Kuminga’s breakthrough key to Warriors revitalizing season

NBC Sports Bay Area

Not so long ago the Warriors were hopeful but uncertain about the NBA trajectory of Jonathan Kuminga. Loved his athleticism but weren’t sure about his shot. Loved his defensive potential but weren’t sure he would grind hard enough to grow into greatness.

It was, according to the company line, up to JK to apply himself not only physically but also mentally and emotionally to reach what was widely considered NBA All-Star potential.

Kuminga, 21, took it to heart. He has evolved, in a brief span of time, from an adventure each time he entered a game to a genuine NBA go-to guy.

The latest performance came Friday night in a 121-101 win over the Grizzlies in Memphis. He scored a game-high 29 points, the third time in eight games that he led the Warriors in scoring. Moreover, his sizzling second quarter injected the Warriors with enough life to carry them to the finish.

“JK has just really figured it out, and the game has slowed down for him,” coach Steve Kerr told reporters at FedExForum. “He’s understanding now when to attack, how to attack. He made some good passes tonight. He’s just so powerful and explosive going to the rim, and he’s just seeing the floor better than ever. This last month, he’s really broken through. And it’s just been amazing to watch.”

Kuminga’s 29 points came on 11-of-15 shooting from the field, including swishing his only 3-ball. This is eighth consecutive game of at least 20 points while shooting 50 percent or better, which puts him in the exalted company of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokić and Kawhi Leonard.

For good measure, JK added six rebounds, four assists and two steals. He was plus-15 over 37 minutes.

“The game is slowing down for him,” Draymond Green said on Warriors Postgame radio. “It’s slowed down in a major way. The way he’s scoring the ball is incredible. That’s great. But the way he’s seeing the floor is even better.”

Two passes, in particular, stood out. On one, Kuminga whistled a pass from the right baseline to Klay Thompson in the left corner for an open triple. On the other, he passed it to Brandin Podziemski in transition and Podziemski tossed up the perfect lob for Kuminga to slam through.

“He would have before just tried to drive and go,” Green said. “He’s really figuring it out. He is a stud. He’s going to be an All-Star in this league for a long time, make a boatload of money and win a lot of games.”

This is the same young man who watched most of the 2023 NBA playoffs from a seat on the bench. Partly because there was a lack of trust, and partly because his inconsistent play did not earn any trust.

Even six weeks ago, Kuminga was an on-court mystery, fantastic one game but erratic the next.

He has spent the past month methodically stripping away those concerns. Already a defensive menace, he has become a trusted teammate, an efficient scorer, with greater court awareness and, most exciting for the Warriors, a lethal presence at the rim.

“As I keep getting better every day, I know the game going still change every other time,” said Kuminga, whose court vision has been honed through video sessions with development coach Anthony Vereen. “So, I just have to be aware of where people are coming from and who’s open. Because I know, as I put a lot of pressure on the rim, there’s going to be a lot of people trapping the box. There’s going to be some people wide open.

“So, I’m just reading the game slowly and just kind of slowing down. It’s helping me to just see everything on the floor.”

It’s his scoring, however, that is lifting the Warriors. With Andrew Wiggins only recently starting to find his shot and Thompson running hot and cold all season, Kuminga’s sudden consistency has been a gift for an offense built around Stephen Curry.

After a ragged first quarter, filled with Golden State turnovers and Memphis ineptitude that ended with the Warriors holding a 24-23 lead, Kuminga owned the second quarter. He posted perfect 15 points – 6-of-6 shooting from the field, 3-of-3 from the line – that woke up the entire team.

As trade chatter heated up around the Warriors in January, the front office made it that it had no desire whatsoever to move Kuminga. His contract — $6 million this season, $7.6 million next – is manageable, especially for a team paying a steep luxury tax bill, and growth still was anticipated.

Growth is now transparent. Kuminga has started 17 of Golden State’s last 22 games, including the last three. It’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t start, health permitting, the remaining 37 games on the schedule.

“It’s been 2 1/2 years of a lot of work, and ups and downs,” Kerr said of Kuminga’s progress. “And he stayed with it the whole time. I’m so impressed with what he’s done. He’s really becoming a hell of a player.”

Kuminga has become exceedingly valuable. His attacks on the rim, however, have made him the solution to a problem that existed before his emergence.

He’s equipped for those moments when Curry is off the floor or being double- and triple-teamed.

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