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Jonathan Kuminga already has the tools to be a key rotation piece for the Warriors

He still has aspects of his game that need fine tuning, but what he can already do at this point of his career has earned Kuminga meaningful minutes.

Golden State Warriors v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Jonathan Kuminga’s physical and athletic gifts readily pop out.

Listed at 6’7” and 220 pounds, Kuminga has all the tools to be a prototypical wing. He has the height and the commensurate bulk — not too heavy as to be overly lumbering, but not too skinny or frail to be pushed around and off his spots — to fit within the Warriors’ two-way ethos of ultra-versatility.

That is perhaps why the Golden State Warriors took him seventh in the 2021 NBA Draft and kept him, despite some calls for the Warriors to either trade the pick or Kuminga himself for “win-now” pieces. He’s the latest testament to the higher-ups’ intention of a seamless transition from the present toward the future.

Much of that was a point of concern among some in the collective Warriors hivemind. Why keep a rookie prospect, years from reaching his full potential, instead of trading him for someone who can readily help Stephen Curry and Draymond Green win a championship?

That line of thinking has its merits. Curry is a generational talent to build around, and surrounding him with as many ready-to-contribute pieces as possible would go a long way toward him getting another championship ring or two. Kuminga, for all his potential and gifts, is a piece of unmolded clay that has yet to be formed into someone who can help Curry and the Warriors return to the top.

Or so some people thought.

Make no mistake — Kuminga is still a project. His minutes will wax and wane, and so will his appearances at the highest level. He’ll most likely be shuffled back and forth between the big leagues and the G League, where he’ll get plenty of reps to build confidence and look like a monster against inferior talent.

(Such an approach has worked in the past — just ask Jordan Poole.)

Kuminga’s numbers don’t stand out: 3.3 points, 1.4 rebounds, and 0.3 assists on 7 minutes per game is just about right for a rookie seeing limited playing time behind a deep roster. But he’s shooting 52.6% from the field, albeit on only 19 total shots taken so far. He shoots monumentally better on twos (64.3%) — most of which are at the rim (8-of-10) — than on threes, where he’s putting up an ice-cold 20% on only 5 attempts.

His shot needs refining, but the good news is that he hasn’t been forcing them. Kuminga is quite aware of the aspects of his game that aren’t jiving with the Warriors offense. Five shot attempts may be five attempts too many, but it’s also good that he’s limited them to only five, instead of wantonly jacking them up and giving Steve Kerr an excuse to bench him.

Instead, he’s been doing jaw-dropping stuff like this:

The obvious caveat behind all of those shots is that they’ve mostly been against garbage-time defensive units, as evidenced by the perplexing close out toward the left corner that garnered him a baseline dunk in one of the clips above. But it’s extremely difficult to look past the physical and athletic gifts.

Kuminga possesses a competent and passable handle that prevents him from turning over the ball. He’s perfectly in control of his drives. He has counter moves to leave defenders behind if the initial first step doesn’t do the job.

He has also shown flashes as a downhill force around ball-screens. There were a couple of possessions against the Chicago Bulls where the Warriors had Curry set inverted ball-screens — “inverted” because a smaller guard is setting the screen for a bigger wing — that broke Kuminga loose for a couple of layups.

Kuminga’s eye-popping north-south athleticism stands out even more when you’ve got the greatest shooter of all time setting rock solid screens for him:

Even if defenders duck under screens for Kuminga, they have to be quick about beating him to the other side; his explosive burst off the dribble is enough for him to turn the corner and go all the way to the rim.

Kerr has felt confident at times with letting his young rookie handle the ball and making decisions solely because of how he can punish on-ball defenders. But his ability to score off the bounce hasn’t been the only factor that’s given him on-ball reps — it also has been his ability to see the floor and pass.

That skill, in addition to his overall willingness to play within the flow of the offense, has been a massive factor behind him garnering rotation minutes. In this system of high-IQ passing and playmaking, Kuminga certainly looks like he can fit in:

Kuminga doesn’t need to be a high-usage playmaker at this point, but seeing him make the right reads and have the right ideas — even if some of them don’t result in a score or end up being turnovers — is an encouraging development. If there was ever an appropriate instance of applying the “Trust the Process” mantra, it’s with Kuminga and his fit within the Warriors offense.

Watching him play defense, however, makes one think the process on that end is hovering close to the intended result.

Kuminga’s height and wingspan (6’11”) make him a natural fit within the switch-heavy defensive scheme. But being blessed with the physical traits to switch up and down the positional spectrum isn’t enough; you also need to have the technical know-how of when and how to switch.

Being on time with switches — as well as knowing when to switch — has been in Kuminga’s wheelhouse so far:

Kuminga has the mobility and nimbleness to keep up with smaller and faster guards, enabling him to stay in front to contest their shots with his length. He has enough strength and durability to survive against bigger forwards and centers.

He even has the quick decision-making and instincts to “scram” switch a teammate off of a potential mismatch, like he did above to help Curry switch out of a matchup with Miles Bridges, which ended up in Kuminga stripping the ball.

Even without a switch involved, Kuminga has proven that not only can he survive marquee matchups against opposing lead scorers and playmakers, but also can make them noticeably uncomfortable.

Kuminga took turns on DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine against the Bulls, as well as spending time on LaMelo Ball against the Charlotte Hornets — even managing to get a steal against him:

Kuminga has used his length effectively, while treading the thin line between physicality and fouling. He navigates screens with the expertise of a veteran. He rarely lets assignments blow past him, and the reason is apparent: his footwork is impeccable, especially in terms of not overcommitting with his front foot. His hips are fluid and mobile, allowing him to keep himself in front of his assignments.

The most telling sign of his defensive maturity, however, is his knowledge of schemes and basic team defense. He‘s a capable weak-side zoner who rarely misses rotations. He knows how to help on dribble penetration through the use of stunts and digs at the nail — as evidenced by the turnover he helped cause in one of the clips above. He can effectively “ICE” ball-screens, forcing ball-handlers toward the sideline and denying them from using the screen.

For a rookie to have this uncanny combination of natural athleticism, physicality, and fundamentals is something even the Warriors probably didn’t expect when they drafted him — but it has impressed Kerr enough for him to give Kuminga meaningful playing time.

This isn’t to say that Kuminga seeing rotation minutes on the floor will become a consistent theme going forward. He’s already impressing with what he’s showing on the floor, but those flashes can easily be nullified by a successive string of rookie moments. As easily as Kerr has given him license to show his mettle, it’s equally easy for it to be taken away.

For obvious reasons, take these numbers with a considerable amount of salt: non-garbage-time lineups that include Kuminga have outscored opponents by 18.3 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning The Glass. Not only have such lineups been blowing away opponents offensively (115.2 offensive rating) — they’ve also been grinding down opponents defensively (96.9 defensive rating).

It should be said that Kuminga performing this well doesn’t necessarily refute arguments from all schools of thought concerning him. It’s perfectly fine for the Warriors to keep him and continue his development; if it takes throwing him into the lions’ den every single game, he’s proving that he can come out of it with a lion’s head or two.

If a viable win-now piece suddenly becomes available and the Warriors can somehow make the numbers work, selling high on Kuminga might not be an overly bad idea.

But Kuminga’s portfolio of legitimacy is rapidly building. He still has a lot to work on, but all the things he can already do well has made him a positive impact player on a team looking to contend for a championship.

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