basketball

Why Jonathan Kuminga focused on being Warriors’ positionless force

SAN FRANCISCO — During Jonathan Kuminga’s eight-game absence with a sprained right foot from Jan. 2 through Jan. 19, the 20-year-old’s eyes were locked in left, right, up and down. He didn’t focus from the bench on one player or one position in particular. Why?

Because he wants to be someone Warriors coach Steve Kerr can feel confident playing at any position.

“I’m like one of those guys on this team that plays every position,” Kuminga said Sunday night to NBC Sports Bay Area in the locker room after the Warriors’ 120-116 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. “You’ve got to know what’s going on, be aware of everything going on — from watching Steph [Curry] to [Kevon Looney].

“It’s a little bit tougher, but I didn’t choose to be that way or trying to play that way. It’s just natural. It’s just something that requires knowing where to be and knowing what I need to do to help the team win. ”

The Warriors on Sunday lost their fourth straight home game and watched yet another double-digit lead evaporate down the stretch. Kuminga certainly wasn’t at fault. He did all he could, and Kerr couldn’t turn away from him.

As Andrew Wiggins continued to struggle since returning from his 15-game absence to a right adaptor strain and two illnesses, Kuminga had to remain on the floor as perhaps the Warriors’ best player in the loss. Wiggins played nine minutes and 42 seconds in the second half and was held scoreless while missing both of his shot attempts. Kuminga played nearly 14 minutes over the last two quarters, scored 11 points and was a plus-2 in plus/minus despite the Warriors being outscored by 16 points.

Steph Curry’s 26 points topped all Warriors scorers, but he went 0-for-4 in the fourth quarter and was a team-low minus-14 in the final period with a win slipping out of Golden State’s hands. Kuminga led the Warriors with seven points in the fourth. In his second game back from his foot injury, he scored 20 points, his second-most this season. What stood out most was his efficiency.

Kuminga was 9-for-15 from the field, his only turnover was a traveling call down low and his plus-13 was second on the team, his fifth-best mark this season.

“Thought he did a really good job of playing under control and taking advantage of those mismatches,” Draymond Green said at the podium in his postgame press conference. And then also defensively just hounding guys, like he’s been hounding the ball. It’s good.

“He’s doing a really, really good job and picking up right where he left off before the injury.”

Prior to Kuminga being shelved, the former top pick was on a roll. Over the Warriors’ four-game win streak against the Memphis Grizzlies, Charlotte Hornets, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers at the end of 2022, Kuminga averaged 9.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a 9.3 plus/min. As Draymond said, Kuminga has picked up right where he left off.

With six players and four starters out Friday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Kuminga was immediately inserted into the starting lineup in his first game back. He was a plus-15 with nine points and six assists in his last game before going down, and was as good after missing three weeks. The Warriors stunned everyone by beating the Cavs, and all Kuminga did was score 10 points with five assists, three rebounds and one steal on his way to being a plus-8.

That’s winning basketball after watching from a different perspective.

It’s hard enough to make such an impact at such a young age. Doing so without Curry, Green, Wiggins or Klay Thompson makes it that much harder and that much more impressive. The fact that his showing was coming off an injury certainly was eye-opening.

“It’s tough,” Kuminga said when I asked if he was worried about being a step behind upon his return from injury. “It happens to a lot of people where whenever they come back, they’re not on time or not on point with the team. I feel like the last two games I’ve been trying to push it and trying to be at the same level as everybody.It’s a little tougher.

“I’m not going to say I’m there yet, but whatever I’m out there doing is actually helping.”

An injury didn’t stop Kuminga’s work or preparation. He was in the building every day and coaches were watching his every move. Kuminga feels the individual attention went a long way, and he was all ears with how much of a help he would be when his body allowed him to return to game action.

Whether it was film or words of encouragement from teammates and coaches, Kuminga now fully understands what he can do with his pure strength and athleticism as his other skills develop. He’s 6-foot-8 and though his 210 pounds are still on a long and lanky build, Kuminga’s strength and speed can’t be rivaled by many on the Warriors or the rest of the league.

He showcased that with breakaway dunks and nifty finishes around the rim. Using him as a pick-and-roll weapon is a dream for Kerr and a nightmare for opponents.

“I used to have a problem where I’d have small guards and not want to do anything and keep up with the motion of the game,” Kuminga explained. I gained my confidence from Andre [Iguodala], and actually Steve himself. Coach Steve was like, ‘You have a small guy, that’s your advantage.’

And just getting my trust from Steph and Klay and the rest of the guys that were like, ‘Whenever you get a small guy out there, that’s your mismatch. Use that to your advantage.’ Andre was the person that’s been more focused on me where anytime I get a small person on me, it’s like, you got to go to work. You gotta find a way.”

Between Curry, Thompson, Wiggins and Jordan Poole, the Warriors have a plethora of players who can score 20 or more points on any given night. Maybe Kuminga needs to be added to that list.

How he gets his points is different from the others, and it takes a combination of brute force and being able to read the game in real-time.

“If I’ve got Steph and Klay and JP out there and Draymond in the post, or JP or Steph attacking, people are going to help because they’re weapons,” Kuminga said. “Anytime I see somebody turning their head, that’s the time to cut.”

RELATED: Kerr: Dubs ‘not good enough to consistently close games’

Kuminga is a multi-faceted weapon in his own right. He can go from guarding Kyrie Irving to backing him down, and then doing the same to someone bigger like Ben Simmons the next time down the floor. This has not been the season the Warriors expected coming off their championship. The version of Kuminga they’re now getting also is more than they could have expected at this point.

The possibilities of what he becomes are endless the closer his mind matches his unlimited talent. That day appears to be sooner than we realized not too long ago.

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