SAN FRANCISCO – Jonathan Kuminga’s rookie season with the Golden State Warriors has certainly been as up and down as a San Francisco cable car ride.
Some games he starts and shines bright. But on most nights, the seventh overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft plays sporadically or not at all. While NBA rookies such as Scottie Barnes, Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Green got plenty of minutes, Kuminga was fighting for a role on a Golden State team with championship aspirations.
But in the long run, expectations are that the 19-year-old’s early growing pains will eventually build the 6-foot-7 small forward into an NBA superstar.
“He’s going to be really good,” Warriors All-Star forward Draymond Green told Andscape. “He can be a perennial All-Star in this league. That’s up to him and the work he puts in. But he has the skills, the tools, he can see the floor, he has the opportunity if he puts the work in to be a perennial All-Star.”
Said Kuminga to Andscape: “Hearing that just humbles me every time and motivates me to really keep working toward my dream and working towards what people say I can’t do. Every day I think about that and work towards that. Hopefully, one day I am going to be what everyone says.”
Kuminga is averaging 7.1 points and 1.9 rebounds in 11.2 minutes while starting in three of nine postseason contests for the Warriors. The Democratic Republic of Congo native logged 17 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists in 24 minutes of the Warriors’ blowout loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 5 of their second-round playoff series on Wednesday.
Kuminga joined Golden State from an unconventional route, via the NBA G League Ignite during its inaugural season.
The Ignite debuted during the 2020-21 G League season as a developmental team that can offer young players training with coaches and players with NBA experience, and a paid alternative to going to college. ESPN’s fourth-ranked prospect in the Class of 2020 chose the upstart Ignite over college offers from Texas Tech, Auburn, Duke and Kentucky. Joining Kuminga was prep standout Jalen Green, who was selected by the Houston Rockets second overall in the 2021 NBA draft.
Kuminga averaged 15.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 32.8 minutes over 13 games for the G League Ignite, as the season was played at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“He pushes himself every day,” Rasheed Hazzard, a former assistant coach with the Ignite, told Andscape. “His work ethic is second to none. I really enjoyed my time with him. Wants to learn. Wants to get better. He was the one guy in the bubble who was always texting me after a game, ‘Hey, can we find an empty gym to work on my shot?’ ”
Typically, NBA draft picks selected in the top 10 land in rebuilding situations where they are expected to play a lot of minutes and start immediately. Such was not the case for Kuminga. The teenager joined a veteran Warriors franchise that has played in five NBA Finals and has won three titles since 2015, and includes projected Hall of Famers Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr said he and management talked to Kuminga before training camp about the challenges he would face as a rookie joining a veteran team.
“We talked about how difficult that would be, but that there would be benefits to playing with veterans who are legends in this league and can really help him,” Kerr said. “The growth process seemed more organic than it would be just being thrown out on the floor.
“He had to earn minutes and understand why he was in certain situations and not in others. Those conversations all happened early, but that didn’t mean he was happy about it, nor did I want him to be happy about it. I want guys who want to play. That was all part of the early process.”
Despite the challenge ahead for Kuminga, G League program manager Rod Strickland, a former NBA standout, told him that being drafted by the Warriors would be the best thing for him.
“A great talent. A great young man. He came in here and worked hard,” Strickland said. “I’m happier for him that he was able to get drafted by the Warriors to be with a lot of veterans and understand what winning was about, and to be with winning players on both sides of the court. The sky is the limit for him.
“He is a competitor and thinks he’s the best, which he is supposed to think that way. But now he has a lot of ‘the best’ guys with him. They will teach him how to be a pro. How to be a winner.”
Kuminga clearly showed during the 2021 NBA summer league that he was athletically gifted and had well-rounded talent. But after having such a short stint in the G League, Kerr says, there was a lot he still needed to learn before he could impact the Warriors.
“He also came in rawer than some of his fellow draftees because he just had 10, 12 games in the bubble. A lot of other guys had a full season of college, 30, 35 games,” Kerr said.
Draymond Green told Andscape that he also struggled to communicate with Kuminga when he first joined the Warriors. Green said on an NBC Sports Bay Area broadcast that Kuminga needed to go to “screening school” (to set better screens for his teammates), and added that he has improved his work ethic during the season.
