Jordan Bell proving to be well worth $3.5 million gamble for Warriors

Jordan Bell wasn’t a mystery entering the 2017 NBA Draft. In addition to being the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, he was one of the standout players in the 2017 NCAA Tournament. He helped the Ducks defeat the No. 1 seeded Jayhawks in the Elite 8 with 11 points, 13 rebounds and eight blocks. He then followed it up with 13 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks in what ended up being a one point loss to the Tar Heels in the Final Four.

It wasn’t enough for him to be projected as a potential first-round pick, but it did make Bell a sleeper candidate in a loaded draft, some going as far as calling him “the type of switchable big man that teams need to beat the Warriors.” So it came as a surprise when the Warriors ended up with Bell, not one of the 29 other teams trying to take them down. It cost the Warriors $3.5 million in total, which they sent to the Bulls in return for Bell’s draft rights as the No. 38 pick. (And Bell remembered that number when the Warriors crushed the Bulls on Nov. 24.)

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The Warriors didn’t necessarily draft Bell with the idea of him contributing this season. After taking care of Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant in the offseason, they turned their attention to Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, Nick Young, Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee and Omri Casspi to give them the depth they need to compete for another championship. Bell, however, has performed well enough in limited minutes to work his way into the rotation.

How has a second-round pick made a difference on the best team in the NBA as a rookie? Let’s take a closer look at what Bell brings on both ends of the court.

A finisher on offense

Bell might never develop into someone who can consistently create his own basket. Of the 39 shots he has made this season, 30 have been assisted. And of the nine unassisted field goals he has been credited with, eight have come from putbacks. The only basket he has truly created for himself came following a steal in which he pushed the ball from one end of the court to the other and drained a hook shot (of sorts) over Paul Zipser.

Bell’s limitations on offense are a big reason why he was projected as a second-round pick heading into the NBA Draft. He doesn’t provide much value as a post-up scorer and isn’t someone who is comfortable shooting outside of the paint — Bell attempted 16 3-pointers in his three seasons at Oregon, making only three of those opportunities — which is a troubling combination for a soon-to-be 23-year-old who has the skill set of a center in the body of a power forward.

Nonetheless, Bell can be a difference-maker in the right situation. It’s why him ending up on the Warriors might be the greatest thing to ever happen to his NBA career. With some of the best playmakers in the league sharing the floor with him, Bell doesn’t need to create his own shot to make his presence known. His inability to space the floor isn’t much of a problem, either, because the Warriors can surround him with at least four outside shooters at all times.

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Bell is basically an undersized JaVale McGee right now, giving the Warriors another explosive big man off the bench who can play above the rim and and make teams pay for overextending on the perimeter with cuts and rolls to the basket. Having such a player in the right lineups makes the Warriors almost unguardable.

Focus on limiting 3-point shots, and Bell will feast on a combination of layups and dunks whenever one of Golden State’s playmakers is able to collapse the defense off the dribble. But rotate over to take those high percentage opportunities away, and Bell’s gravity as a finisher will open up opportunities for others on the perimeter.

Bell has good touch around the rim as well. He currently ranks near the top of the league in shooting efficiency — albeit on a small sample size — by converting 77.8 percent of his shot attempts within five feet of the basket. All but five of his overall attempts have come without a dribble, but Bell has displayed the ability to finish around the basket in a variety of ways, whether it’s with a soft floater or by getting the defense in the air with a well-timed pump fake.

Although Bell is limited as a scorer in the halfcourt, teams can’t simply ignore him. If they do, he will make them pay on the offensive glass, where he shined during his three years at Oregon.

Bell currently ranks 17th in the entire league with an offensive rebounding rate of 12.7 percent, putting him alongside the likes of Cody Zeller, Jonas Valanciunas, Dwight Howard and Kenneth Faried. He also ranks fourth among rookies who have played at least 10 games this season with 4.8 offensive rebounds per 100 possessions. Not only does he have great timing in those situations, Bell’s athleticism and motor helps him beat opponents to the ball.

Even with that baseline of talent, the Warriors have been a monster offensively with Bell in the lineup this season. They have put up an average of 122.2 points per 100 possessions in his 193 minutes on the court compared to 113.1 points per 100 possessions in his 1,012 minutes on the bench. It gives Bell the second best net rating on offense (+9.1) on the roster.

While there is some noise with that number — it shouldn’t be interpreted as Bell being a more valuable offensive player than Klay Thompson — it speaks to the impact he can make in short stints off the bench with his energy and athleticism. It was a similar case with McGee last season. The Warriors were 10.2 points per 100 possessions better with McGee on the floor, but considering his strengths and weaknesses on both ends, he was a better fit coming off the bench for 10 minutes per game as opposed to starting for 20 minutes per game.

The difference with Bell is he has the potential to be much more.

The little things

When asked about whether Bell deserves more minutes, Draymond Green said, while it’s not ultimately his decision, Bell “makes things happen” when he’s on the court.

