CHARLOTTE — Jonathan Kuminga wasn’t supposed to be this good, this quickly. But the 19-year-old with the raw athleticism that made him the No. 7 overall pick this past spring has forced the hand of coach Steve Kerr with recent leaps in his development.
For the second straight contest, Kuminga impacted the game with significant rotation minutes. His biggest splash since arriving in Golden State came during a two-minute flash Sunday when Kuminga scored the Warriors’ first eight points of the second quarter in an eventual 106-102 loss to the Hornets.
More importantly and less surprising — at least to Kerr — was that Kuminga’s defensive ability generated his offensive opportunities.
“He’s really impressive out there. He gave us good minutes,” Kerr said. “He’s active. He’s athletic. What I like about him more than anything is he defends without fouling. He doesn’t reach. A lot of rookies will try to reach and try to make spectacular plays. He really trusts his athleticism and his strength.”
Kuminga isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. Draymond Green once described him as the “swaggiest guy walking around.”
In practice, Kuminga has matched up on Stephen Curry and swatted “a ton” of his shots from beyond the perimeter, the Warriors’ superstar said. Of course, Curry gets the best of him at times, too.
The approach behind the doors of the practice gym has translated into game action, with Kuminga taking on two of the league’s top scorers in Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan and Charlotte’s LaMelo Ball the past two games.
“We’re gonna keep putting him on the best players out there,” Kerr said, “because he’s got the physicality and the speed and athleticism to do that.”
Green, an all-NBA defender, sees the same potential in Kuminga.
“I have no doubt in my mind that he can check just about anybody. He has the size, has the strength, has the quickness, has the length. Everything you want in a defender, he kind of has,” Green said. “He’s gonna be a hell of a defender.”
On Tuesday, Kuminga will be met with another challenge, but one in particular he’s looking forward to.
He’ll likely be matched up on Kevin Durant when the Warriors visit Brooklyn. It will also amount to somewhat of a homecoming for Kuminga, who moved to the New York area to play prep basketball. His coach at The Patrick School, Chris Chavannes, will be in attendance. But Kuminga is struggling to find ways to fit all his acquaintances into Barclays Center.
“It feels good to be back here. I’m one of the kids who kind of grew up around the area,” Kuminga said. “I only get two tickets to the game, but I’ve got to find a way to find more tickets because I’ve got so many people trying to come to the game.”
The Warriors can only wonder how far along Kuminga could be now if not for missing three weeks in the middle of his first training camp and preseason. From Kerr to Curry to Kuminga himself, all can admit missing any time can put a rookie way behind the 8-ball.
Drafted seventh overall out of the G League, via the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he spent the first 14 years of life, Kuminga’s proponents pointed to his size and athleticism (6-foot-8, 220 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan) that could make him an elite defender, while his detractors noted the raw nature of his game.
Kuminga had done nothing but generate raves from his coaches and teammates while he lit up the Summer League with spectacular finishes at the rim while showing a knack for kicking to the open man, too. Those were positive signs for a player best known for his versatile defensive ability.
He rode that momentum into an impressive first two weeks of camp, but his season stalled when he strained his right knee, sidelining him through the first five games of the regular season.
This past week, the 19-year-old has made “huge strides,” according to Kerr, earning him a chance to prove himself under the bright lights of NBA arenas. In 16 minutes Friday, he scored eight points, mostly contained DeRozan (after fouling him on one initial pump fake) and recorded his first two NBA dunks. He followed it up with his best offensive showing, adding one more to his point total with a late foul shot to finish with nine in 10 minutes.
In Kuminga’s 26 minutes over the past two games, the Warriors have outscored their opponents by 17 points.
“You have to be able to perform when the lights are bright. And he’s done that so far,” Curry said. “So I’m sure he’ll get more and more chances. … He’s done a lot with his minutes these last three games. It’s nice to have a guy with his size that can guard a point guard, guard all the way through probably a 4, some 5s, and then make them guard him on the other end.”
Kuminga and his fellow lottery pick, Moses Moody, were thought to see the majority of their minutes either in garbage time or in Santa Cruz, with the Warriors’ G League affiliate, but Kuminga’s quick learning has somewhat bucked those plans.
He has even supplanted Juan Toscano-Anderson in the Warriors’ rotation, Kerr said.
Moody hasn’t cracked the rotation as Kuminga has, but both will still see time in Santa Cruz, Kerr said.
“It’ll be a day-to-day, week-to-week thing, depending on how he’s doing,” Kerr said. “We need him to develop. 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, I think that’s still a possibility.”
Within seconds of stepping on the court in the second quarter Sunday, Kuminga forced a steal that led to a bucket at the other end. Over the next 1:56, he scored the Warriors’ next three baskets — all on drives to the rim in transition after missed Charlotte shots.
On multiple occasions, Kerr has used steam engine analogies to describe Kuminga’s downhill speed and power. (“He’s a freight train coming downhill in transition.” “He’s such a locomotive out there.”)
He showed flashes Sunday, but that’s the area of his game Green wants to see take the next step.
As long as Kuminga continues to grow, so will his minutes.
“I think that’s another level to his game that will come as he gets more and more comfortable, because when he’s playing downhill, he’s tough to guard,” Green said. “I think he has a lot to offer this team. He was incredible in his minutes tonight. I think those minutes will continue to grow — if he continues to play that way. And I have no doubt in my mind that he will.”