“In the most respectful way, I had to look at him more like my son instead of my brother,” Draymond Green, 32, told Andscape, referring to his 5-year-old son, Draymond Green Jr., nicknamed D.J. “The reality is he is just as close to my son in age as me in age. You start looking at the guy and you expect him to be this, speak like this, you expect him to do this thing and that thing. But then you realize, ‘Why am I expecting that out of him?’ What would be the reason behind expecting certain things from him when I don’t expect that from D.J.? I can’t expect the same thing from him I expect from Klay and Andre [Iguodala].
“The way you view a guy and speak to a guy, is that connection going to be better with me treating him like a brother and him not understanding anything at all, or is it going to be better with me treating him like a son, explaining things to him thoroughly and helping him along? Is that connection going to be better that way? That is night and day.”
Kuminga said that the Warriors veterans have taught him how to “be more professional.” He added that Draymond Green always keeps it “honest” with him and appreciates him trying to make him better,
“I’m just trying to pick up something from his mind every single day,” Kuminga said.
Kuminga also played in six games for the G League Santa Cruz Warriors this season, including playing against his old Ignite team. Kuminga says returning to the G League was not a slap in the face but rather part of the growth process.
“It’s just part of the journey,” Kuminga said. “You just have to adapt to whatever comes at you. When they first called my name getting drafted here, that is when I knew everything changed. This is the NBA. Anything is possible here. I started working toward anything that comes around. I was getting ready for any opportunity I get.
“I try to get better wherever I am at. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the G League or playing against little kids, just as long as I’m hooping, doing what I love to do.”
Kuminga had a breakthrough game with 26 points during a 119-100 loss for the short-handed Warriors to the Toronto Raptors on Dec. 18, 2021, while also being stymied by six turnovers and only one rebound. Kerr gave Kuminga a mixed review afterward.
“He’s got to get more than one rebound in 36 minutes, especially with that kind of athletic ability,” Kerr said after the game. “He kind of showed how talented he is, how young he is, how high the ceiling is and how far he has to go, all in one night.”
Kuminga continued to show flashes of stardom from that game forward. He scored 25 points off the bench in 26 minutes against the Chicago Bulls. He was named a replacement player for the Rising Stars Challenge, and in February, Kuminga averaged 14.8 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 57.6% from the field. He appeared in 70 regular-season games, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 16.9 minutes.
“It took a couple of months for him to catch up to what we were trying to do. Once he was ready, we started to play, and he took off from there,” Kerr said. “He has had a great rookie season. Really excited where he is now as opposed to training camp.”
“Most of the time, I don’t play. Sometimes, I play. Sometimes I feel I deserve to play. That is just how things will be in your mind, and how life often is. I just have to be ready for everything.”
— Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga on his sporadic minutes this season
Kuminga’s minutes have been sporadic, and his role has gone from starting to not playing at all, which was the case in Game 3 of the first-round series against the Denver Nuggets. He started in the Game 5 loss to Memphis but came off the bench in the second half.
The rookie said that adjusting to the change in role hasn’t always been easy, but he is trying to stay ready for what is asked.
“It was tough. But always in my mind is, ‘Every time you go out there, just go out there and hoop and stay ready every day.’ That is what got me to this point. Most of the time, I don’t play. Sometimes, I play. Sometimes I feel I deserve to play. That is just how things will be in your mind, and how life often is. I just have to be ready for everything.”
Kuminga didn’t get nearly as much attention as Barnes, the 2022 NBA Rookie of the Year, runner-up Mobley or 2021 No. 1 overall pick Cunningham. But the Warriors athletic forward does own one distinction over those stellar rookies, as he is one of just two top-10 picks from 2021 (Memphis’ Ziaire Williams) still in the playoffs.
“It means a lot to be playing now. I am the only rookie actually getting some minutes in the playoffs,” Kuminga said.
Curry believes the future is bright for the Warriors’ teenage standout, especially if he has taken advantage of learning from the veterans around him. The Warriors could also use an all-around boost from the rookie as they try to close out the visiting Grizzlies Friday night in Game 6.
“I always tap him on the shoulder to let him know something that is on my mind to point something out through the course of the [season],” Curry said. “Especially this time of the year.
“It will be interesting to hear his perspective of what he got from this [season], because everyone’s journey is different. He’s in a better situation in terms of being able to learn from the right type of people in terms of this time of the year, and winning basketball and what it takes to get here.”