When superstar guard Stephen Curry was diagnosed with a Grade 2 MCL sprain Saturday, it likely induced a bit of panic among Golden State Warriors fans. What makes the blow of losing Curry easier to bear, however, is the recent play of 25-year-old Quinn Cook, who is being relied on for big minutes due to Curry's recent health issues.
Curry, who rolled his ankle a few weeks before suffering his recent knee injury, has played in just one of the Warriors' past eight games. As one of the most productive, electrifying, and efficient players in the NBA (he leads the league with a 67.5 true-shooting percentage), Curry's absence is obviously tough to swallow. But Cook, after failing to score more than eight points in any game this season prior to Curry's March 8 ankle injury, has been somewhat of a revelation in recent games.
Undrafted out of Duke in 2015, Cook spent his first professional season in the NBA Developmental League, earning Rookie of the Year honors. He spent his second season bouncing back and forth between the New Orleans Pelicans and Dallas Mavericks, playing just 14 total games during the 2016-17 campaign. He then signed a two-way deal with the Warriors after being waived by the Atlanta Hawks toward the end of the 2017 preseason.
The Warriors rarely used Cook for the first five months of this season, with his only consistent playing time coming during a stretch in December when Curry was dealing with an injury. While Curry was out, Cook played in seven of 11 games but averaged just 12 minutes per contest, posting 3.7 points on 41.7 percent shooting. He looked more like the player no one wanted in the 2015 draft than a viable replacement for a stud like Curry, but that didn't keep the Warriors from giving Cook another chance when Curry went down earlier this month.
Cook continued to struggle in his first two March games (both starts) without Curry, averaging an uninspiring 6.0 points and 1.0 assist on 33.3 percent shooting in 29.6 minutes, but a solid showing against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 14, which helped lead the Warriors to an 11-point victory, seemed to get him on track. Over the past six games, Cook has posted a surprisingly impressive 19.3 points on 54.1 percent shooting to go along with 4.5 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals. He has also hit 2.5 threes per game on 5.0 attempts over that stretch.
Though he doesn't take nearly as many threes as Curry, Cook's jump shot has been a great weapon through his limited action this season. He's connecting on 61.5 percent of his shots in the range of 10-16 feet from the basket, and he's hitting 57.1 percent of his two-point shots from 16-plus feet. He has a knack for creating space with a fadeaway and can often get a decent shot for himself in a hurry. When you consider his ability to create space for teammates with penetration and find his big men on the inside, Cook has been a consistently reliable weapon. He's doing an admirable Curry impression and giving the Warriors reason to believe that point guard won't necessarily be a weak spot in the lineup if Curry is forced to miss extended time.
Curry is expected to be reevaluated at the start of the postseason, but a Grade 2 MCL sprain often requires about six weeks out of the lineup, which would put Curry's return to action at about May 5—after the first round of the playoffs.
Currently 5.5 games behind the top-seeded Houston Rockets and nine games ahead of the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, the Warriors are virtually locked into the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference. They could very well end up in a first-round playoff series against the Minnesota Timberwolves (currently tied for the No. 7 seed), who will likely have Jimmy Butler (knee) back in the lineup, or the San Antonio Spurs (currently one game ahead of Minnesota), who could have Kawhi Leonard (quad) back in action. Each of those teams would pose a tough matchup for any undermanned squad, but given Cook's recent play, the Warriors don't have to be quite as nervous about entering the postseason without Curry.
That being said, the team is obviously still not nearly as dominant without the 30-year-old who is quite possibly the greatest shooter of all time. Despite Cook's impressive play, the Warriors are 2-5 in games without Curry this month, whereas they're on an eight-game win streak in games in which Curry starts. It's obviously important to note that each of Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson has also missed time recently, but Golden State has lost the past two games in which those three stars played without Curry.
Cook's mini-breakout has been exciting and encouraging for a Warriors team limping toward the playoffs, but it by no means suggests that a first-round series against a team like the Timberwolves or Spurs will be a cakewalk. Though he sometimes gets lost in the mix on a team loaded with stars, Curry remains one of the NBA's elite talents and is impossible to replace. If Cook is surrounded by a healthy Durant, Green, and Thompson, the Warriors should be first-round playoff favorites, but a series win against a healthy Minnesota or San Antonio team should absolutely not be taken for granted if Curry is watching from the sideline.