Jordan Bell is a rookie for the Golden State Warriors, who, in very limited playing time, managed to attract attention with his highlight-friendly dunking. Indeed, he even caused a minor controversy with his self alley-oop in garbage time in Dallas.
Now that Bell has a few pro games under his belt, let’s look at how his early play compares to the scouting report projections. In brief, he shows unexpectedly good offensive playmaking, energetic but rookie-like defense, and solid character and poise.
The Golden State Warriors didn’t have a draft pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, but they paid the Chicago Bulls the maximum allowed amount ($3.5 million) to buy the No. 38 pick, and they selected Jordan Bell, a junior from the University of Oregon. Bell burst on the national scene with his remarkable play leading Oregon to the 2017 Final Four, despite the injury to star Chris Boucher.
Bell not only has the attention of Warriors fans and haters, but also of Chicago Bulls fans.
bitter about the sale of the pick, since the team is now in great need of young talent and every Bell highlight has been salt in an open wound. (To be fair, it’s unlikely the Bulls would have themselves selected Bell with the pick, but it’s a visible sign of the Bulls’ short-sightedness.)
Bell is only 6’7” out of shoes. He might have been considered a tweener in the past, and perhaps his size caused him to fall out of the first round. As Anthony Slater reported:
“He’s a modern day 5,” Kerr said. “Undersized 5 with the ability to move and guard multiple spots, guard screen-and-roll and block shots at the same time. A lot of ability. He might’ve been considered a tweener 15 years ago, so he was born at the right time. The game’s changed. He actually fits the style of today.”
Unexpectedly Poised Offense
On offense, Jordan Bell was advertised as a high-flying dunker (U. Oregon’s career leader in field goal percentage at .610) with rudimentary post game and uncertain passing. In the small sample of 11 pro games, Bell has put up a per-36-minute line of 14.1 PTS on 70.4 FG% and .692 TS%, and 4.1 AST. Synergy rates him in in the 95% percentile with 1.432 points per possession (including his scoring attempts and assists). So these numbers fit the eye test that says Bell is a good finisher, with restrained shot selection (right at the rim) and surprisingly good touch on non-dunk layups. This means Bell is already ready to run the complete JaVale McGee playbook:
A big part of Warriors big man work is setting solid off-ball screens for shooters. Part of that work is reacting when the shooter is overplayed. In this common GSW play, the screener slips and cuts to the basket.
Here’s an example of him driving and making a nice read when the defense rotates to stop the dive.
HORNS Curl Fake
Most of the offense for JaVale McGee comes from alley-oop dunks. Jordan Bell can really jump and catch, so he’s well positioned to take over those plays. Here’s one where he fakes the downscreen for a curl from #1, and gets an alley-oop dunk.
Pick and Roll Relay Lobs
Here’s Bell running the most common play run to get McGee alley-oops.
Motion Weak Wing PIck and Roll
And here’s the final play in the McGee playbook. Bell in some ways runs the play better than McGee because he’s shown a knack for reading and passing, which we highlight in the next part.
Short roll 4 v 3 advantage (beyond the McGee playbook)
Of his statistical line, the 4.1 AST/36 number is the one that pops out. The videos show that Jordan Bell has a decent grasp of the offense already and can make plays for others out of the sets. A big part of this is Bell’s being able to run a basic 4 v 3 situation, which McGee cannot yet do.
When screening for GSW’s mob of great shooters, big men are going to be left alone when their man goes to hedge/trap/harass the shooter. It takes a certain playmaking poise to be able to run the ensuing 4 v 3, and Bell has already showed a knack for this.
Here’s another clip showing how Bell can run fairly complicated plays and improvise under pressure:
It absolutely can’t be taken for granted that a rookie could pick up the Kerr offense so quickly. The Warriors offense is a hybrid of Seven Seconds or Less early offense, and set offense from Spurs Motion, Phil Jackson Triangle, and Adelman Corner. Plenty of players never got the hang of the offense (like veterans Jason Thompson and Brandon Rush, and young draft picks Nemanja Nedovic and Ognjen Kuzmic), and even this season, veteran Nick Young is struggling to grasp it.
While Bell’s offensive playmaking has been a revelation, on defense, Bell looks very much like a rookie. The statistics are promising, as he does have a good looking per-36 line of 9.3 REB, 1.9 STL, 2.2 BLK. He has been an energetic, alert defender with quick hands and a nose for the ball. His rebounding has been fairly solid (his incoming reputation was as a bit of a ball-watcher, made famous by his giving up offensive rebounds in crunch time of the Final Four), and his offensive rebounding has been stellar (4.4 per 36, many of them rim-rattling putbacks).
His weak-side shot blocking was his main claim to fame (Bell is the career leader for U. Oregon with 235), but he hasn’t had so many of these in the pros. He’s still figuring out how and when to rotate over from the weakside block when good pro offenses will punish such rotations with a corner 3.
And teams have been targeting him for isolation attacks. In Bell’s pro debut, Eric Gordon memorably blew by Bell repeatedly for layups and a dunk. You would be correct if you say that Gordon makes a lot of bigs look bad, but the book on Bell seems to be to shot fake repeatedly until he fouls, use spin/pivot moves to get by him, and finish with quick bank shots under the shot block. Synergy agrees with this eye test and rates his overall defense as Below Average (30% percentile) and Poor when guarding the pick and roll ball handler (1.0 PPP, 14% percentile).
Bell has the physical tools to excel as a defender and credibly switch on to smalls. With time, he will likely catch on to the speed and tricks of pro attackers. Draymond Green has been his mentor, and undoubtedly will stay in his ear as he improves.
Conclusion: Character in a Traffic Jam of Centers
It’s obvious that Jordan Bell has exceeded expectations for a second round draft pick. By all reports, Bell has been a hard worker, and a good listener as the coaches work with him and when he gets yelled at by Draymond Green in-game. However, it takes a certain temperament to be successful with a team like the Warriors under Coach Steve Kerr. On the one hand, Kerr is famous for going very deep into his bench rotation for even the highest leverage games (most infamously 2016 Finals Game 7), going with the team motto “Strength In Numbers”. So Jordan Bell has gotten early chances to show his stuff.
On the other hand, the Warriors have a glut of flawed big men on the roster. Due to the salary cap, GSW has gone for volume and variety over quality of big man. Zaza Pachulia is a tough, large, screen-setter with poor hands and little scoring ability. JaVale McGee is an all-world leaper and dunker, but struggles with pick and roll coverage. David West is an excellent passer and midrange shooter, as well as a tough, smart defender, but as he’s aged, he doesn’t seem to have more than 15 daily minutes of tough play left. Kevon Looney began the season well out of the rotation, with two years lost to injury, but he finally seems spry and solidly in Steve Kerr’s rotation. Indeed, as Anthony Slater points out, Looney has the most minutes played among GSW centers over the last five games. And bouncing between the NBA and the G-League is Damian Jones, who still shows promise.
Instead of going with the hot hand, or choosing veterans, or going with youth, Kerr insists on shuffling all five players in and out of the lineup, sharing essentially one spot, which has even led to Jordan Bell being Inactive for two games. It’s not the fastest, most ideal way for Bell to develop. But Kerr is in Win Now mode, and this year is an awkward transition year. Next year the Warriors are likely to lose David West to retirement and may let one or both of Zaza Pachulia or JaVale McGee go as free agents. Jordan Bell, Damian Jones and Kevon Looney (if back) could pick up larger roles. But this year, Kerr needs to keep his veterans sharp and their egos stroked to have them ready for the fires of the playoffs, and unless injuries knock them out of the rotation, Jordan Bell is likely to remain on the bubble for regular playing time.