Jonathan Kuminga is learning his role and striving for more

Golden State Warriors, NBA

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Jonathan Kuminga is drawing inspiration from Kobe Bryant as he balances his complementary role and immense potential as a future star.

It’s only a couple of weeks into the NBA season and Jonathan Kuminga, all of 20 years old, is the subject of the newest Golden State Warriors debate.

In Miami on the morning of Golden State’s game against the Heat, Draymond Green answers questions about the Warriors’ struggling young players. “As a young guy in this league you gotta appreciate opportunity,” Green says, “and, when that opportunity comes, you gotta figure it out.”

This includes Kuminga, who through the first seven games of the season has seen his minutes fluctuate as he struggles to fit his wildly physical game within the Warriors’ careful framework.

“Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga faces uphill battle to get back into rotation” read a San Francisco Chronicle headline in late October.

Moments after Green’s scrum with the media, Kuminga sits in a bright red seat in the fourth row from the court and discusses the narrative shaping around him. Eight hours later he won’t get much closer to the FTX Arena floor. Against the Heat, Kuminga would be held out altogether for his second DNP-CD of the season.

Since then, Kuminga has carved out a role with the Warriors and is now a key piece of a maturing bench rotation. But it has not been without struggle, patience and compromise. Kuminga, last year’s No. 7 pick who models aspects of his game after Kobe Bryant, has been tasked with being a role player. But in an honest moment, he admits he aspires to much more.

“It’s just me being patient and knowing what I’m capable of doing,” Kuminga tells me that morning. “I know at some point it’s going to come out to light.”

Dec 21, 2022; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga (00) drives to the basket against Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Harris (12) and guard Edmond Sumner (4) and center Nic Claxton (33) and forward Kevin Durant (7) and forward Royce O’Neale (00) during the third quarter at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Kuminga has always been inspired by Kobe Bryant

Jonathan Kuminga still has the Instagram message on his phone: “Appreciate it today for the pic big bro means a lot to me and my teammates.”

Kobe wrote back: “My man!! Go get em!!”

Kuminga idolizes Kobe. Growing up in the Congo, Kuminga would scrounge up whatever loose change he had, walk to the local internet cafe and pull up Kobe highlights on YouTube, then daydream about performing those patented fadeaway jumpers in the NBA himself.

So when Kuminga finally met the Black Mamba in December 2019, after his high school team attended a Brooklyn Nets game, he was star-struck.

Bryant, who attended the game with his daughter Gigi, was walking to his car after the game when he saw Kuminga and his teammates from the Patrick School in the parking garage. Bryant introduced himself to the group and stood next to Kuminga, considered one the top recruits of his junior class, and posed for a photo.

“I was surprised he recognized me,” Kuminga told me. “He said, ‘I’ve been watching you for a minute.’

“It was like, wait a minute, this is my favorite player. I’ve been watching him for a long time now, studying his game and stuff and him just leaving the arena and knowing who I am, especially as a high school player… It was just a crazy moment.”

Later that night, Kuminga’s phone flashed with an alert: @kobebryant had just followed him on Instagram.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA – NOVEMBER 04: Jonathan Kuminga #00 of the Golden State Warriors reacts against the New Orleans Pelicans during a game at the Smoothie King Center on November 04, 2022 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

Jonathan Kuminga is no stranger to high expectations

Lofty expectations followed Jonathan Kuminga at each stop. Along with fellow 2020 blue-chip recruit Jalen Green, Kuminga helped put the G League Ignite program on the map as a credible pathway to the NBA.

But six months before signing a one-year, $500,000 deal in the G League, Kuminga was in an Uber on his way to one of his high school teammate’s games at St. Peters in New Jersey on a cold January day when his brother, Joel, called.

“Yo, did you see the news?” Joel asked. Jonathan pulled out his iPhone and started thumbing through Twitter, unable to comprehend the headlines and details that slowly trickled in.

“The whole world was in pain at that time,” said Kuminga, who had an added layer of disappointment. “Right after I met him, I wanted to work out with him in the summer. I think we were going to set that up, but I think a week after, he passed away.”

Though Kuminga never got the chance to train with Kobe, he played well enough in the G League to be considered among the best prospects in his draft class. The Warriors were excited when he was available at No. 7.

Kuminga’s rookie campaign was characterized by flashes of brilliance. There was a slash and two-handed dunk past Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook that brought the Warriors’ bench to its feet and a reverse jam in transition against the Kings that was equal parts powerful as it was acrobatic. All suggested potential stardom and, for Kuminga, were ripped from the Kobe playbook.