It’s these sorts of plays Green is likely referring to:

Bell doesn’t get credit for doing anything on the box score, but he does three important things. First, he sets the screen on Jordan Clarkson, which frees Curry up for a 3-pointer. Bell then creates an offensive rebound for the Warriors by rolling to the basket and putting pressure on the Lakers at the rim. Finally, he positions himself around the dunker spot on the reset to draw Clarkson away from the basket, paving the way for Curry to score an uncontested layup.

A lot of Bell’s value on offense stems from him being able to do a lot with very little. It’s further displayed in his passing. The Warriors don’t run much of their offense through Bell when he takes the floor — 50 rookies have a higher usage rating than him right now — but he has shown the ability to make high level reads with the ball in his hands, both out of the pick-and-roll and elbow.

It doesn’t mean Bell will develop into the type of big man who can turn a defensive rebound into a transition opportunity like Green, yet he could eventually take over a similar role on half court sets as a facilitator from the power forward or center position.

That includes giving him the ball on short rolls…

…and running the offense through him on the perimeter or elbows.

The reality is Bell won’t likely ever be a high usage player. As long as they have Curry, Thompson, Durant and Green, all the Warriors need from him is to keep the offense moving when he’s on the floor by making strong cuts, simple passes when the defense collapses on his roll, set screens on shooters to make up for his inability to space the floor and attack the glass for second chance opportunities. Being able to do all of those things consistently is what could elevate him from being a niche center off the bench to a reliable contributor.

An all-around defender

Steve Kerr didn’t waste any time testing Bell’s defensive versatility, playing him a total of 11 minutes off the bench on opening night against the Rockets. Bell displayed what he is capable of offensively in those minutes — he scored eight points on 4-for-5 shooting — but he struggled to stay in front of James Harden and Eric Gordon on a handful of isolation possessions in the first quarter.

Many players have a hard time keeping up with Harden and Gordon on an island, so it was no surprise that a rookie who was selected in the second round of the draft wouldn’t be able to match them step for step. The encouraging sign is that Bell at least looked confident switching onto them. The following possession, for example, isn’t necessarily bad defense on Bell’s behalf. It’s simply better offense from someone who leads the league in isolation scoring, doing so at a rate of 1.26 points per possession.

The hope is Bell will one day be able to consistently keep up with the likes of Harden and Gordon, and he’s showcased some of that potential in the games since. He had one particular sequence against the Pelicans in the second game of the season where he contested Ian Clark’s shot at the rim as the help defender, shut down Jrue Holiday in isolation on a switch and poked the ball away from Anthony Davis on consecutive defensive possessions. It’s the sort of versatility that had some wondering if he could end up being the Draymond Green of this draft class.

The early returns are encouraging statistically as well. According to NBA.com, opponents are shooting only 47.6 percent at the basket against Bell. That mark puts him on the same page as some of the best rim protectors in the NBA, such as Hassan Whiteside, Joel Embiid and Paul Millsap. Bell has defended 42 shots in total at the rim, 22 of which have ended in a missed opportunity for the offensive team.

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It helps that Bell already has the reputation of a shot blocker. He averaged 2.2 blocks per game during his three years at Oregon, and his 18 blocks this season are the most amongst players who have played less than 200 minutes. The closest person to him is his teammate Kevon Looney, who has blocked two less shots than Bell, then McGee behind Looney with 14 blocks of his own.

Six of those 18 blocks came in one game, which just so happened to be when Bell logged what is still a career-high 26 minutes. Out of all of them, this one in particular stands out:

Bell covers so much ground as a shot blocker because he’s a quick leaper with great instincts. The problem is he follows up his block on Robin Lopez by fouling Jerami Grant on the perimeter when he would’ve been better off closing out under control and keeping his feet on the ground.

The latter points to a bigger issue for Bell. While he is a gifted shot blocker, his confidence in his ability to block any shot makes him susceptible to falling for shot fakes. It can result in him picking up unnecessary fouls — Bell is currently averaging 5.2 fouls per 36 minutes — or giving up inside positioning to his defensive assignment. Either way, his tendency to chase after blocks has a way of ending in spectacular fashion or quality shots for the opposing team.

Those plays should occur less frequently as Bell continues to mature. What’s important is he has the tools to switch onto five positions and protect the rim well enough to play the center position, both of which make him an ideal fit in Kerr’s defensive scheme.

What to watch for next

Bell has showcased his full potential in limited minutes. The question now is whether he can continue to provide the same sort of value over longer periods of time against better players seeing as a lot of his minutes have come against second units.

It’s hard to believe some of Bell’s game won’t translate. He might struggle in lineups when he’s a power forward, but the Warriors have been using him almost exclusively as a center thus far. Provided they surround him with the right combination of playmakers and shooters, he should always have the spacing he needs to continue making an impact as a finisher and rebounder.

Bell is more likely to struggle defensively than offensively moving forward because of how difficult it is for big men to keep up in today’s NBA. He has the ability to switch onto guards and stick with them in isolation, but he’ll have to prove he can do it consistently against the best offensive players in the NBA, especially if he’s going to get minutes against star-studded teams like the Rockets, Cavaliers, Celtics and Spurs in the postseason.

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