To understand what the Warriors see when they visualize the year 2028, when Jonathan Kuminga is a fully formed 26-year-old, one must begin with what the Milwaukee Bucks visualized in 2013.
Golden State’s vision for Kuminga, a raw 18-year-old with wondrous athleticism, aligns with that which the Bucks had of a skinny, athletic 18-year-old they drafted eight years ago.
A kid named Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Cue the widespread skepticism. Laugh, out loud. That’s the logical reaction because Giannis is different, one of one, a generational superstar.
Nobody could know that in 2013, and it would have been delusional to anticipate Antetokounmpo’s climb to the top of the league. When NBADraft.net evaluated teenage Giannis, it concluded that his best NBA comparison was Nicolas Batum.
"The sooner we can get him on the floor, the better it’s going to be," John Hammond, then general manager of the Bucks, said after making Giannis the 15th pick of the 2013 draft. "You look at it and say, ‘Is it going to be a D-League type situation?’ I hope not. The best thing to do is just keep him right here with us, be around NBA players, NBA games, NBA travel. Let him grow and develop.
"If he hits, this kid could be special."
Giannis hit. Like a sledgehammer. Now 26, an eight-year veteran, he’s a two-time MVP, the leader of the newly crowned NBA champion Bucks and MVP of the 2021 NBA Finals.
Kuminga may never fly so high, but consider this: His pre-draft evaluations were, across the board, higher than those of Giannis in 2013. Whereas Giannis was projected to go as late as the 20s, Kuminga was widely considered a possible top-five pick. Golden State was "ecstatic," according to CEO Joe Lacob, that he was available at No. 7 overall.
The two as teenagers share one general quality -- tremendous potential -- and four specific attributes: Raw skills, poor shooting, fantastic athleticism and wolf-like ferocity. That last characteristic is, above all others, why the Warriors believe in Kuminga.
“He plays with force,” Lacob said Friday, “and I love that.”
Who in the NBA plays with more force than Giannis? He uses finesse, strength and will to make astounding statements on the court.
At 6-foot-8, 220 pounds, Kuminga enters the league with a much stronger physique than Giannis, who was 6-foot-9, 200 pounds. He’s now 6-foot-11, 240 pounds. In the process of maturing, he rebuilt his body.
Kuminga may grow taller, but for now he projects more like combo forward than the forward-center beast Giannis has become. Even if he maximizes his potential, Kuminga’s mass may not expand enough for him to become as dominant as Antetokounmpo.
Understand, though, that not every ambitious teenage athlete entering the NBA with direct African heritage (Antetokounmpo is Nigerian, Kuminga Congolese) is cut from the same cloth. Luol Deng (Sudan) became a two-time All-Star, but Bismack Biyombo and Emmanuel Mudiay, both Congolese, have not reached projected heights. Only Giannis has become a franchise player.
Though many others -- Hakeem Olajuwon, Joel Embiid, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, to name four -- are elite but were past their teens when entering the NBA. They had deeper American resumés than Antetokounmpo, who played at the second-division pro level in Greece. Or Kuminga, whose post-prep career consists of 13 G League games.
Watching video of Kuminga it quickly becomes evident that his greatest asset is purposeful determination. He’s attacking, probing for a better shot, usually for himself. He plays well through contact. His footwork is fairly advanced for a teenager. And he has the goods to be a Giannis-like terror in transition.
Every visible skill, and most of them are raw, is tempered by the obvious: Kuminga still is learning how to play. He sometimes has tunnel vision on offense, perhaps a side effect of his fascination with and study of the late Kobe Bryant.
He goes through spells when he gets lazy or lost on defense. His handle is loose. His shot outside the paint needs work.
"We thought on film he passed better than we might have initially thought," team president Bob Myers said. "He's a pretty mature kid for what he went through and kind of came over to the country at a young age, and his aggressiveness, his competitiveness, his work ethic. All these guys we drafted if they don't want to work or compete, they probably won't make it.
"And so we think that if you can grab a guy like that and put him in our system, that we've got something really good, but we have to work and he has to work to make the whole thing good for all of us."
All of Kuminga’s liabilities can be addressed with hours and more hours in the gym -- and his absorption of the time and effort. Lacob made it clear that the Warriors needed to upgrade their player-development staff, which is why they added veteran coaches Jama Mahlalela and Dejan Milojević.
Insofar as Mahlalela had success working with wings in Toronto, most notably OG Anunoby and Siakam, expect he’ll be Kuminga’s shadow throughout Summer League, training camp and into the season.
There are no illusions. If anything is to be taken from Kuminga’s answer to a question about his readiness for the NBA, it is that he is humble enough to understand the task ahead.
“I'll say ... well ... I'm still 18 years old," he said. "But I’ll work hard and we're going to see what the future holds."
Here’s Antetokounmpo’s answer when asked a similar question on draft night 2013:
"I know I’m not ready. I have a lot of work ahead of me. But I’m not afraid. I will give everything on the court, in the gym."
Giannis summoned the best of himself. He beat the odds. The Golden State brain trust believes Kuminga can do the same.
The investment has been made, and they will be patient in the hope their faith was properly placed.