Sometimes, Festus Ezeli still can’t believe where he is.
Ten years ago, he was a 16-year-old student from Nigeria at Yuba College, studying to become a doctor, when he first played organized basketball.
On Tuesday night, his defense keyed the Golden State Warriors’ 110-99 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the NBA’s Western Conference semifinals.
“I keep saying that this kid (who) just started playing basketball 10 years ago – all of a sudden I’m in this locker room with all these great guys,” the fourth-year backup center said. “I’m just really blessed.”
All-Stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are mostly responsible for the Warriors’ success. But the team receives contributions from nearly every player.
It was Ezeli’s turn Tuesday. After not playing in the Game 1 victory Sunday, he helped the Warriors shut down Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard in the fourth quarter.
“(Ezeli) changed the whole game with his pick-and-roll defense and his presence around the rim,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “The energy he gave us; he played 13 straight minutes. This is a guy who has been out most of the last part of the season and didn’t play much in the Houston series. So phenomenal effort from Fez to really change the game.”
Ezeli had eight points, six rebounds, one assist and one block. But his statistics don’t show how his energy disrupted Lillard, who had 17 of his 25 points in the third quarter but didn’t score in the fourth.
“I know what my job is every night,” Ezeli said. “I know I have to come out, bring energy for the team, block shots, rebound … and those bring energy. Those are catalysts for our team, and I just want to do them to the best of my ability. So every night, that’s what my job is, and just I was one-track minded when I got out there.”
Ezeli missed 31 games in the regular season after knee surgery while the Warriors went 73-9, the best record in league history. But he hasn’t sulked about his limited minutes in the playoffs.
“It’s been a heck of a ride, to be honest,” Ezeli said. “I really can’t complain. Yeah, I was kind of a little down. I found out I was injured and I had to have surgery again on another knee. But at the end of the day, I have amazing teammates. Guys like Draymond and everybody on the team come over and wrap their hands around me like, ‘We’ve got you.’ And that’s very comforting to me, and it motivates me more than anything.”
Green said Ezeli has improved this season, despite his injury. Ezeli’s averages of 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and 16.7 minutes and his 54.8 percent field-goal shooting are career highs.
“I think he’s having a tremendous year,” Green said. “With the exception of the injury, he came back a couple games rusty. That’s probably expected after 31 games. He’s having an amazing year, and he’s been key to everything we’ve been doing this year.”
As a fourth-year player, Ezeli is due for a big raise when he becomes a restricted free agent, backing up what Doug Cornelius, Yuba College’s coach, told him 10 years ago – that he’d make a lot more money playing basketball than being a doctor.
But Ezeli said he’s not focusing on a new contract.
“No, (I) try to stay in the moment,” Ezeli said, talking about the Warriors’ quest to repeat as NBA champions. “Our main goal coming into the season, ever since the summer – I still remember in the summer we were all texting in a group chat talking about how we can’t wait to get back and we couldn’t wait to get back to practice. That’s a very special feeling to have with a basketball team.”