actually a tad late in helping on defense.

“We have a great game in New Orleans, and (assistant coach Ron Adams) was mad at me,” said Ezeli, who didn’t make a field goal and missed five free throws. “He continues to challenge me every day.”

When Bogut was injured in the preseason and Ezeli was expected to start, Walton smiled and said that would happen only if his offer was accepted.

“He’s got to accept it,” Walton said, smiling.

Ezeli laughed.

“I’m here, so yeah, I have accepted it,” he said, “and I’m enjoying it.”

 

By: Diamond Leung, Bay Area News Group

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