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Rookie Status Update: The Warriors’ New Bellwether

Every NBA team had a chance at Jordan Bell before the Bulls sold their second-round pick to Golden State. In just three months, the rookie big man has become an integral part of the Warriors’ machine and the perfect big man to help transition the champs into the not-too-distant future.

Two images of Jordan Bell, in which he’s smiling and dunking AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Jordan Bell was worth more to the Warriors than any other team in the NBA. They paid the Bulls $3.5 million for the rights to the no. 38 pick on draft day last year because they knew exactly how to use him. Bell plays a position the Warriors practically invented when they started playing Draymond Green at center in small-ball lineups. Bell is a budget version of Green: a wing-sized player with the athleticism and basketball IQ to protect the rim. Both players slipped into the second round because they didn’t fit the mold of a traditional big man. Now, Golden State is creating a mold of its own.

Bell, who gets to play in front of the Chicago crowd for the first time as a pro on Wednesday, has excelled in a limited role as a rookie. He is ninth on the team in minutes per game (14.8) and 11th in usage rate (14.6), but he has consistently impacted the game when he has been in. Bell has per-36 minute averages of 12.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.7 steals, and 2.6 blocks on 66.4 percent shooting. He has earned more playing time; there just isn’t enough to go around. The Warriors have five traditional big men (Zaza Pachulia, David West, JaVale McGee, Kevon Looney, and Damian Jones), plus three players (Green, Bell, and Kevin Durant) who can play as small-ball 5s. Like the rest of the NBA, they are transitioning to a new world where speed trumps size at center. Bell already plays more than any of Golden State’s traditional bigs. He will only take more playing time from them in the years to come.

Bell is a new kind of defensive anchor. NBA offenses have changed, and defenses are changing with them. Not many teams pound the ball inside anymore, or run much offense through the post. The goal these days is to force big men to defend in space on the perimeter. Centers without the speed to leave the paint have become a liability. Winning wrestling matches inside is no longer their primary responsibility. NBA teams have been downsizing at the position over the past few years, and Bell is taking that trend to its logical conclusion.

At 6-foot-9 and 224 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Bell is built more like a wing than a center. He is an elite athlete who can get down in a defensive stance, slide his feet, and stay in front of even the fastest guards. Running a pick-and-roll against him plays right into his hands. He’s comfortable defending isolations past the 3-point line, as he does against Will Barton in this sequence:

When he’s not guarding the ball, Bell can rotate over and protect the rim like a bigger player. There’s more to being a small-ball 5 than switching screens. No matter how small the center is, he is still the quarterback of the defense. He has to organize the other defenders, call out pick-and-roll coverages, and cover for others when they are beaten. The Warriors have that in Bell (5.8 block percentage), Durant (4.8 percent), and Green (3.1 percent), who are all in the top 50 in the NBA in block rate this season.

Bell makes a lot of spectacular blocks, but being able to consistently put himself in the right position is more important. His defensive field goal percentage at the rim this season (48.6 percent) is third in the league among players who defend at least three shots per game. Watch how he’s able to rotate from the help side and cover up Dwight Howard as he rolls to the basket:

Bell is far from perfect defensively. He’s not as good of a one-on-one defender as Green, who is built more like a bowling ball. Green is 2 inches shorter and six pounds heavier than Bell, and his wingspan is 3 inches longer. He has more mass compressed into a smaller area, which makes it harder to move him once he establishes position in the post, and his longer reach allows him to contest more shots without leaving his feet. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, Green is in the 77th percentile of post defenders leaguewide. Bell is in the 24th. Mason Plumlee, who is not exactly an offensive machine on the low block, can go right through Bell:

Bell is also easier to attack on the glass. He is used to winning jump balls for rebounds instead of boxing out like he did in college, although that did come back to haunt him in the final moments of Oregon’s loss in the Final Four. He’s not big enough to take shortcuts at this level. Bell also has a higher center of gravity than Green does, so it’s easier to get leverage on him and push him around. Watch how DeAndre Jordan is able to bulldoze him for a putback dunk:

Battling bigger players in the paint is hard on the body. Not many guys want to do it. The Warriors carefully manage Green’s workload at the 5. They didn’t even use Durant at the position until the playoffs last season. Bell allows the Warriors to play more small ball in the regular season and spares the stars from additional wear and tear. He’s a 23-year-old with a live body who soaks up minutes inside. Despite being smaller than Green and Durant, he usually guards the biggest player on the opposing team when they are all in together.

Lineups with Bell, Durant, and Green have been dominant this season. They have an offensive rating of 112.7, a defensive rating of 91.3, and a net rating of plus-21.4 in 110 minutes. There isn’t just one Lineup of Death anymore. Warriors coach Steve Kerr can mix and match between an almost infinite number of small-ball combinations over the course of a game. Bell has been the 5 in 21 different lineups that have played at least five minutes this season.

Playing with so much talent has made Bell’s life easy on offense. All he has to do is cut to the rim when he’s open and beat slower big men down the floor in transition. He is in the 76th percentile of players leaguewide on cuts, and the 94th percentile in transition. He takes 80.9 percent of his shots within 5 feet of the basket. Bell plays within himself. He is playing with so many elite scorers that he doesn’t need to force difficult shots. He is a smart player who combines McGee’s finishing with Zaza’s and West’s passing. He has the sixth-highest assist rate (16.7 percent) on Golden State, and he fits the way the team plays. The tic-tac-toe passing in this sequence from Christmas Day is beautiful:

Bell will likely have a bigger role next season. Zaza, West, McGee, and Looney are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. Jones, the Warriors’ only traditional center under contract, has spent all season in the G-League. It won’t be easy to bring the rest back or find replacements if they leave. If Durant exercises his player option, the Warriors will have $128.31 million in salary on the books for only nine players. Given how punitive luxury tax penalties are, they will have to pinch every penny.

Featuring Bell would make the Warriors an even tougher matchup. They use small ball as a change of pace. It becomes their primary lineup only when their backs are against the wall in the playoffs. How good would they be if they could play that way all the time? Golden State has a net rating of plus-14.9 in the 546 minutes Bell has played this season, the fourth-highest mark on the team, and plus-20.2 in the 361 minutes he has played without a traditional 5 next to him. The Warriors may need one or two of those bigger centers to match up with some of the Goliaths in the Western Conference, but they don’t need five. Bell will allow the team with the most wings in the league to add even more this offseason.

The Warriors set the tone for the rest of the NBA. They are the team everyone else is chasing. Every other contender needs an answer when Golden State plays a small-ball 5, and the ones with the best answers will start using them against each other. The irony is that Bell is exactly the type of big man those teams need against Golden State. He wouldn’t be as successful with less offensive talent around him, but a player with his skill set is inherently valuable. He is on track to become the first rookie to ever have a defensive BPM higher than 4 and a true shooting percentage higher than 65 while playing significant minutes.

Most of the centers taken ahead of Bell in the draft can’t force opposing teams to keep another big man in to guard them. Bell, on the other hand, can play bigger players off the floor and force teams to go small and match up with him. Players who dictate matchups usually go in the lottery, not the second round. The rest of the NBA saw Bell as a guy who could thrive only in specific situations. The Warriors saw those situations as the future of the league. There’s a positive feedback loop happening with small ball: The more teams play it, the less valuable every traditional 5 in the league becomes. I talked to one executive who thinks the number of big men in the NBA will be cut in half by 2020. Every team will soon be looking for its own version of Jordan Bell, if teams aren’t already. They all needed him on draft night. They just didn’t know it yet.