SAN RAMON –- Festus Ezeli’s oft-criticized hands are no bigger or softer or more flexible than they were three years ago. Yet they’ve gotten appreciably better.
The progression of his ability to grasp the ball has evolved from dreadful to acceptable. To hear the Warriors center tell it, the development is unrelated to his actual hands. They are fine, he says. Always have been.
Ezeli instead credits his growth to an improved relationship with the game of basketball.
“It’s never been about my hands,” he said Thursday, as he prepared to meet with about 150 boys and girls at a team-sponsored basketball camp. “It’s kind of weird, because I always hear people talking about my hands.
“It’s more of an issue of the game slowing down. The more I play, the more I get to see the game and it slows down. I get to have a feel for what to do and how to respond.”
The improvement is a simple case of familiarity and repetition. It’s hard to be immediately fluent when learning a new language, hard to instantly adapt to a different culture, impossible to as polished a surgeon in your first 20 days as one might be after 10 years.
Ezeli, a native of Nigeria, didn’t pick up a basketball until he was a teenager and didn’t play at all in high school. He has made giant strides since the Warriors made him the 30th overall selection in the 2012 draft. Even though injuries have forced him to miss roughly nearly half of the team’s games in his three seasons, he has established himself as someone with a solid future in the NBA.
Warriors ownership and management, from CEO Joe Lacob all the way down through coach Steve Kerr and the members of his staff, have been consistent in expressing their faith in Ezeli’s future.
“I have coaches that are dedicated to helping me,” Ezeli said, singling out veteran assistant Ron Adams. “I worked with Ron every day. Ron has a vision for what he thinks I can be in this league. He thinks I can be a very big defensive force, but at the same time he also has high hopes for my offense. Coach Kerr says the same thing.”
Which brings us to the subject of a contract extension. Ezeli will earn $2 million next season but can become a restricted free agent next July. It has been speculated that Ezeli could be in line for a deal averaging as much as $10 million.
Asked recently about an extension for Ezeli, Warriors general manager Bob Myers said the matter would be addressed before the Oct. 31 deadline.
“We love them and we’re going to try to keep them as long as we can,” Myers said, referring to Harrison Barnes and Ezeli. “Thankfully, like with Draymond (Green), they would be restricted free agents. But hopefully we can figure something out like we have with a lot of our players. They’re a key part of what we do. Without them, we don’t win a championship.”
Ezeli says he’s unconcerned about a new deal, leaving the issue to agent Bill Duffy.
“I deal with playing and training and getting ready for next season,” Ezeli said. “In terms of that stuff, I’m not really worried about it. The Warriors are committed to their players. They love our team. We’re going to be winning for a long time. It’s a young group.”
It was noteworthy that Ezeli, Green and Barnes -- all drafted in 2012 -– were on the floor for most of the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, which the Warriors won to clinch their trip to the NBA Finals. Ezeli played 28 minutes, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds and a blocked shot.
No less impressive was Ezeli’s 10-point performance, over 11 minutes, in decisive Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Such a feat a year earlier would have been inconceivable -– mostly because of his hands.
So, yes, his mitts clearly are getting better.
“That just comes with time,” Ezeli said. “I started playing basketball late. It doesn’t come as natural for me as it does for some of the other guys. But I’ll work hard enough to make up for that lost time.”
Ezeli is no Hakeem Olajuwon, but he’s closing what had been an immeasurable gap –- with Olajuwon’s help. Both Nigerian natives were in South Africa last month. Ezeli participated in an exhibition game in Johannesburg. Olajuwon, 52, also got a few minutes of run, and didn’t embarrass himself.
“His footwork is still unbelievable,” Ezeli marveled. “I spent some time talking to him. He has the same story as I do, the same journey, so got some pretty good tips and some good life lessons.”
Olajuwon went from not knowing what a rebound was as a teenager to the Hall of Fame. Ezeli would be quite pleased with progressing from a raw prosect with questionable hands to one with a firm grip on an impressive NBA career.