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Class is in session for Warriors rookie Jonathan Kuminga

© D. Ross Cameron | 2021 Nov 12

Late in the first quarter of Friday night’s game, DeMar DeRozan made a move he’s done hundreds if not thousands of times. The move has earned him millions of dollars across his 13 years in the league.

DeRozan, sensing the rookie Jonathan Kuminga on him, picked up his dribble inside the arc and pump-faked. The four-time All-Star had nowhere to go, but Kuminga bit on the fake anyway, leaving his feet and landing on DeRozan’s shoulders to commit a shooting foul. 

DeRozan’s pump fake is a lethal move. It still confounds defenders much more seasoned than Kuminga. In a 2018 playoff series, the Cleveland Cavaliers instituted a $100 fine for anyone who falls for it. For whatever reason, DeRozan’s brand of pump fake is particularly challenging to lay off.  

So it wasn’t a surprise that DeRozan made Kuminga, playing in his sixth NBA game, look foolish. As DeRozan took his free throws, the rookie drifted over toward the Warriors’ bench. Juan-Toscano Anderson stood up and got in Kuminga’s ear, miming what he had done wrong.

Shortly after, DeRozan tried to go at Kuminga again, reaching into his bag of tricks. But Kuminga stood DeRozan up, forcing him east-west instead of letting him get downhill. Kuminga stayed grounded. When DeRozan left his feet, Kuminga did too, forcing DeRozan into a jump pass. The disjointed trip ended with a Chicago turnover.

Kuminga is learning in real time, in front of our eyes. Every minute he plays, either at the NBA or G-League level, is a lesson. He’s going to be bombarded with several more this season. How quickly he can download the information thrown at him will determine how much he can impact Golden State’s 2021-22 season and, ultimately, the Warriors’ ceiling. 

“I’m just trying to learn as much as I can,” Kuminga said postgame. “Mostly our defense. And I think the time I’ve been working out with the team, just trying to get more comfortable.” 

Against the Bulls, Kuminga played a career-high 16 minutes and finished +7. He added eight points on 4-for-6 shooting while primarily guarding DeRozan (18 points) — who has been playing among the best basketball of his career — when they shared the floor.

The 19-year-old has been working back from a strained knee that’s limited him so far, but GSW has no need to rush him back into the fold. Kuminga impressed in scrimmages, head coach Steve Kerr said, and can benefit from time in Santa Cruz, with Golden State’s G-League affiliate. 

Kerr said Kuminga had been “swimming upstream” after missing most of training camp with the knee injury. But he made strides this last week, notably in a four-on-four scrimmage and in practice. 

“He’s really earned the minutes he’s getting,” Kerr said. “As long as he goes out there and runs the floor and plays defense, takes care of the ball and passes like he did tonight, we’re going to continue to give him opportunities. But it’ll be a day-to-day, week-to-week thing depending on how he’s doing, depending on the health of our team. We need him to develop, and we want to do it in a healthy way. If that means there’s a night where he goes to Santa Cruz and plays 35 minutes to get extra time, that’s still a possibility. That’s always a possibility. In the meantime, he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing.” 

Kuminga is open to getting reps in the G-League. It helps him get comfortable, stay in shape and learn the plays, he said; Santa Cruz and Golden State run the same sets. 

The Warriors drafted Kuminga with the seventh overall pick as a high-upside prospect who could potentially blossom into a star eventually. They selected him over possibly more NBA-ready prospects like Franz Wagner, knowing they have a core in place already that can contend. 

Long-term, if Kuminga can reach his ceiling, he can bridge this generation of Warriors to the next. But if Kuminga can already contribute at 19, that’s quite a bonus. 

“If this team is going to continue to go to new levels, we need him to grow fast and bring something to this team that we don’t necessarily have, which is a 6’8 guy who’s probably one of the best athletes in the league already,” Green said postgame. 

Kuminga will still have to jockey with a loaded frontcourt — especially when James Wiseman returns — for minutes. And he still has a lot to learn. He’s an explosive athlete at 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, but wasn’t physical enough on two defensive rebounds in the second half that led to second chances for Chicago. 

But the tantalizing promise is there. And it’s bubbling. 

In Friday’s fourth quarter, Kuminga ran inverted pick-and-rolls with Steph Curry. He got downhill and finished on both sides of the rim. Kerr praised his drive-and-kick ability. He also initiated some halfcourt offense from above the break, indicating playmaking feel. 

For both those actions, he can learn from Green, who’s mastered those situations over the last decade. 

“Getting him reps just out there, no matter really what the lineup is, but giving him opportunities to showcase his athleticism, his skill-set,” Curry said. “He made a pass to (Moses) Moody in the corner down the stretch of the game, that shows his capability of showing his downhill threat but also having options and getting guys open looks. So he’ll have opportunities to keep showcasing that and understand what that pace and rhythm, feel is really like out there on the floor with the normal rotation guys.” 

For the DeRozan lockdown and the baseline pump-and-drive, Kuminga can take courses at Andre Iguodala’s school. 

No team has better adjunct professors for Kuminga than the Warriors. How much knowledge Kuminga can absorb, and how fast, decides how quickly he can graduate into real-world NBA life in the Bay.

 

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