SAN FRANCISCO — The respectful NBA rookie spoke in a quiet tone.
What Golden State Warriors rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga lacked in volume, however, he made up for with substance.
As he sat on a folding chair inside Chase Center following a recent practice, Kuminga projected his chances on becoming a perennial NBA All-Star. Kuminga offered his scouting report with an equal dose of confidence, humility and self-awareness.
“As long as I put my work in and respect everything I got to do to get there, I know that’s a real possibility,” Kuminga told NBA.com. “I’m still a rookie and working my way there. Hopefully, it happens. But I know it’s going to happen at some point. I believe in my work. So, I’m going to get there.”
The Warriors believe so, too. They would not have selected Kuminga with the No. 7 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft if they did not feel impressed with his athleticism, defensive versatility and shooting touch.
Entering Thursday’s contest against the Minnesota Timberwolves (24-23), Kuminga ranked only 21st in his rookie class in points per game (6.8), 24th in rebounds (2.4) and 31st in minutes played (11.9). But the Warriors chalk up those low numbers mostly to Kuminga navigating expected rookie learning curves on a team prioritizing its championship ambitions with its core players in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. But make no mistake. The Warriors already see Kuminga’s long-term potential, too.
“Jonathan Kuminga, at his highest gear, is special, like LeBron James special,” Jama Mahlalela, a Warriors’ assistant coach and the director of player development, told NBA.com. “If he keeps developing, and that’s a big if. There’s a lot of room to grow, and he’s not there yet. But he can be an All-Star.”
Warriors want Kuminga to earn his way
The Warriors saw some of Kuminga’s potential as recently as Tuesday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks.
Then, Kuminga finished with a team-leading 22 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes off the bench in what marked his third 20-point game this season. Kuminga matched a career-high in 3-pointers (four). And Kuminga threw down a forceful one-handed dunk that prompted teammates Klay Thompson and Jordan Poole to shower him with hugs and high-fives.
The same Warriors fans that become giddy with every 3-pointer that Curry and Thompson make showed just as much enthusiasm for Kuminga’s slam. And why not? Warriors coach Steve Kerr described Kuminga’s dunk as “spectacular.”
“You saw what Jonathan is capable of,” Thompson said afterwards. “His jump shot looked great. It’s very fluid. Obviously, his ability to play above the rim is something that you can’t really teach.”
No, it isn’t.
Kuminga excelled in the G League Ignite’s inaugural season partly because he used his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame to bully opponents both as a scorer and defender. A year later? Kuminga has done the same thing in the NBA. He already has cracked double figures in eight games, while leading the Warriors twice in scoring and once in rebounding. In his first career start in Toronto last month, Kuminga logged a career-high 26 points. Almost two weeks ago in Chicago, Kuminga showed something similar with a 25-point performance.
“The athleticism and the explosion is obvious for anybody to see,” Kerr said. “That kind of physicality, in theory, allows him to guard any spot on the floor.”
And yet in reality, there are plenty of things the Warriors believe Kuminga must learn before landing a more definitive role.
I’ve always wanted to be that guy. But you can’t be that guy if you don’t work, especially from where I come from.”
— Jonathan Kuminga
Because of Kuminga’s defensive versatility, the Warriors have worked with him on preparing for those different defensive responsibilities with guarding the ball, the screener or the weak-side low man. They have prepped him with learning the different defensive schemes and terminology. They have advised Kuminga to run the floor at greater speed, improve his shooting consistency and reduce his defensive miscues, something they say Kuminga lacked at certain stretches this season.
Therefore, it does not seem surprising that Kuminga’s role has become erratic. As Thompson said, “that’s the challenge when you’re a rookie is trying to get your minutes.” Kuminga has experienced that even while Green has missed the past nine games while nursing left calf and lower back injuries. Following Kuminga’s superb game in Chicago, Kerr started Kuminga for the next two games. But since the Warriors’ loss to Indiana last week, Kerr started Otto Porter Jr. over Kuminga instead in the past three contests.
Kerr insisted that Kuminga “has played really well” and that his demotion is “not an indictment on him.” Instead, Kerr cited his want to keep continuity during the Warriors’ three-game winning streak while also chasing matchups. Nonetheless, these developments capture how Kuminga’s learning curves have coincided with unpredictable playing time.
“One of the reasons we brought him along slowly is he’s got to learn those things before we can really trust him to play big minutes,” Kerr said. “In my mind, it’s a really organic, natural way to bring a young player along, rather than just hand him minutes. He’s got to earn them by making the right plays.”
How Kuminga has handled an uneven role
Kuminga has already made the right play with how he views his current circumstances. He hardly complained about his inconsistent shots or playing time. Instead, Kuminga relished his various blessings.
Kuminga waxed poetic about witnessing Curry surpass Ray Allen for the NBA’s all-time 3-point record. Kuminga took inspiration from seeing Thompson return earlier this month after nursing season-ending injuries to his left knee (2019-20) and right Achilles tendon (2020-21). And Kuminga expressed appreciation for Green and Andre Iguodala offering continuous positive reinforcement and biting criticism with his habits and play.
“When I finish playing basketball, I’ll tell my family I was on that team when this happened,” Kuminga said. “There are legendary moments happening every single day with those people. It’s been all good.”
