Jonathan Kuminga’s Diverse Offensive Game Shined Throughout His Rookie Year

Last regular season, across 5,572 combined minutes, the Golden State Warriors big man quartet of Draymond Green, Kevon Looney, Nemanja Bjelica, and Otto Porter Jr. totaled 124 dunks. In 1,185 minutes, Jonathan Kuminga tallied 74 of his own. While the 19-year-old held a fringe rotation spot for the 2022 champs, his minutes always provided a distinct dynamic in the frontcourt.

With Bjelica and Porter gone, as well as Juan Toscano-Anderson and possibly Andre Iguodala (who remains a free agent), Kuminga’s pathway to a larger role has been cleared. As a rookie, he saw the floor for 70 games, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 rebounds on 60 percent true shooting (.513/.336/.684 split) in 16.9 minutes per night.

Scant time was required for Kuminga to assimilate to the Warriors’ offensive system ripe with spacing, movement, and passing. He thrived capitalizing off the attention devoted toward Stephen Curry, Jordan Poole, and Klay Thompson, all of whom consistently elicited double-teams from the defense. Kuminga seamlessly flowed from screen to dive out of pick-and-rolls, and shrewdly recognized how to puncture compromised defensive shells.

Green, Looney, Bjelica, and Porter all brandished differing utilities as rollers and screeners, but none of them provided anything like the bounce or finishing juice of Kuminga. He’s an effortless leaper and some of his buckets inside looked like he was hang-gliding to the tin. His flexibility seemed to improve from his G League tenure, too, which allowed for more contortion and creativity.

According to Cleaning The Glass, he shot 73 percent at the rim (73rd percentile among bigs). Sometimes, it looked like he was playing Slamball, with everyone else still stuck in the mundane NBA universe.

Last year, despite the championship, Golden State’s offense could be prone to stagnant stretches stemming from lackluster interior scoring valves. That’s simply not Green or Looney’s forte, the two primary ball-screen partners for Curry, Poole, etc. Kuminga helped to alleviate that stagnation and a heightened workload moving forward may further grease the wheels.

What made Kuminga’s scoring so impressive was he didn’t merely cash in spoon fed buckets as the result of the Warriors’ schemes or Curry, Poole, and Thompson’s gravity. Many play-finishers of his size equipped with trampoline bounce and off-ball savvy could approximate that production in a similar role (not many rookies, though). But Kuminga showcased genuine slashing chops, and not just scattered flashes.

Only 68 percent of his shots were assisted (73rd percentile), including 62 percent at the rim (69th percentile), according to Cleaning The Glass. On 208 drives, he shot 58.4 percent and produced points 77.4 percent of the time, per The latter mark led all rookies with a minimum of 50 drives. Franz Wagner of the Orlando Magic finished in a clear second at 70.6 percent. Among the 180 players who cataloged at least 200 drives, Kuminga’s 77.4 percent conversion rate ranked ninth.

His size and strength overwhelmed smaller defenders, while Kuminga’s vertical explosiveness enabled him to extend over oncoming helpers, and he operated with admirable craft and patience in the paint. Although his ball control proved troublesome in certain areas — he was stripped a fair amount — his straight-line acceleration fueled these downhill escapades.

He typically flourished attacking creases from the wings and given his ancillary nature in the offense, those opportunities should continue. Hopefully, the Warriors identify his budding status as a mismatch scorer and prioritize these reps for him. They insightfully ran some inverted pick-and-rolls with him and Curry to leverage their contrasting vertical and horizontal spacing talents, which should remain a component of the offense (read this great piece from Golden State of Mind’s Joe Viray). Complementary creation, one that’s divergent from Curry or Poole’s styles, is integral to Kuminga’s appeal, both immediately and long-term.

I’m rather curious to monitor the development of his jumper. Historically, it’s been a weak point of his game, but he shot nearly 34 percent last season (a middling mark) and appeared fairly willing to launch beyond the arc. Almost 33 percent of his attempts came from deep. His mechanics are somewhat slow and stiff, and the track record for him is suboptimal.