“A lot of things I want to do on the floor is pretty much the same way Kobe used to play,” Kuminga said. He recalled a fadeaway jumper he made as a rookie on this same Miami court, pointing to the spot as he talked. “It was Duncan Robinson guarding me, and then Kyle Lowry came and trapped and I just hit the fadeaway and I made it.”

But as Golden State made its postseason run to the Finals, Kuminga mostly remained on the bench.

While Kuminga doesn’t have as much responsibility as fellow draft classmates such as Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Green, he is playing on a perennial championship contender alongside decorated veterans who have helped guide him through the early part of his career.

Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole took lessons from Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Green and learned to star in complementary roles. The Warriors, after helpful role players Otto Porter and Gary Payton II left in free agency, came into the season hoping Kuminga could be next.

But long before being schooled by Steph, Klay and Draymond, Kuminga was studying the ways of the Mamba. Kobe Bryant hardly played as a rookie, only to make the leap to All-Star in his second season.

Here lies the central conflict in Kuminga’s development — the Warriors’ need for him to be a role player, and Kuminga’s belief he can be so much more.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 27: Jonathan Kuminga #00 of the Golden State Warriors shoots over JT Thor #21 of the Charlotte Hornets during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on December 27, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Stability and consistency are new developments for Jonathan Kuminga

At first, the Warriors were thrown off by Jonathan Kuminga’s body language. He can look unhappy when he’s focused, or indifferent when he’s frustrated. During his one season with the G League Ignite, he was accused of floating through games. But before joining the Warriors, Kuminga hadn’t had to worry about how others interpreted his body language because he learned to be comfortable alone.

Growing up in Goma, a war-torn city in the Congo, Kuminga witnessed poverty and hunger at a young age. Armed soldiers and rebels were a constant presence in his neighborhood. Kuminga’s father, Didier, is a former power forward and coached Jonathan and his brother Joel hoping basketball could provide a path to the United States. When Jonathan was 12, his dad recorded a highlight reel of his athletic, 6-foot-4 son and sent it to prep schools in the States.

Kuminga was offered a full-ride scholarship by Mount Mission School, a boarding school in southwest Virginia. In 2016, Kuminga was dropped off at an airport in Rwanda to embark on his high school career, unsure when he’d see his parents again. What followed was a four-year hoops tour: Four high schools through Virginia, West Virginia, New York and New Jersey, AAU circuits, a Nike ELITE camp and a year playing for the NBA’s G League Ignite program in Walnut Creek, California.

Spending mere months with a rotating cast of teammates can make it easier to retreat inside. Kuminga trained his focus on the NBA. He spurned invitations to high school parties and spent nights practicing and queuing up Kobe highlights.

Now in the NBA, Kuminga aims to have a long career and build wealth for his family.

“Knowing where I come from, knowing what I’m capable of,” Kuminga says. “Things like that are my motivation.”

The 17 months in Golden State represents the most time Kuminga has spent playing for one team in his basketball career. Teammates and coaches are beginning to understand that when Kuminga goes quiet, it’s not that he doesn’t care, it’s that he might care too much.

Warriors such as Curry, Green, Andre Iguodala and Steve Kerr have responded by engaging with him and coaching him up. Kuminga has responded by opening up.

SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 14: Head coach Steve Kerr and Jonathan Kuminga #00 of the Golden State Warriors talk with each other during a break in the action against the Denver Nuggets in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Chase Center on October 14, 2022 in San Francisco, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Responding to challenges

“I hope he’s pissed off.”

Curry was direct when asked about Jonathan Kuminga’s frustrations over losing his spot in the rotation a week into the season. “That’s what’s going to make it worth it when it comes his way,” Curry continued.

“He’s not happy and I don’t want him to be happy,” Kerr said after benching Kuminga for the entirety of that home win against the Heat. “I want all my guys to want to be out there, but it’s a necessary part of the growth.”

Kuminga lost his spot after Golden State’s blowout loss to the Suns in the fourth game of the season. He shot 1-of-4 and played pedestrian defense. The Warriors were outscored by 13 points in his 15 minutes. Overtime and injuries thrust Kuminga back into the rotation the next two games after sitting against the Heat, but Kuminga was back on the bench soon after.

This was the apex of the push and pull between Kuminga and the Warriors. Key to Golden State’s two-timeline plan is Kuminga, Moses Moody and James Wiseman embracing smaller roles and growing into larger ones as the current core ages. But Kuminga has aspirations to be a go-to scorer and, up until this point, always had been.

