In the Shadow of Superstars, Golden State’s Young Players Try to Bloom

Moses Moody would be wrapped in his blankets, protected from the morning chill, when his alarm went off at 5 a.m. Nothing about the situation appealed to him. What teenager wants to drag himself out of bed before dawn?

But as a seventh-grader in Little Rock, Ark., Moody was beginning to sense his promise as a basketball player. And he knew, even then, that if he wanted to go places, he would need to work at his game — and then work at it some more.

His father, Kareem Moody, had made a deal with him: He would help Moses train each morning before school, but only if Moses got up on his own. It was both a test and an early lesson in self-reliance: How badly did he want to improve?

“So, if I wanted to work out, I had to wake him up, go get dressed, and then go wake him up again,” Moses Moody recalled in an interview. “And then he’d know I was for real.”

Their early mornings at LA Fitness soon became routine. Moses also had the keys to the gym at Absolute Athlete, a nearby training facility. He was always looking for the next workout, the next pickup game, the next challenge.

“You want to have challenges, and you have to have obstacles,” Moody said. “Because if you’re bad at something, that just means you have more room to grow.”

As a second-year guard with Golden State, Moody, 20, has a new challenge: cracking the rotation and playing consistent minutes. He can commiserate with two other former first-round draft picks — James Wiseman, 21, and Jonathan Kuminga, 20 — who are trying to become contributors on a team without much time to waste.

For Golden State, in Boston on Thursday for a rematch of last season’s N.B.A. finals against the Celtics, there is tension between defending its championship and developing its young players. Ideally, it would be able to do both. But it is a complicated puzzle, especially for a team with outsize expectations.

Kuminga, a second-year forward, has spoken of upholding the “legacy” established by his teammates Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson. Wiseman, a third-year center whose career has been slowed by injuries, has cited his sporadic minutes as chances for him to “grow and learn.” And Moody has straddled a fine line between patience and impatience.

“It’s hard to keep the right head space,” he said. “But I also don’t want to hide those emotions from myself, saying that I’m OK with staying on the bench. I don’t want to be OK with it because I’m not OK with it. I want to play. I always want to play.”

Moody, Kuminga and Wiseman have all spent time in the G League, where each has gotten ample minutes to score and, in most cases, create as the best player on the court. (Moody said his five games with Santa Cruz last season were “sufficient.”) Coach Steve Kerr has also tried to augment their development via “the golden hour” — a period of extra work before the start of practice.

“But there’s no substitute for game reps,” Kerr said.

In late November, when Golden State visited the New Orleans Pelicans, Kerr rested a bunch of his banged-up starters. As a result, Moody and Kuminga were among the young players who supplied big minutes. Golden State lost by 45.

Afterward, Kerr had dinner with Curry and Green. He asked them a question that happened to be on his mind that night: When did they feel confident that they could win games — really win games — as N.B.A. players?

“Draymond said it was his third year, and Steph said it was his fourth year,” Kerr recalled. “And you’re talking about two guys who had a lot of college experience, who played deep into the N.C.A.A. tournament and played games that mattered.”

Kerr crunched the numbers. Curry spent three seasons at Davidson, while Green played four seasons at Michigan State. So, from the time they left high school, it took both about seven years before they understood the ins and outs of the N.B.A., seven years before they were experienced enough to win when it mattered.

Moody, who spent one college season at Arkansas, is three years removed from high school. Wiseman appeared in just three games at the University of Memphis before Golden State made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 N.B.A. draft. And Kuminga, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, went straight from high school to the G League Ignite, playing in a handful of games before he went to Golden State as the seventh pick of the 2021 draft — seven spots ahead of Moody.

“You would think their growth would be a little more accelerated because you’re already in the N.B.A. and you’re picking things up that you wouldn’t pick up in college,” Kerr said. “But the point is, grown-ups win in the N.B.A. It’s very rare to see kids winning titles.”

Thompson recalled his own growing pains. Early in his second season, with a chance to seal a win against the Denver Nuggets, he missed two free throws. The game went to double overtime and Golden State lost. Thompson was so despondent that he left the arena in his uniform.

“We all go through those lapses,” he said.

But Golden State has less leeway for mistakes now, with its championship window narrowing as its stars age.

“We can’t give these young guys the freedom that they need to learn through their mistakes,” Kerr said, adding that there is pressure from being on national TV so often and playing behind such accomplished stars.

A handful of blowout losses have presented opportunities for Moody, Kuminga and Wiseman to play longer stretches. In a 30-point loss to the Nets on Dec. 21, Wiseman scored a career-high 30 points in 28 minutes.

“I was able to play through my mistakes,” Wiseman said.

Moody, meanwhile, figured to have a bigger role this season given some of the team’s free-agency losses last summer. But development is seldom linear, and Moody, who was averaging 5.2 points in 14.8 minutes a game entering Thursday, has occasionally dropped off the back end of the rotation. He wants his defense to become more instinctive. Kerr wants him to take better care of the ball.

“Stuff doesn’t always go your way,” Moody said, “but you’ve got to grow up. There’s also a sense of comfort knowing I’ve been in similar situations before, and it’s worked out.”

As a high school sophomore, Moody led North Little Rock to a state championship, then transferred to Montverde Academy, a basketball powerhouse outside of Orlando, Fla. He wanted to be pushed by teammates like Cade Cunningham, who would become the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 N.B.A. draft, and Scottie Barnes, last season’s rookie of the year with the Toronto Raptors.

At his predraft workout for Golden State, Moody spotted a celebrity sitting courtside: Stephen Curry. Afterward, Moody made sure to “chop it up” with him, he said. Who knew when he would have that chance again? He figured he should pick up a few pointers.

As it turned out, Moody had no reason to worry. He has spent the past two seasons absorbing regular lessons from Curry and the team’s other veterans. Moody described Golden State as an “elite basketball academy.” Green might be the self-appointed dean.

“With Dray, you don’t have to listen to him,” Moody said. “But since he’s constantly talking and constantly giving out game, I try to take in as much as I can.”

Not so long ago, the team had a reprieve from the pressures of chasing another championship. Golden State entered the 2019-20 season fresh off a fifth straight trip to the N.B.A. finals, then swiftly morphed into the worst team in the league. The season was an injury-induced oddity that landed the team in the draft lottery while accelerating the growth of Jordan Poole, then a rookie guard, who played more than he would have if the team had been at full strength. Poole has since established himself as one of the team’s leading scorers.

The team doesn’t have that luxury this season — the luxury of losing. Golden State is fighting for a playoff spot.

Moody obviously would prefer to be playing big minutes. But in many ways, he said, he feels fortunate. If he were playing for a lousy team, he might be developing bad habits that he never corrects. With Golden State, there is no margin for error.

“You’ve got to be perfect,” Moody said. “So if I can figure out a way to play perfect basketball right now, that’ll set me up for the rest of my career.”

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