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A glimpse into how the Jonathan Kuminga-James Wiseman pairing could prosper

Slight utilization changes can be what brings out the best of this young and athletic duo.

SFChronicleWarriors Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As far back as the first game of the preseason against the Washington Wizards, the Jonathan Kuminga-James Wiseman pairing looked dicey.

Two athletic specimens being on the court together was supposed to be a recipe for high-speed possessions, rim-running exhibitions, and dunkfests all over the floor. But one crucial aspect made their combination on the floor look un-ideal: the lack of spacing equity.

To illustrate this, compare and contrast this possession where Stephen Curry receives a wide pindown:

To this possession, where Jonathan Kuminga receives a wide pindown:

In Curry’s case, the wide pindown generates good offense. The reasons are clear: defenders aren’t keen on ducking under screens for Curry for obvious reasons and must try to navigate over the screen in order to keep Curry from pulling up for a jumper. But this is where the subtle genius of a Curry wide pindown from the corner comes in — the on-ball defender and the screener’s defender are then forced to pay attention to Curry, creating an empty corner without the presence of a help defender. This allows Kevon Looney to roll to the rim for a layup opportunity — and while Kristaps Porzingis recovers in time to close Looney’s window, the idea and process were still sound.

However, when running the very same wide pindown action for Kuminga — with Wiseman setting the screen — it’s quite apparent that things aren’t as easy. Kuminga is no Curry in terms of being a jump-shooting threat, so defenders are more empowered to duck under those screens. The spacing gets messy, no visible advantage is created, and Kuminga is forced to drive baseline amid a bunch of bodies in the paint.

The lesson learned from the possessions above? The main reason why this pairing didn’t seem to work wasn’t a matter of inherent incompatibility, but rather a matter of utilization.

In other words: Perhaps it’s not ideal to put them in screening actions together.

This pairing should still work despite the lack of spacing; the precedent for that is none other than two of their veterans in Looney and Draymond Green, both of whom are rarely involved — if at all — in direct screening actions with each other. And yet, this pairing outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in 659 regular season minutes during 2021-2022.

Looney and Green are a pairing that, on paper, should not work. Both have overlapping skill sets and similar deficiencies — the most glaring being that none of them can shoot. But what offsets those deficiencies are a combination of IQ and proper usage.

Looney’s main job on offense is to screen for shooters. Green also takes a significant portion of the screening responsibilities, but his ability to pass and make decisions with the ball in his hands allows him to find the shooters and cutters — a play connector who can bridge together advantage creation and play finishing to produce offense.

Nothing is more exemplary of their roles than in the Golden State Warriors’ bread-and-butter split action:

In this version of the split action — usually coined as “Bilbao” (because of its origin, a professional basketball team based in Bilbao, Spain) or post staggered split — Jordan Poole sets a wedge screen (a screen for someone at the top of the key toward the low post) for Green, who receives the entry pass. Poole then sets a screen for Curry, who curls and cuts inside. Poole then curls around Looney’s screen, taking advantage of the fact that Porzingis is dropping back.

Kuminga and Wiseman are younger and more athletic than their veterans. The inexperience and differences in skill set are there, but there should be enough similarities for the two to replicate to some degree what Looney and Green can do on the floor. Split action is one example:

With Wiseman in the virtual Green role as the low-post passer and Kuminga in the Looney role as the split-cut screener, Kuminga anticipates the switch and counters with a sudden slip of the screen. Wiseman finds Kuminga, who finishes with a layup.

What makes the split action above even more encouraging is the fact that — unlike in “Bilbao” action — it wasn’t a drawn-up half-court set, but one that came as a result of the Warriors’ free-flowing offense with built-in progressions and reads. The fact that both the 21-year-old Wiseman and 20-year-old Kuminga were able to execute a non-scripted possession — and garnered points off of it — is a testament to how far they have come in their development.

It doesn’t even have to be something as complex as split action. Both of them can benefit from the other simply through sheer athleticism combined with awareness and proper positioning. Athleticism and natural gifts shine the most when a possession progresses into the realm of chaos — and the Warriors are arguably the best team in the league when it comes to making the most out of chaotic possessions.

The Warriors try to swing the ball around to keep it moving, but the Nuggets are crisp with their rotations. The ball finds its way to Kuminga, who is left with the task of creating something against a defense on the brink of tilting:

Compare the possession above to the very first clip of this article, and you’ll see the similarities — except for the fact there is no screen involved. Curry clears to the weak side, while Kuminga receives the ball on the wing and blows past Aaron Gordon. With Wiseman at the dunker spot, Kuminga’s penetration creates a virtual empty-corner situation. Nikola Jokić is forced to help on the drive, leaving Wiseman open to receive the pass for an easy dunk.

This is what I had to say previously about the Kuminga-Wiseman pairing:

On paper, two highly athletic and explosive talents — one a wing and one a big — would work well together on the floor. In an ideal situation, Kuminga would be a ball handler running tons of pick-and-roll with Wiseman; empty the corner during those situations and defenses might as well throw their arms up in disgust.

The reality, however, paints an incomplete picture. Due to both Kuminga and Wiseman providing almost zero shooting value, the spacing when both of them are directly involved in an action leaves a lot to be desired.

Even though it’s a one-game sample, the solution seems to be promising. If Kuminga and Wiseman are to fulfill the promise of a highly explosive and dynamic duo, their minutes against the Nuggets could be the blueprint.

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