“No coach that I know is going to put the ball in the hand of a 19-year-old and say ‘Go get us some buckets and do your thing,’” Brian Shaw, who coached Kuminga in the G League but is now an assistant for the Clippers and is prohibited from commenting on rival players, told NBA.com in 2021.

“You have the ball in your hand maybe 20 percent of the time and you need to learn what to do and how to do what needs to be done and purpose behind it that other 80 percent of the time,” Shaw continued. “So it’s going to be different right from the start probably for the first couple of years.”

Kuminga had a tendency to stop the ball and hunt for his own shot. He gave a passive effort on defense and on the boards.

Warriors coaches emphasized that they need him to do the little things instead of seeking highlights: Cut off the ball, set screens, run the floor and make the extra pass. Defensively, they needed him to weaponize his physicality.

Kuminga slowly worked his way back into the rotation, carving out a role as an on-ball stopper. Against the Mavericks, the Warriors deployed him as the primary defender on Luka Doncic. In a game against the Grizzlies, he picked up Ja Morant.

His breakout game came against the Celtics, more than a month after his initial benching. He finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, five rebounds and three assists while providing stout defense on Jayson Tatum in the Warriors’ biggest win of the season. In the NBA Finals rematch, Curry said Kuminga “belonged.”

“When you get to a point where things aren’t going your way, you have to decide are you going to commit to what you’re being asked to do, what winning basketball is and being rewarded for that,” Curry said of Kuminga after the game.

“He’s flipped that switch.”

Nov 21, 2022; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Jonathan Kuminga (00) dribbles against the New Orleans Pelicans during the first half at Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Jonathan Kuminga is showing what he can do

Jonathan Kuminga’s development has not been linear. There are still moments when the 20-year-old gets reckless and takes a contested shot early in the shot clock or turns the ball over. The important thing is that he’s been coachable. What used to get him pulled out of the game has become a teachable moment on film that is, more often than not, corrected.

He’s also embraced the defensive side of the ball. Kuminga has the potential to one day be a great wing scorer, but he’s emerged as Golden State’s best point-of-attack defender behind Andrew Wiggins.

(It’s easy to forget that Kobe, in addition to all of the scoring accolades and highlights, made the NBA’s All-Defense team 12 times.)

Among the Warriors’ young lottery picks, Kuminga is the readiest to contribute this season. He’s not as proven as Payton was during last season’s championship run, but he’s given the Warriors something similar in terms of a physical, change-of-pace presence on the defensive end.

“It’s been a beautiful thing to watch,” Green said. “It’s his understanding on that side of the ball. He’s in the right spot more often than not now. I think his growth in that area has been absolutely amazing. Quite frankly, it’s been much needed for us. Because we haven’t guarded dribble penetration well. We haven’t been really good at the point of attack all year. He’s changing that for us.”

In Tuesday’s narrow win over the Hornets, it was Kuminga who made the biggest defensive play of the game. The score tied at 101 with 3:20 remaining, Kuminga picked up Hornets forward PJ Washington in the corner. Washington jabbed a few times to try to create space when Kuminga stepped into his chest, saw orange rubber and wrestled the ball away. The play encapsulated the balance between Kuminga’s elite physicality and his burgeoning patience.

Seconds later, Kuminga broke the tie with a well-timed cut behind Charlotte’s defense and finished with a dunk.

Kuminga made all six of his shots, picked up LaMelo Ball for most of the game and made the most important plays down the stretch, including the steal and two dunks to seal the game.

“I thought he was just brilliant,” Kerr said after the game.

“I feel super comfortable at this point,” Kuminga said. “Coming out here working every single day, getting better, being around the guys that we have on the team is helping me be more confident on the floor.”

Within Golden State’s framework, however, exists opportunities to flash his scoring ability. With Curry and Wiggins sidelined, the Warriors led by three with less than 90 seconds remaining. Kuminga came off a screen and, rather than swing the ball to a teammate or take an open 3-pointer, took two dribbles against Gordon Hayward and made a five-foot floater to put the Warriors up by two possessions. After, Kuminga fist-pumped and celebrated with teammates as the Chase Center crowd roared.

It was the kind of shot you might see in a Kobe Bryant highlight package.

“I’m not a shooter like Steph or Klay or Jordan,” Kuminga said minutes later. “But, when it comes to get the job done, I’m one of the people who go out there and get it done.”

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