Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli is entering his sophomore season. His rookie campaign was decently successful as he averaged 2.4 points and 4.0 rebounds in just over 14 minutes per game. In spite of having an overall decent debut, Ezeli is at a vital point in his career.
Ezeli had surgery on his right knee in June, which will keep him out until at least November. As a 6’11” center that weighs 255 pounds, his career could take a major turn if he does not rehabilitate his knee properly. Though he is expected to make a full recovery, his reinforced MCL and PCL need to be able to get him through the rigors of being a full-time NBA center. There are major improvements that Ezeli needs to make in order to becoming a impactful center, but health needs to be a priority.
Andrew Bogut was out for the majority of the season and Ezeli managed to pick up much of the slack in his absence. He played in 78 total games and started in 41 of them. Among playoff teams, Ezeli had the second-most starts among rookies, trailing only teammate Harrison Barnes. He had a unique opportunity to be a starting center for half a season, then the backup season for the remainder, learning how much work it takes to not only be promoted, but be effective.
Bogut is set to be a free agent at the end of next season. Depending on how Bogut recovers from his multiple injuries, there may be opportunity for Ezeli to become the Warriors’ long term starting center. Bogut is already the highest paid Warrior on payroll. If Ezeli can prove himself and convince the team to pick up his team option, the Warriors will have a lot of leverage to improve in the future.
Offensively, Ezeli is a liability. From anywhere beyond three feet, Ezeli’s offensive effectiveness drops off drastically. His options are almost solely limited to dunking the ball. At the rim, he is shooting 57.6 percent, but on the rest of the court, he shoots a mere 27.7 percent.
At 23 years old, Ezeli is not a lost cause, but there lies even the question of whether he needs to make drastic improvements. The Warriors are a team stacked with offensive talent. Up and down the roster, Golden State has shooters, slashers and cutters that can be the first or second option on many other NBA teams.
Ezeli posted the Warriors’ third best defensive rating of 103.0, behind Bogut and Draymond Green. In just his first season, he has proven he can be a defensive threat. Last season, Ezeli posted 10.1 rebounds per-36 minutes. Moving forward, he could establish himself as an NBA center solely focused on defense and rebounding.
Ben Wallace has proven that a center can earn a living focusing on those two aspects of basketball. Wallace began his career in very unspectacular fashion by averaging 4.0 points and 6.3 rebounds in 19.4 minutes a game for the first four years of his career. All that changed when he was traded to the Detroit Pistons, leading to four Defensive Player of the Year awards. During his stint with the pistons, Wallace averaged 7.9 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.4 blocks/steals in 36.5 minutes of work.
Ezeli is currently nowhere near an elite rebounder and makes too many unnecessary fouls to be considered an elite defender either, but if he works on those two parts of his game, he may be able to wrestle the starting position away from Bogut. At only 23 years old, the sky is the limit with Ezeli. As long as he focuses on the parts of his game that are worth improving at this point in his learning curve, Ezeli will not only have a long and successful career, but one as a starting center as well.