Perhaps it might be easy to have that attitude with a Warriors team expected to become an NBA contender. The Warriors still have the star power and team-oriented culture that helped them win three NBA championships in five Finals appearances this past decade. But Kuminga also has that attitude because of his upbringing.
He conceded he never envisioned becoming the fifth Congo-born player to be drafted into the NBA, including Dikembe Mutombo (1991), Christian Eyenga (2009), Bismack Biyombo (2011) and Emmanuel Mudiay (2015). But that didn’t stop Kuminga from saving up money so he could watch NBA highlights and Kobe Bryant footage at local Internet cafes. In 2016, the 13-year-old Kuminga and his family then moved to the United States so he could play high school basketball at The Patrick School (Hillside, NJ.). Kuminga then occasionally attended New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets games.
“I’ve always wanted to be that guy. But you can’t be that guy if you don’t work, especially from where I come from,” Kuminga said. “I wasn’t thinking about the NBA. I was thinking about getting better every single day and growing. I did that for the most part. I did what I had to do. I did it the right way. That’s why I’m here today.”
Will Kuminga’s mindset ensure a long and productive career with the Warriors?
It’s a fair question to ask. During and after their dynastic run, the Warriors had a mixed track record with drafting and developing young talent.
Third-year guard Jordan Poole has become a contender for the Kia Most Improved Player award. Seven-year forward Kevon Looney has also become dependable with his versatile defense and health in recent seasons. But the Warriors also drafted late first-round prospects that did not pan out well and resulted in them heading off to other NBA teams (Eric Paschall, Damian Jones, Patrick McCaw), going overseas (Alen Smailagic, Justinian Jessup, Nico Mannion) or returning to their G League team (Jordan Bell, Jacob Evans).
After showing mixed progress as the Warriors’ No. 2 pick last season, James Wiseman has also yet to return from a surgically repaired right knee injury since last April. As for Kuminga? Though he averaged 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds through 13 games with the Ignite, last season, Mahlalela conceded uncertainty on how that would translate into the NBA. Nearly half a season later, though? Mahlalela has liked what he sees with his defense, shooting and work ethic.
“Even if he didn’t have a good game or coach pulled him out or had a great game, he’s going to come into work the next day,” Mahlalela said. “That, to me, is the marker of success. This year is going to be up and down. We know that. He’s going to have great runs and tough times. That’s the reality for any young player. But it’s the perseverance through that is going to make him special.”
That mindset has paid off in different ways.
Kerr described Kuminga as “very receptive” to criticism and “handles coaching well.” No surprise then that Kuminga listened intently when Kerr implored Kuminga two weeks ago to model his game after former NBA All-Star Shawn Marion. Kerr argued that Marion impacted NBA games by his sheer energy and positional versatility, even without stuffing the box score. So, Kerr asked Kuminga to do the same by running with greater hustle. Although Kuminga considers himself “my own man,” he has since tried to emulate those qualities.
“It’s not just running the floor. You got to run smart,” Kuminga said. “You have to know where you’re running. You have to know where you’re going to be at. It’s just those little things that I feel like I adjust for me to keep up with everybody else.”
To keep up with those adjustments, Kuminga has worked routinely on various parts of his game. He has spent most of his practices working with Mahlalela and assistant coach Kenny Atkinson on his outside shooting, post-up moves and finishing followed by two-on-two and three-on-three scrimmages. Mahlalela also described Kuminga as “an avid student of the game” by studying game footage consistently. Kerr has since become pleased that Kuminga become “much more engaged in conversation” recently with the coaching staff.
Even when Kuminga fails to adjust, Mahlalela has liked how he corrects mistakes. After the Warriors first played the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 12, the Warriors’ coaching staff noted to Kuminga that he fell for DeMar DeRozan’s pump fake. The same thing happened when the Warriors visited Chicago two weeks ago, but Kuminga recognized his mistake immediately and pointed to the coaching staff on the bench. Mahlalela said Kuminga has since become better with not repeating those mistakes against other opponents.
The athleticism and the explosion is obvious for anybody to see.”
— Warriors coach Steve Kerr
“What I like about him is he’s aware on every play,” Mahlalela said. “If I show him the film, he remembers the play and he remembers what he sees and he remembers what is going on. He may have made the wrong choice in that one. But at least he remembers and has a feel for it. It gives the whole staff a framework in which he can work and get better.”
A similar learning lesson happened when Pacers forward Lance Stephenson baited Kuminga into receiving a technical foul. After Kuminga was called for a travel, Stephenson tried to take the basketball from him. Kuminga then lightly shoved Stephenson away with his right arm, which drew a whistle.
“He’s always going to try people,” Kuminga said. “I’m not too loud. But nobody is going to try to bully me, or start something against me. I’m not going to let that happen.”
What else Kuminga vows he won’t let happen: squandering this opportunity with the Warriors. So even through the missed assignments and missed shots, Kuminga vowed to “find my way to be perfect as I can with everything I do on and off the court.” He wants to live up to his own expectation with ensuring the Warriors produce yet another All-Star.
“The work that he puts in will dictate his future,” Mahlalela said. “He’s lucky. He’s blessed. He has some tools with his athleticism and body. But that doesn’t take you anywhere. It’s the work that you put in. That’s the challenge for him, and that’s what he’s going to keep going after.”
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