Festus Ezeli is usually smiling on game days. He can be found joking with his teammates in the locker room. Or celebrating and encouraging on the bench. Or posing for pictures with friends and family after games.
It's his best attempt to keep his sanity while rehabbing his surgically repaired right knee. An honest effort to not be overcome by the helplessness he feels.
"He aspires to be something in this league," Warriors center Jermaine O'Neal said. "So having a knee injury and missing a whole year. If you have any competitive juice in you, that will bother you."
A year ago this month, Ezeli, then a rookie, injured his right knee in the regular-season finale at Portland. Refusing to miss the playoffs, he played through it in the postseason, sporting a bulky brace to protect his knee from himself.
Two months later, the Warriors announced Ezeli had "successful surgery . . . to reinforce both the medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament." The team said his recovery would take at least six to nine months. He's now into the 10th month and still isn't close to taking the court.
And it's eating at him.
"It's frustrating I can't play," Ezeli said. "But I've got to do something."
Ezeli has been tempted to return at a fraction of himself. But any serious thoughts about such are always talked out of his head.
So instead, he contributes by staying positive and engaged. He focuses closely from the end of the bench. Hoping he notices something, anything, he can share with a teammate.
"I haven't drawn up plays yet," Ezeli said with a smile, a reference to NBA Development League call-up Hilton Armstrong, who Andre Iguodala credited with provided a game plan idea. "That's not my specialty."
What really gets under Ezeli's skin is there is nothing he can do. He said it isn't a matter of putting in the work. He denied a setback has delayed his return.
The hold-up: his PCL. He couldn't do anything until it completely healed and the ligament has a mind of its own. It only recently was cleared, allowing Ezeli to fully bend his right knee.
It became such a cloud over Ezeli, his teammates noticed and intervened. Especially O'Neal, who has battled knee injuries in his 18-year career.
"He's been going through it all year," O'Neal said. "Nobody knows what you're going through from the outside looking in. Knees, ankles, backs are something you live with every moment of the day. It's hard to put on that smiling face every single day when you go through many different emotions. . . . He has had periods this year when you can tell it really affected him."
Despite his knee issues, the Warriors have already picked up Ezeli's contract option for next season. But after starting much of his rookie season, Ezeli was the shoo-in to be Andrew Bogut's backup. However, Golden State brought in O'Neal and Ogjnen Kuzmic, and will probably find more big help this coming offseason.
So it would make sense if Ezeli, drafted No. 30 overall in 2013, is feeling the pressure.
Throw in the fact Bogut is out, leaving the Warriors undersized against the Los Angeles Clippers' physical and athletic frontcourt tandem of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin. Ezeli, a chiseled 6-foot-11, 255-pound Vanderbilt product who thrives on physicality, knows he could help in this series.
But just as soon as this week, O'Neal had a talk with the young pup in the weight room, reminding Ezeli an NBA career is a marathon.
"I just tell him to understand the big picture," O'Neal said. "He's only in his second year. Longevity means everything. . . . You've been out this long. Do you want to risk coming back unless you are physically and mentally ready? . . . You want to make sure you do the right things for your body, for your family, for your brand. Ultimately, that's all you're going to have when these teams make the decision to do what they're going to do."