SAN FRANCISCO – Gone are the training wheels required last season to keep Jonathan Kuminga from hurting himself or the Warriors. Gone, too, are the shuttles he rode as a rookie, to and from the G League, in and out of the rotation, the highs and lows of his disposition.
Kuminga is stepping into his immense potential. The tips and pointers of last season and early this season are being absorbed and applied, producing a dynamic and more consistent NBA player.
After spending his last two games defending Kyrie Irving and Ja Morant – two of the league’s most relentlessly evasive players – Kuminga is knowledgeable enough to realize there are subtle differences and confident enough to voice it in public.
“It was even tougher guarding Kyrie than guarding Ja,” he said Thursday.
The casual way in which he said this could come across as insouciance. A deeper look suggests otherwise. This is not about JK trying to belittle the merits of Morant. This is about his ability, as a 20-year-old, to recognize the differences between two extraordinary offensive players.
“It’s not similar at all,” Kuminga said. “Kyrie is way different than a lot of the guards that I ever guard. Kyrie can do way more. He has everything. He has pretty much everything.”
This awareness is indicative of something particularly valuable to Kuminga and the Warriors: Growth. He is, 106 games into his career, showing signs of becoming the high-upside player the franchise imagined when selecting him seventh overall in the 2021 NBA draft.
Asked before tipoff against the Grizzlies on Wednesday what he wanted to see from Kuminga, coach Steve Kerr dived into his answer.
“Just exactly what he's been giving us, which is really good defense, and a lot of force, diving to the rim and sprinting in transition,” he said. “I'm sure he'll guard multiple guys out there today. He's just got to keep doing what he's doing. He’s been playing really well.”
Kuminga started in place of Andrew Wiggins (ill) and played 24 minutes, finishing with 13 points (5-of-6 shooting), four assists and two rebounds. He also had four turnovers, an element of his game that remains a work in progress.
His primary assignment, however, was to keep Morant from taking over the game. Ja scored 29 points in the game but in the fourth quarter made only one field goal while committing two turnovers.
That’s why Kuminga, as bright as his future is, can best help the Warriors right now. In a league where defense begins with ball pressure, certainly against such guards as Irving and Morant, he is embracing that role.
“Nobody says anything about guarding the best players,” Kuminga said. “I just choose to do it.
“I always want to guard people. It doesn't matter how fast you are, how small or how quick. It just depends on being smart. You could be stronger than them, but you’ve got to be strong and be smart at the same time because those quick guys will get you in a lot of foul trouble. It’s a challenge. But I accept the challenge every day I step on the floor.”
Kerr made it clear to JK in training camp that his quickest path to playing time was by bringing effective defense. The loss of Gary Payton II to free agency created quite a void, and Kuminga’s skills – quick feet, superior athleticism, the ability to guard multiple positions – are suited to fill much of it.
Offense? Well, JK is showing he is listening and learning on that end, too. Kerr is comfortable enough with Kuminga’s progress that he will play him alongside Draymond Green, something he generally avoided last season.
“The fact that you get that lob threat on the back side if JK is at the four,” Kerr said. “You can play your pick-and-roll game with Draymond and have kind of the same threat Andre Iguodala has given us over the years coming out of the corner for the lob threat, with shooters spacing the floor. It's tough to guard that.
“I think he's a post-up threat, depending on how people match up. We can throw the ball into JK, and he can score down there. He's really versatile defensively as is Draymond obviously. It gives us a lot of options, but also protection in different coverages.”
Kuminga was glued to the bench in four of Golden State’s first 15 games this season. Only twice in the first 20 games did he play more than 19 minutes, and two of those occasions were because the starters were resting. Kuminga averaged 10.9 minutes per game in October, 18.1 in November, 22.1 in December and 25.0 in January.
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His statistics have gone up accordingly and his plus-minus numbers have climbed each month, from minus-7.3 in October to minus-2.4 to minus -1.1 to +1.7 in January.
The offense is flashy, the dunks, the quick flashes to the rim, the footwork that allows him to freeze defenders. But it’s the defense that is JK’s bedrock. He wants the All-Stars. Wouldn’t have it any other way, at least for now.
“That’s always my challenge,” he said. “I always love doing it. I never run away from smoke or anything like that. I just always like to go out there and guard the best players.”
Yeah, the training wheels are a thing of the past. So, too, are the DNP-CDs. Kuminga is not a fully formed baller, but he belongs on an NBA court. That’s not true of all 20-year-olds.