When defenses did respect him — a la Jonas Valanciunas in one of the clips above — he parlayed that into profitable driving lanes. If opponents grant him space, can he add a midrange pull-up as an intermediate between the long ball and paint points? He only shot 34 percent (31-for-91) from short midrange last year, the region between the free-throw line and restricted area, so adding that counter remains in transit. How he scales up from niche, infrequent scorer to someone multifaceted and capable of commandeering significant offensive usage is a paramount storyline for him.

If he’s not playing the small-ball 5 — which did yield a plus-3.2 net rating in 629 possessions last year and is a worthwhile wrinkle — Golden State should also aim to pair his minutes with a stretch big. JaMychal Green pivoted to an interior scoring profile in Denver last season, but did shoot 38.5 percent beyond the arc from 2017 through 2021 and could meet that criteria. James Wiseman may ultimately offer the same floor-spacing ideals, though I’m wary of that and the defensive concerns of them together would be glaring.

As Bjelica and Porter departed, Golden State lost a sizable amount of its frontcourt shooting, along with some passing and off-ball chops. The lineup construction around Kuminga to amplify his versatile scoring prowess may warrant more meticulous approaches, even if or when he progresses in year two.

Kuminga’s offensive purpose crystalized expediently last season. His defensive calling is hazier, and how exactly the Warriors intend to nurture and pinpoint it seems fascinating. Presumably, they’re looking to mold him into a point-of-attack stopper, a role that spotlights his size, active hands, and refined pliability.

They entrusted him with an array of lofty on-ball assignments, ranging from Chris Paul to Anthony Edwards to DeMar DeRozan. The outcomes were mixed, but his most suitable archetype was strength-based creators or smaller handlers short on speed. Anyone with requisite standstill burst could exploit his lateral mobility shortcomings and he’s pretty jumpy against fakes or guile.

The latter can be rectified by NBA experience and the former was nonetheless an improvement from his pre-draft movement skills. He also navigated screens fairly effectively, especially for a 6’8 rookie whose rigidity formerly headlined some of his flaws. His scope as a stopper is currently narrow, but the possibility of notably broadening it should be viewed positively.

Featuring his on-ball chops is the prudent deployment right now. Kuminga’s off-ball awareness and understanding are well behind NBA-caliber. He’s a serial overhelper who doesn’t have the recovery tools to operate as he wishes. He struggles to execute X-Outs properly.

As a low man, he’s often nonexistent or late, rotating with poor technique; between that and his jumpiness, his 4.4 fouls per 36 minutes are easily explained. Off-ball movement tends to catch him by surprise. The ball will catch his attention and he’ll lose track of his man, gravitating into unnecessary help and failing to concisely return home.

Golden State’s defensive tutelage is heralded among the league’s best and Green, an all-time great defender, as a mentor could be beneficial. Another couple years in the NBA will be critical, too. But the current reality is pretty discouraging and probably the biggest impediment for him to becoming a starter or high-level reserve.

The on-ball defense has a chance to be excellent, so that could mitigate many of these worries. It cannot be overstated how tricky team defense concepts were for him last year, though. Maximizing his time on the ball must be a primary objective during his minutes.

Kuminga entered the 2021 NBA Draft cycle ranked fourth on ESPN’s Top 100, trailing only Jalen Green, Cade Cunningham, and Evan Mobley. In fifth sat Scottie Barnes. That quartet composed the top four of last summer’s Draft and they each cemented themselves as franchise pillars in 2021-22.

Meanwhile, Kuminga was a borderline rotation player for a title winner. His ability to tailor his game to a background role is commendable and encouraging. He’s a malleable off-ball scorer who knows how to succeed in a rigorous, complex, well-oiled offensive system. The slashing upside is tantalizing and already effective. He might be a really good on-ball defender in due time as well.

Golden State relinquished some of its championship depth last month and he’s among those slated to neutralize the absences. His rookie year didn’t concretely indicate whether he’s fully prepared for that expectation, but the foundation he laid indicates at least a decent chance. There are far worse situations to be in after losing such critical players. Kuminga’s first-year play is partially responsible for the optimism.