Most top-10 picks enter the NBA with a guaranteed rotation spot, and, in most cases, a spot in the Opening Night starting lineups. Such is life when you're tabbed as the savior of one of the league's cellar dwellers.
Jonathan Kuminga's NBA career started on a different path. The Warriors drafted Kuminga with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, choosing the talented wing's ceiling over the win-now skills of players like Davion Mitchell and Franz Wagner.
Golden State's decision to draft Kuminga was one that raised eyebrows. The Warriors are focused on winning now, and Kuminga, 19, was seen as a raw ball of basketball clay that will take time to mold into something resembling a reliable rotation player, let alone a star or co-star, on a title-contending team.
The Warriors have constructed a plan. One that will, if pulled off properly, see them maximize the remaining years of Steph Curry's prime while simultaneously building for the post-Curry era with Kuminga and James Wiseman as the next faces of the franchise.
Twenty-three games into his NBA career, Kuminga shows with each minute he logs why the Warriors viewed him as the focal point of their life-after-Curry plans. He has a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism, and it's clear he is doing his best to soak up each and every lesson from his Hall of Fame-bound teammates.
Head coach Steve Kerr has liked that Kuminga has had to earn his minutes with the Warriors during his rookie season, believing the lessons he is learning from the Warriors' culture to be more valuable than meaningless numbers the rookie could put up for a team that doesn't own the best record in the NBA.
“I told him: ‘If we were a lousy team, you’d be doing this every night,’” Kerr told said after Kuminga scored a career-high 26 points against the Raptors. “‘You’d be on the All-Rookie team and scoring a bunch of points, and everybody would be saying how great Kuminga is. But you wouldn’t be learning how to win.’
“We’re trying to keep that in perspective for him. The value of learning from Draymond and Steph and Klay and Andre is actually worth a lot more than rolling the ball out and playing on a bad team. So even though it’s undoubtedly frustrating for him at times, he has a good perspective and we try to remind him he’s learning from winners.”
While Kerr is correct, it's only going to get more difficult for him to keep from making Kuminga a consistent part of the rotation even when the full complement returns.
Kuminga has given the Warriors a jolt every time he has stepped on the floor recently.
He gave them a massive six-minute boost in a 102-100 win over the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 13 and was huge in Golden State's 116-107 win over the Phoenix Suns on Christmas Day.
With Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole, Damion Lee, and Moses Moody in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols, Kuminga stepped up and gave the Warriors 20 huge minutes, scoring 12 points on 3-for-4 shooting while playing impressive defense on the wing.
In three months, Kuminga has gone from an NBA project who would take years to develop to a reliable rookie who makes winning plays in a primetime game with a playoff atmosphere.
His defense on Chris Paul was also noteworthy.
With Wiggins, Poole, Lee, and now Draymond Green in the health and safety protocols, Kuminga should log more consistent minutes for the Warriors over the next few games. Expect Juan Toscano-Anderson to start in place of Green at the four with Kuminga soaking up a lot of the reserve minutes.
At the moment, Kuminga's appearances are exciting cameos that give a glimpse into the Warriors' immediate and distant future. He's an elite athlete with an impressively high basketball IQ who can defend multiple positions, attack the rim, appears to have improved his jumper, and isn't afraid of the moment. Being able to call on Kuminga when the Warriors are flat or a momentum shift is needed is a luxury that no other team in the championship hunt has.
"He came in and changed the game for us. I thought he was fantastic," Kerr said of Kuminga after the win vs. the Pacers. "He was brilliant and deserves more minutes."
Those minutes will come, and Kuminga's role should only continue to grow, giving the Warriors another weapon in the playoff arsenal and showing why they tabbed the 19-year-old wing as the lynchpin of their post-Curry plan.