(Editor’s note: The Pistons won the NBA draft lottery for the first time in franchise history last month and general manager Troy Weaver said there were five players who were legitimate candidates to be the top pick. Pistons.com today continues a five-part series looking at the consensus top-five prospects in the draft with an examination of the G League Ignite’s Jonathan Kuminga.)
No one would have batted an eye a year ago if Jonathan Kuminga had been anointed the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA draft. No one would have argued much after the first few weeks of the G League bubble season back in February if Kuminga had been slotted first in mock drafts.
But while Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs were playing central roles in carrying their college teams to the NCAA tournament and Jalen Green flourished over the second half of the G League season, Kuminga’s early success took a 180 and then injury cut short his year.
Here’s what The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie wrote in mid-February: “With apologies to Green, all of the intel out of the Ignite team camp has been that Kuminga has looked like the best prospect. He looked the best in their scrimmages and in practices in Walnut Creek. And with legitimate NBA size at about 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot-plus wingspan and a terrific frame, he looks to have the most upside for what the NBA is looking for as a big wing initiator.”
Player development isn’t usually a straight line up. It zigs and zags, it sputters and spurts. Kuminga, who’ll still be 18 when training camps open in late September, remains every bit as athletic and long and forceful as he was a year or six months ago. Where he might be in a year or two or five makes it imperative that every team with a high lottery pick – yes, even as high as first – conduct all due diligence on Kuminga. Here’s a look at one of the draft’s youngest prospects:
FIRST-ROUND CANDIDATE: Jonathan Kuminga
ID CARD: 6-foot-8 forward, G League Ignite, 18 years old
DRAFT RANGE: Ranked 5th by The Athletic, 6th by ESPN.com, 5th by Bleacher Report, 5th by The Ringer, 5th by SI.com
SCOUTS LOVE: Kuminga is what would come from central casting if an NBA team ordered up the ideal physical specimen to play on the wing in today’s era – solid lower and upper halves on a 6-foot-8 frame with a 7-foot-0 wingspan. Kuminga emigrated from Africa’s Republic of Congo in 2016 to further develop what had already been identified as elite basketball ability. He settled in at Huntington Prep in West Virginia for his freshman season. Kuminga played his sophomore and junior seasons at schools in New York and New Jersey and firmly established himself as a future high lottery pick in the 2019 AAU season while playing for the New York Rens on Nike’s EYBL circuit, averaging 22.7 points and 5.4 rebounds while playing against mostly older players. Against Cade Cunningham’s Texas Titans, Kuminga went off for 43 points and drained 7 of 11 from the 3-point arc. He was considered the No. 1 player in his high school class, but Kuminga then reclassified to become part of the high school class of 2020 to make himself eligible for the 2021 NBA draft. He considered Kentucky, Duke, Auburn and Texas Tech (where his older brother played) but ultimately chose the G League Ignite, signing for a reported $500,000 – the same figure linked to teammate Jalen Green. Kuminga’s size, athleticism and two-way potential put him in the discussion to be the overall No. 1 pick and he opened the G League season living up to that status before an injury cut short his season after his play leveled off while Green’s went the other way. Background checks that dive into Kuminga’s work ethic and character are likely to come back with nothing but positive results. Recent reports of Kuminga showing a more refined set of shot mechanics could allay doubts about his future as a 3-point shooter.
SCOUTS WONDER: The raw tools come in abundance for Kuminga, who exhibits shooting range and touch and also shows off a flair for passing and setting up teammates. But he was turnover prone with the Ignite (2.6 per game) for a secondary ballhandler and he wound up shooting just 39 percent overall and 25 percent from the 3-point line. The shooting numbers mostly stem from inconsistent mechanics – so probably not anything that would indicate a long-term hindrance – but might prevent Kuminga from becoming more than a role player early in his career, not the outcome fans of teams holding high lottery picks expect. The longer the G League season went, Kuminga’s decision making became a more glaring concern. With NBA offenses requiring split-second decisions to capitalize on brief lapses in defensive rotations, Kuminga was viewed as something of a ball stopper. Going from a high school junior season to playing against G League competition consisting of a heavy dose of players with NBA experience represented a huge leap for an 18-year-old and Kuminga still put up respectable numbers, averaging 15.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists. There are still those who argue that Kuminga has the highest ceiling in this draft class, but he’s also pretty clearly considered the furthest away from hitting his potential.
NUMBER TO NOTE: 90 – That was Kuminga’s offensive rating in the G League. The same mitigating factors apply – he was the youngest player in the league under trying circumstances in the pandemic bubble and playing against stronger G League lineups than in typical years with many teams not sending their affiliates to play, concentrating talent on those that remained. But that’s a low number. For comparison’s sake, Sekou Doumbouya – a similarly sized, similarly raw prospect – posted an offensive rating of 104 in his 16 G League games at a similar age in the 2019-20 season.
MONEY QUOTE: “I was blown away with the combination of his size, his shooting ability and his athleticism. I think it’s very easy to devalue Kuminga because we know so much more about the three college kids (Cade Cunningham, Jalen Sugs, Evan Mobley) and Jalen Green, but Jon Kuminga, in what appears to be the consensus top five, any one of those players, including Kuminga, could end up being the best player in this draft.” – ESPN college basketball and draft analyst Fran Fraschille as told to Adam Zagoria for newjersey.com
BOTTOM LINE: Kuminga’s uneven finish after a meteoric start to his G League experience has pretty firmly settled him in as No. 5 in the pecking order among the consensus top-five prospects – and, in the case of some evaluators, opened the door for him to fall out of the top five. Given the similarities to and developmental path he shares with Doumbouya, it might make Kuminga the least likely of the five to draw strong consideration from the Pistons. General manager Troy Weaver said on draft night, after saying there were five players who were realistically going to be heavily scrutinized and considered for the top pick, that trading the pick was also an option to be explored. Perhaps the likeliest way Kuminga winds up wearing a Pistons hat on draft night is if they were to trade down a few rungs and pick up other assets with a number of teams holding multiple first-round picks and even more holding bunches of future first-round picks.