I’m told he’s looked really good, so far. And not just looked good in the sense that everybody who isn’t out of shape or injured looked good. But apparently, Rush is standing out. I thought Richard Jefferson’s experience might win over coach Mark Jackson. Though Rush as the starter makes a lot of sense, perhaps the most sense. He ran with the first team at training camp on Wednesday, so something is there.
Let’s examine what the Warriors need. Considering the other four starters are set, it’s very easy to identify the weaknesses in the starting lineup and see if the small forward can fill them. Since the weaknesses are obvious, then the needs are obvious. Here is how I see it.
1. The Warriors need a defensive player at small forward. Of the four starters, only center Andrew Bogut can be called a reliable defender. The other three, though David Lee made noted strides last season, are best in a team-defense setting. They need the gameplan to be on point and the help to be on time. But in the NBA, team defense doesn’t solve all ills. And the league is full of guys who are good enough offensively to overcome. So the Warriors need someone on the perimeter who can defend on an island, someone who can match-up with a offensive beasts like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce — yes, there are a lot of special scorers at small forward — and at least make life tough.
It’s too much to put that on Harrison Barnes. If you have to, OK. But if you don’t, why not ease him in?
That leaves Rush and Jefferson.
In his hey day, Jefferson was known as a defender. He probably has the edge when it comes to understanding of the game’s elite scorers and experience defending them. Plus Jefferson, at 6-7, 230, has a more traditional small forward size. But Rush is no slouch either. Last season, he proved to be a reliable defender. He’s an especially good shot-blocker. Only James Johnson, Kevin Durant and Nicolas Batum were the only small forwards with more blocks than Rush. One player called Rush the best defender on the team.
Advantage: Pick ’em.
2. The Warriors need some athleticism. Speed, strength, bounce are intangibles lacking from the four inked in starters. That means the small forward needs to have some. Jefferson was once a noted athlete. But at age 32, in his 12th year, and with 890 career games under his belt, Jefferson is not the athlete he used to be. Even if he has some juice left in his legs, he doesn’t have as much as 27-year-old Rush. He has been looking especially vibrant in training camp so far. A few of his teammates have been impressed with his activity and motor.
The Warriors will need someone who can run the floor, someone who can slash with abandon, someone who can finish with authority. Rush is no Andre Iguodala, but he is the best athlete the Warriors have at small forward.
3. The Warriors need a guy who can score multiple ways. Whoever starts at small forward won’t have many plays run for him. But he can’t be a liability on offense. Rush showed he’s far from it. He shot 50 percent from the field last season, including 45 percent from 3-point range. But Rush also showed he can put the ball on the floor and make offense happen off the dribble, something he had to do as teams started closing out on him. Rush can get buckets without his number being called.
Jefferson, formerly a slasher, he morphed into a spot-up 3-pointer shooter. His last four seasons in the NBA, he took 1,055 shots from 3-point range. His first seven seasons, he didn’t take 900. Part of it was his role in the system in San Antonio, where he took 497 3-pointers in 122 regular-season games. And Jefferson did shoot 40.1 percent in those four years. But that’s a lot of 3-pointers, and in a line-up with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors don’t need another volume 3-point shooter.
Rush, despite being toward the top of the league leaders in 3-point percentage all season, still took just 219 3-pointers last season, tied for 50-th most in the season.