The posters were everywhere, scattered around every local establishment in Jonathan Kuminga’s native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Every worldwide NBA superstar was featured: Kobe, Shaq, LeBron, Jordan. All of them.
These were the bridges linking Kuminga to his childhood dream of basketball stardom. Growing up, Kuminga did not watch the NBA. His first glimpse of the league — predominantly long highlight reels of Kobe Bryant — came a year before he moved to the United States as a 13-year-old in 2015 to attend high school at Huntington Prep in Huntington, West Virginia.
The heartache of leaving his parents and family behind was overshadowed by the pursuit of an NBA aspiration. He says it was not a “hard challenge” because he was accustomed to the experience, traveling for days at a time when he was 11 or 12, playing in various basketball tournaments.
“I’m going out there for them,” Kuminga says he told himself back then. “Like, if I go out there, I gotta do better. And I got to help everybody. … I gotta forget everything back home. Let me just focus on what’s now.”
Kuminga’s devotion and chase of an NBA vision will soon be fulfilled. He is one of the heralded young talents on the G League Ignite Team, which also includes Jalen Green and Daishen Nix, fellow projected lottery picks of the 2021 NBA Draft.
Months ago, however, Kuminga was not part of the 2021 Draft conversation. He was a junior at The Patrick School in Hillside, New Jersey, and the top-ranked player in his class, fielding offers from legendary college programs like Duke and Kentucky. Reclassifying entered his thought process the year prior, as a sophomore, when he played at the Nike EYBL Peach Jam, a popular and high-end AAU circuit. On his team were four-star recruits like Jalen Lecque (now with the Indiana Pacers) and Kofi Cockburn (University of Illinois), both of whom are two-plus years older than him, an age gap that extended to his competition as well.
“I was playing against people that was older than me, I felt like I was kind of better, compared to them, as long as I got in the gym, keep working every day,” Kuminga says. “In my junior year, I was like, ‘high school basketball game: boring.’ So I felt like I was bigger than everybody, stronger, faster, and just good, again, compared to anybody, so it made me just wanna get out of high school.”
To accelerate that process, Kuminga took online classes and graduated this past June. As he navigated the decision to reclassify and where to spend his tune-up year, an array of voices touted the benefits of the G League route. Amid the layoff from games, Kuminga — who is participating in the NBA 2K League’s Winter Cla$h — trained in Miami with Isaiah Todd, another member of the G League Ignite squad and someone who he’s long considered to be kin. Todd repeatedly stressed how a season as a professional would prime him for the next level. Kuminga trusted the words of his unofficial brother, mulling over the opportunity and discussing it with his family.
But, Todd’s input alone did not sway him, so he solicited the advice of current and former NBA players whom he was also training with in Miami. Among them were James Harden, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Michael Beasley, the last of whom’s words were particularly salient.
“[He] told me not just to go to college because, like, if you go to college, and the G League is offering you to come out there, it’s way better to go out there to the G League because [college doesn’t] teach you how to become a professional and that’s what you need,” Kuminga says.
During the months succeeding his final high school game, Kuminga lasered in on addressing three areas of his skill-set: ball-handling, shooting, and defense. He says better understanding how to function as an off-ball cog is also part of his curriculum for improvement. As he progresses on his basketball journey, he will not always control the action. Learning how to play off screens, manipulate defenses with footwork, and threaten opponents from deep is critical. The G League environment challenges him in a way he does not believe college would. He is tested by “grown men,” as he says, and must adapt to a system that is not wired entirely for him, with guys like Green and Nix also deserving of gaudy offensive usage.
Half a year from now, the NBA will be his home. Grown men will not be the exception in his new ecosystem, they will be the threshold. Joining the G League Ignite team illuminated the reality of attaining his NBA hopes. Inking that first NBA contract with his signature bestows him the financial resources to express tangible gratitude toward his family and home country for their steadfast support. Building better gyms, sending kids sneakers, clothes and basketballs, and expanding the state and prevalence of sports facilities are specific priorities. Assisting marginalized groups is on the list, too.
The word “everything,” after long, drawn-out pauses, comes up consistently in this discussion, conveying the sense that many thoughts are swirling within Kuminga’s mind. Explaining the manner in which he will precisely give back to his community is difficult because his brain is constantly stretching the limit of possibilities, perhaps, even, convincing himself there are no limits once he reaches financial security.
The Democratic Republic of Congo carries mighty importance in his heart. He wants his people to have everything they need available to them, both athletically and in life. Their encouragement and pride radiates from overseas and fuels him to accomplish his goals, goals that Kuminga knows can improve everyone’s circumstance.
“I really appreciate everything they’re doing for me. I mean, this bringing love about me in Africa and the world. I just want them to keep doing what they’re doing. And I really want to say that I love them,” he says. “I feel like I’m making everybody proud, starting to family and my country, my people back home. Everybody that knows who I am or just anybody, I feel like I’m just making them proud. And I’m just going to keep doing the same thing every day. They encourage me, like, any time I see my people, any time, I see where I’ve jumped from.”
Eventually, Kuminga could be the NBA star on those posters, inspiring some other kid gazing at them, broadening basketball ambitions in his locale. It’s the place he “jumped from,” one he will always honor and is determined to ensure will soon experience the ripple effects of his ascension.