SAN FRANCISCO — The Hornets melted away the Warriors’ 18-point second-half lead completely. It was tied at 101 with just over three minutes left. Charlotte had possession. The ball found its way to PJ Washington in the corner.
Washington is a skilled big. He launches 3s and hits them at a capable clip, but doesn’t have too explosive a first step. He wants space and, in this instance, tried to jab step Jonathan Kuminga, his defender, away a couple of times to get it.
But Kuminga wasn’t giving him room to breathe. He’s quicker laterally than Washington and increasingly aggressive, buying into his role as one of the Warriors’ go-to individual defenders. As Washington sent those few soft jab steps at him, Kuminga only nudged closer and grew more invasive. Washington left the ball exposed. Kuminga ripped it away.
That steal was among the most popular postgame topics after the Warriors closed out a needed 110-105 win. The quotes that arose on Kuminga’s defense from two of the loudest and most influential voices in the room raise an eyebrow.
“He looked like Andre Iguodala on that play,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “That’s an Andre-type play. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andre’s been mentoring him throughout the season and last year.”
“That was will,” Draymond Green said. “That was ‘I want the ball more than you.’ That was ‘Our backs are against the wall. We’ve lost the lead. Let me go make a play myself.’ So he took the ball. He goes and gets a dunk. He goes and snatches a rebound in traffic. He made every play down the stretch. I think it all started with that play with PJ Washington taking the ball. He handled him.”
Kuminga played the entire fourth quarter. He wouldn’t have if Andrew Wiggins had been available. But Wiggins’ extended absence has cracked the door wider for Kuminga and he has taken a firmer grip on a rotation spot in the last couple of weeks because of his point-of-attack defense.
“We went with him for his defense,” Kerr said. “He’s playing really well defensively and he was guarding LaMelo (Ball).”
“At the moment — fourth quarter,” Kuminga admitted, “I don’t usually get to be in the game.”
Kuminga found a crack of space for two huge cutting dunks in the final minutes. He was 6 for 6 shooting. He also had a floater against Gordon Hayward in isolation with under 90 seconds left to give the Warriors a five-point lead. You can watch the offensive clips here. After the Hornets called timeout, Green started shoving Kuminga in celebration.
But Green specifically mentioned the big rebound. The Warriors are a smaller team that is in desperate need of an injection of controlled athleticism. Kuminga is in the top percentile of NBA athletes and it’s beginning to make an impact in positive ways — like the aforementioned defensive rebound, seen below, where he skies over Mason Plumlee to secure an important possession with three minutes left.
Ball went 7 of 25 shooting. Six of those misses came in a dreadful fourth quarter. The last of those sealed the Charlotte loss. It came after a Klay Thompson missed free throw, keeping the warriors up five. Ball tried to push it into the frontcourt with 10 seconds left to get a quick score. But he was being hounded full court by Kuminga, who spent much of the night — and this past month — hounding ballhandlers.
Here’s that one example.
This is a vital development for a Warriors team that lost one of the NBA’s best point-of-attack defenders this summer. Gary Payton II, who led the NBA in steals per 36 minutes, left a void when he went to Portland. Donte DiVincenzo and Moses Moody have their strengths, but neither can hawk like Payton can.
Kuminga isn’t as seasoned, but his physical skills are off the charts and, after sinking out of the rotation early in the season, seems to be embracing his bench role as a defense-obsessed pest on the ball.
“He f—ing locks up now,” Green said. “I think it’s very impressive to see. Not that you never thought he was capable, but to see the maturity and buying into a role. Like, ‘Oh, that’s my role, that’s what I need to do. I’m going to go do that better than anyone.’ We’ve seen his impact over the last few weeks. He’s hawking every point guard he gets on. … As a competitor, you lose your spot in the rotation, what are you going to do to get it back? Some sulk. Most sulk. Then some go and take it back. That’s what he’s done.”
Green’s words shouldn’t land lightly. When speaking about defense, he doesn’t deliver these types of platitudes often. These were meaningful statements about a second-year wing he clearly believes has the potential to be an elite defender.
“It’s been a beautiful thing to watch,” Green said. “It’s his (improved) 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.”
Kuminga is disruptive on the ball and dangerous when locked into an individual assignment. But for him to really emerge and continue to close key games for the Warriors, he needs to improve within the team concept still, right? That question was posed to Green.
“I don’t play defense in the team concept,” Green said. “I know most people think I do, but I don’t. When you’re good enough, the team concepts adapt around you. That’s what he’s starting to show. We may not want him to pick up as high as he picks up all the time. But if you’re wreaking havoc and it’s bettering us and it’s worsening the opponent’s offense, who is going to say stop? When you’re good enough and you’re capable, the team concepts adapt around you.”
That’s Green, one of the greatest defenders of a generation, roping himself into a defensive conversation about Kuminga.
“(Other) guys are learning,” Green continued. “You’ll even hear now (the coaches will) say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this on a screen.’ Then Loon will say, ‘Hey, I’m not doing that with JK. He’s going to be too into the ball and I can’t get a good red (coverage). So I’m just going to into a coverage with JK (that’s different).’ That’s adapting to him. What he’s doing is good enough for me to adapt as opposed to saying, ‘No, JK, I really need you to get into this red (coverage).’ No. He’s so good at that thing that we’re going to adapt. Understanding team concepts is extremely important. He’s learning. He’s helping. He’s doing the things that need to be done on that side. But when you’re sh0wing the skill set that he has on that side of the ball, you’d be a fool to say, ‘Hey, we need you to go do this.’”
This seems like a notable development.
(Photo of Jonathan Kuminga of the Warriors scoring over Gordon Hayward of the Hornets: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)
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