Festus Ezeli was drafted by the Golden State Warriors out of Vanderbilt in 2012 at age 22, and to say he was a work in progress would be an understatement.
Ezeli graduated high school in Nigeria at age 14, skipping kindergarten and grades 5 and 6, but actually didn’t pick up the game of basketball until he moved to Sacramento after graduating high school.
His parents sent him to the states to be a doctor, but the size and raw talent of the Nigerian was too great for him to pursue his true calling: an NBA big man.
We’ve seen some potential from Ezeli, but how good can he really be?
Coming into the NBA, Ezeli was praised for his size, strength, and athleticism, which helped him out defensively. The Warriors could have really used Ezeli, (who was out with a knee injury) in the Western Conference first round matchup against the rival Clippers two seasons ago, with Andrew Bogut missing the series with a rib injury and the Warriors being generally thin in the front court.
With fan favorite David Lee also injured, the Warriors were forced to lean on a chubby, pre-breakout Draymond Green and an aging Jermaine O’Neal. The Warriors got destroyed on the glass and in the interior that series, but having Ezeli’s athletic presence could have helped contain the high-flying duo of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan better than any Warrior — including Bogut — at the time.
Ezeli’s game does have some downturns however. For one, Festus has ping-pong paddles for hands. His hands got better throughout last season, but how many times throughout Ezeli’s career have we seen a guard drive to the basket, dump it off to Ezeli, only to have him fumble with the ball for a second or two, allowing the defense to get back into position.
When asked about his stone hands by CSN Bay Area, Ezeli said, “It’s never been 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.”
We’ll give Ezeli a pass for this since he hasn’t been dribbling a ball since he was kid and he is getting better with his hands. In the past, Ezeli had a tendency to pump fake over and over, then get stuffed at the rim. Similarly on the defensive end Ezeli can be proned to fall for pumps which lead to easy baskets.
Ezeli will likely improve in these areas as he gets more minutes, which could help add a little more offensive fire power than Bogut brings. With Bogut getting older and his body prone to breaking down, the Warriors will need Ezeli to make an impact sooner rather than later. The days of the Warriors needing Bogut to make legit noise in the playoffs are all but over, and 2016 will likely begin the “passing of the torch” phase for Warriors’ big men.
With that being said, how good can Ezeli actually be? Ezeli needs to work on his footwork (on both sides of the ball), his passing and his post offense. Even at this underdeveloped stage Ezeli fits better in the Warriors scheme than Bogut does.
He can run with the fast paced offense, and his athleticism could make for some pretty lob finishes at off of a pick-and-roll. Since Ezeli will likely be the Warriors’ starting center within the next 2-3 seasons, the best case scenario is that he develops into a low-budget Dwight Howard — someone who can be elite defensively and get you double-digit points and rebounds.
With a pay raise around the corner, look for Festus Ezeli to finally turn some heads in 2016 like he did in the NBA Finals last season.