Jonathan Kuminga delivered one of the best performances of his 135-game NBA career Saturday in Memphis, and it wasn’t enough to keep the Warriors from eating a 14-point loss. They were relatively unbothered.
The Warriors didn’t embrace defeat, but Kuminga’s performance allowed them to better digest the result. They seemed to understand that this was a night on which what they saw was more important than what they got.
The Warriors got the L, deservedly so, but they also got a glimpse of Kuminga playing as they hope he does for the next 10 seasons. The long view sometimes matters most.
“JK played both ends, knocked down his threes, rebounded well,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters at FedExForum after the 133-119 loss to the Grizzlies. “That was the biggest thing. That’s the thing that we’re looking for all the time.”
Kuminga’s raw numbers were impressive: team-high 24 points, 8-of-16 shooting, including 4 of 7 from deep, team-high-tying eight rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. All in all, 30 productive minutes.
Yet it was the way Kuminga approached his work that was most impressive. He exhibited a beautiful blend of savagery and prudence. The young forward avoided possession-killing forced shots and, with one exception, the silly foul. He was patient, launching when he should have, attacking when that was the right move and defending better than most of his teammates.
This was about as “veteran” as Kuminga, all of 20 years old and in his second NBA season, has ever looked.
“His improvement has been great,” Draymond Green said. “He’s right where you would hope a guy would be at this point in his career, continuing to grow and getting better at it, understanding more, becoming more and more reliable. That's all you can ask for. As far as confidence, you just got to stay the course.”
With Andrew Wiggins on leave of absence and Andre Iguodala out with a fractured left wrist, Kuminga is the most intriguing wing on the active roster. Klay Thompson usually brings offense, but his defense has been exploited. Anthony Lamb has subtle craftiness but can only dream of Kuminga’s athleticism. Moses Moody is on the fringe of the rotation.
Kuminga is a presence at both ends, as eager to engage the most dangerous scorer as he is to soar in for the rim-bending dunk.
“The biggest thing is just competing on both ends of the floor and being decisive,” Stephen Curry said. “Offensively, the way they were defending us ... he had good looks. And there was no kind of second-guessing the shots he was taking, which is great because you’ve got to make them pay for the way they kind of shade you on the rest of the side of the court. He has to be aggressive because when he’s out there, especially with certain lineups, he’s going to get those shots.
“You have to be assertive and decisive, and he did that really well, especially early, and gave us a lot of life and energy.”
Yet one of Kuminga’s most memorable moments is perfectly suitable for a “Shaqtin’ a Fool” reel. Swiping a Desmond Bane pass late in the third quarter, Kuminga, visualizing a breakaway jam, sped toward the rim, took flight and ... lost the ball out of bounds. Turnover, Warriors.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Green reminded. “He bobbled the one on the fast break, and you come down and you bobble a couple plays there. Who cares? Everyone bobbles the ball.
“Emotionally, that's always a different hurdle to get over than necessarily playing on the court. It usually takes you a little longer to grow emotionally than it does from a skill perspective. You expect him to keep growing there, and I know he will.”
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While the Warriors were falling back to .500 (36-36) and dropping to No. 7 in the Western Conference, Kuminga was reminding everyone of what he can become.
On a late-season night when the stakes are high and most of Golden State’s veterans were feeling the effects of playing the previous night in Atlanta, the impetuous tyro dropped a complete performance.
It wasn’t enough to win the game. It was precisely enough to shine a light toward Kuminga’s future, as well as that of the Warriors.