The headlines from Jonathan Kuminga’s performance against the Sacramento Kings will probably point to everything about his game that brings out the flash and pizzazz.
Kuminga is an athletic specimen whose bounce and pogo-stick jumps leap out of the screen. It’s hard to ignore his gifts and natural talents, especially at an age where there are still plenty of stuff he’s not allowed to consume.
He’s the face of the Golden State Warriors’ unprecedented philosophy of surrounding their core with reliable and steady role players who are complementary in their quest for championship contention — all while retaining draft picks and focusing on the development of their youth, in what is an attempt to bridge the present toward the future.
People — many Warriors fans included — scoffed at such a notion. You can’t blame them. Teams in the NBA have often needed to pick a lane to stick to. Are you rebuilding and tanking to get a chance at obtaining the next big thing in the NBA? Do you want to be a middling playoff team that attracts just enough promise for a big free-agent name to bring you to the next level?
Or do you want to be among the best of the best and compete for a chance at the title?
The Warriors most certainly belong in that tier — but they’re doing it with a youth movement that is in full force, and one that isn’t slowing down anytime soon.
We all know what Kuminga brings to the table. The athleticism on offense, the raw defensive instincts, and an inherent feel for the game that is quite a rare commodity among 19-year olds. That feel mostly manifests itself through his on-ball exploits. Give the ball to Kuminga and he will, more often than not, exemplify the potential and display his accelerated feel at the same time.
The caveat, of course, is that the Kings are one of the worst defensive teams in the league; their non-garbage-time defensive rating of 115.3 is second only to the Houston Rockets. The lack of team-wide stopping power was the perfect playground for Kuminga to show the full arsenal on offense.
You wouldn’t consider Mo Harkless to be a particularly bad or good defender. In this Kings team, he’s solid; his defense would probably shine more on a much-better defensive squad.
So when Kuminga shows stuff like this against the solid veteran, you can’t help but salivate:
Notice that the sequence above was originally meant to be a low-post split action. The primary and secondary options — the down-screen and the slip and cut toward the rim — are off the table. So the “last-resort” option is a low-post isolation.
Kuminga is especially suited for the last-resort option because of his ability to score down low. His exceptional footwork, patience, and ability to manipulate Harkless are astounding. That’s not something your everyday 19-year old can pull off.
But while possessions such as the one above are eye-popping, I’m here to talk about a skill of Kuminga’s that isn’t being talked about much, mostly because like a lot of things about him, it’s either there on a given night, or it’s not.
At 19-years old, Kuminga already has what it takes to be a screening machine.
While the Warriors are among the least-frequent pick-and-roll operators in the league — their 14.0 pick-and-roll possessions per game ranks 29th — they make occasional use of ball screens in some of their scripted set plays.
One particular set play — “Motion Weak” — is an action borrowed from Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs, and one that Steve Kerr has been running during his entire tenure as head coach of the Warriors. They run it at the beginning of the fourth quarter against the Kings, as seen below:
To go into the details of the set, Motion Weak always starts off with the ball handler (Stephen Curry, in this case) passing to the wing (“wing entry”), after which he executes a “shallow” cut toward the weak-side wing and regains possession of the ball (“ball reversal”).
After the ball is reversed back to the ball handler, a “cross-screen” (screen set underneath the rim) is then set for the person who will set the screen for the ball handler (“ram” screen or “screen-the-screener” action) in what should flow into an empty corner pick-and-roll.
But Davion Mitchell and Damian Jones don’t even wait for the screen to be set — they immediately spring a double on Curry, who passes back out to Juan Toscano-Anderson. Kuminga senses behind him that there’s a free lane to the rim; he subsequently dive cuts and Toscano-Anderson finds him on the pinpoint lob pass for the finish.
Even if, per se, Kuminga wasn’t able to *set* the screen, he knew the lay of the land behind him and acted accordingly — which is an important trait to have as a screener for the likes of Curry and Klay Thompson, who will often draw doubles around ball screens and will count on a rim-running force such as Kuminga to punish defenses for their commitment to the ball.
While the empty-corner side pick-and-roll didn’t materialize above — at least, in the traditional sense — Kuminga was able to score on a more cookie-cutter version, with Thompson as his ball-handling partner.
Kuminga is aware of perhaps the number-one rule when it comes to the Warriors offense: Screen for a shooter whenever a shooter is nearby. Kuminga sets the wide down-screen for Thompson, and with no one on the strong-side corner, it turns into empty screen-and-roll action.
Thompson — drawing two around the screen — finds Kuminga with an exceptional pocket pass. The weak-side low man rotates over in an attempt to stop Kuminga, who showcases the ability to adjust his shot mid-air and finishes the layup.
Again, I must remind you folks: this kid is 19-years old.
There are plenty of reasons to be bullish about Kuminga’s prospects of surviving and fitting within the Warriors’ offensive ethos. The feel is already there. The desire to pressure the rim — a dimension never before seen during the Kerr era — is already a valued asset. Setting ball screens for the Warriors’ floor-warping talents is a welcome development.
But for a team that sets the most off-ball screens in the league (10.7 off-ball-screen plays per game), it’s necessary for the non-shooting contingent to be aware of shooters running toward their area, which is often a ringing alarm bell signaling them to set a screen.
The signature off-ball screen for Curry and Thompson are the “pin-in” screens on relocation threes, also known as “exit” screens. Thompson — who finished with 23 points on 11 shots — was able to fire off two of his seven threes against the Kings on pin-in screens that garnered him all the time and space in the world to drill the shots.
Those pin-in screens were set by Kuminga:
Kuminga finished with 18 points on 10 shots, an efficient scoring performance that displayed virtually everything in his repertoire. The athleticism is off the charts, the overall feel for the game is astounding, and the versatile scoring is what will draw plenty of attention.
But the screen-setting chops — when to set them, how to set them, and what to do after setting them — is something that shouldn’t be ignored.