OAKLAND – In the finest minutes of their finest hour of their finest season, the Warriors not only clinched a berth in the NBA Finals for the first time in 40 years, but also showed the league how to build a franchise.
Not that team executives knew the events of a single night would turn out so exceedingly well, so often embattled, it seemed cursed.
As the numbers on the clock got smaller and smaller, and the crowd at Oracle Arena got louder and louder last Wednesday night, on the court for the Warriors were three young men, drafted by the franchise in 2012, scoring and rebounding and defending and making history.
There was Harrison Barnes, the one-time prep phenom, taken seventh overall from North Carolina. The 6-foot-8 forward played every second of the fourth quarter, scoring 13 points to secure the Game 5 Western Conference Finals win over Houston.
Then, Festus Ezeli, the late bloomer taken 30th overall from Vanderbilt. A 6-11 center, he also played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter, scoring six points, grabbing two rebounds and blocking one shot.
And there was Draymond Green, the second-round pick, taken 35th overall from Michigan State, now described by coach Steve Kerr as “the heartbeat” of the team. The 6-7 power forward played only the final five minutes, during which he grabbed five rebounds.
Three men, one draft, not only still in the league but still on the same team and on the court together making franchise history.
‘It’s nice, really nice,” general manager Bob Myers understated. “And they’re young. That bodes well for our future, I suppose. That’s what you hope to get out of a draft.
“You usually don’t.”
That’s because it doesn’t happen – certainly not three years after the draft, and most assuredly not for the Warriors. This is the franchise that parlayed four top-eight picks between 1993 and 1998 into one winning season.
It’s hard to get one keeper in the draft and almost impossible to find two. The Warriors of today somehow came upon two starters, Barnes and Green, and a contributor, Ezeli, all playing significant roles on a team going to the NBA Finals.
Green, 25, is an absolute bonus in as much as the second round is where teams roll the dice, or pick a name out of a hat. He has been the pivotal player for this team.
Moving into the lineup ahead of longtime starter David Lee, Green has brought a crackling combination of toughness, determination, smarts and versatility. He scores just enough, but he’s also an elite defender and rebounder. He’s an average athlete, but his skills and intangibles are off the chart.
“You know what he does? He wins,” Myers mused. “The more you’re around him, the more you realize that’s a skill, that effort and winning and finding ways to win is a skill.
“I’m sure if the whole league could go back – including us – he would have been selected much higher.”
Ezeli, who came to America as a teenager and didn’t play basketball until he was 17, is just tapping into his potential. The Rockets got a glimpse of it in Game 5, when the 25-year-old came off the bench to provide 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks.
Considered a top-three high school recruit, Barnes entered college carrying a sack full of prep honors. His two-year career at North Carolina was uneven, with as many highlights as mysterious disappearances. His career with the Warriors has, so far, followed a similar path.
He was spectacular in a pinch against the Rockets, scoring 24 points and excelling as the closer in the final quarter. And there is this: Barnes turned 23 on Saturday.
Are the Warriors committed to keeping all three? Green has become essential; the team has shown every indication of matching any offer presented to the restricted free agent this summer. Barnes can’t become a restricted free agent until 2016, so there is time for further evaluation. Ezeli is in the same situation.
“When you draft guys, you hope you get winning players, good character guys that will work hard,” Myers said. “All those guys did. But you don’t expect to see them mature that quickly and find themselves in big moments like that and come through.”
Certainly not for the Warriors, an organization steeped in monumental draft failure. They did have a fairly promising three-player draft back in 2001. But they didn’t go very far with Jason Richardson, Troy Murphy and Gilbert Arenas.
That they’ve already gotten far more from this group is a clear indication these Warriors are not the Warriors to whom we’d all become accustomed.