Jonathan Kuminga, promoted into Warriors’ rotation, faces vital early-career challenge

Draymond Green was once on the edge of an NBA rotation. He played one, two, five, four and eight minutes the first five games of his career. As a rookie, his role was toggled around regularly. Sometimes Mark Jackson would only use him as a single-possession defensive specialist.

“I had to be ready for defensive stops,” Green said. “That’s how I got on the floor. If you want minutes, you’ll figure it out. I wanted minutes, so I had to figure it out. (There were) games I didn’t play the whole game and then (entered for the) last seven seconds on defense. Go figure it out.”

Green was referring to one specific game. The Golden State Warriors were facing the Los Angeles Lakers. Late prime Kobe Bryant was letting it fly. He chucked up 41 shots that night. It was tied toward the end of regulation. The Warriors needed a stop to force overtime. Jackson called a cold Green off the bench and had him guard Kobe.

“As a young guy in this league, you gotta appreciate opportunities,” Green said.

Here is the grainy footage of Green getting a stop he still remembers a decade later and then the soundbite of him discussing it.

It isn’t difficult to comprehend the difference between an early career Draymond Green and an early career Jonathan Kuminga. Green was a four-year college player selected 35th in the 2012 NBA Draft, well aware of his NBA survival was based on his ability to immediately operate like a veteran, staying ready at all moments to help in the most subtle of ways. If Green hadn’t, he’d have been booted from the league in a snap.

Kuminga’s post-high school career consists of 12 games in the G League bubble. He went seventh in the 2021 draft, a toolsy wing with massive upside but only a novice understanding of the nuances required for high-level winning basketball. He will be given a ton of time to put it all together because the theory of what he can become is so tantalizing.

Still, though, their separate situations have an important similarity. Green, as a rookie, was ninth in minutes on a Warriors team that finished as the sixth seed. Kuminga, in this current moment, projects to finish somewhere around ninth in minutes for a Warriors’ team intent on chasing at least the sixth seed. To be a successful ninth man on a playoff team, constant energy and concentration is required, whenever your number is called. The details matter.

That’s the challenge for Kuminga, beginning this week. Warriors coach Steve Kerr has already announced it. Kuminga is joining the rotation against the Sacramento Kings on Monday night, quite possibly replacing James Wiseman. Kuminga will remain in it for the forseeable future. His 18-point, 38-minute performance in New Orleans on Friday night cemented a spot that he’d probably already earned.

But Kuminga’s job responsibilities against the New Orleans Pelicans will not be his job responsibilities on normal nights. He won’t get 38 minutes, likely not even half of that. His usage will dip. There will be less chance to do the fun stuff (shoot, drive, explore) and more of a requirement to do the hard stuff — know the scouting report, don’t miss rotations, screen hard, sprint the floor and remain locked in every second.

There are several reasons Kuminga temporarily disappeared from the rotation the first couple weeks. Atop the list: Kerr’s motivation to play JaMychal Green and the overall prioritization of Wiseman. It created a frontcourt logjam.

But Kuminga wasn’t exactly beating down the door to open the recent road trip. Two particular possessions spell that out.

The first came in Charlotte. Kuminga wasn’t a part of the staff’s original scripted rotation, but Wiseman fouled three times in his first four minutes, creating a chance for Kuminga to get some brief run to close the first quarter.

The franchise has come to believe Kuminga has the long-term potential to be an elite individual defender on the wing. When locked in on certain matchups, he uses his size, speed and competitive confidence to engulf scorers.

But his mind can wander. This is Kuminga’s first defensive possession on the floor against Charlotte. He’s guarding PJ Washington in the corner, but doesn’t look quite ready to enter the mix. The Hornets swing it to the corner. Kuminga’s feet are a bit scattered on the closeout. Washington, already in rhythm, blows past and bullies through him for an and-1 layup.

The next night, the Warriors were in Detroit. Klay Thompson rested, opening up a chance for Kuminga to get run. They put him in late in the first quarter and had him guard Bojan Bogdanović — the Pistons’ second leading scorer, one of the league’s better shooters and the type of wing they believe Kuminga will match up well against in the years ahead.

Bogdanović is already warm. He’s logged nine minutes and hit two 3s before Kuminga entered the game. The Pistons share an arena with the Red Wings. NHL buildings can be cold. But check the beginning of the below clip. It’s in slow motion. That’s Kuminga in the left corner, blowing on his hands to get warm while Bogdanović cuts right into a curling 3. The unready Kuminga is late to react and, because of it, barrels into Bogdanović to give him three free throws.

Staying ready as a fringe player rotation in the NBA is a difficult and often unheralded job. It’s what Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson did so well last season for the Warriors. They might miss a shot or commit a turnover, but when they popped off the bench, they were always prepared and energized. That’s a skill that can take time to master. It’s why the best ninth man are often mature veterans later in their basketball upbringing.

In Orlando, Kerr was asked about the general challenge of bringing along a group of young players. He gave a relevant, revealing answer.

“It’s so hard,” Kerr said. “In the league now, we are doing the work that, 20 years ago, college coaches were doing. Back then, the scouts could watch a guy for three years. I always talk about Tim Duncan and David Robinson. They each had four years of college. There was a reason they were great once they got there. Their freshman years, they weren’t that great. Their sophomore years, they started getting better. But they spent four years learning how to play, growing up, maturing, learning their bodies, gaining confidence. Because instead of trying to go up against the Knicks and Patrick Ewing, you’re going up against Canisius. Nothing against Canisius.”

“But you get my point. If you get a guy in college for three or four years and he’s against competition where he can thrive as his skills grow, as hes, you arrive to the league ready. So what’s changed is we are now doing the work that college coaches were doing back then. But you don’t have the advantage of allowing a guy’s confidence to grow playing against inferior competition. You’re throwing him right into the deep end. It’s sink or swim for a lot of these guys. I don’t blame anyone for taking the money. It’s a lot of money. If a guy doesn’t come out and gets injured and has thrown $10 or $15 million away, how do you reconcile that? So it’s a really difficult situation. But I’d say for the league now and these players coming in, it’s not at all an ideal setup for success.”

But that’s the Warriors’ setup, ushered into action by a front office that is attempting this ambitious two-timeline experiment. These are the repercussions. Wiseman and Kuminga might be better served getting 30 minutes and 15 shots every night in a low-stakes environment. This The version of the Warriors could probably use an extra veteran or two off the bench that they are no longer employed.

But that’s not the situation for either side. So that’s the challenge that awaits Kuminga this week, stepping into a ninth-man role on a title contender.

(Photo of Jonathan Kuminga: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)


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