SAN FRANCISCO — Coach Steve Kerr approached Jonathan Kuminga on Friday to give the Warriors rookie some surprising news. He was starting in place of the injured Gary Payton II for Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Kerr advised Kuminga to keep playing the way he’s been. “You’ve been good,” Kuminga recalled Kerr telling him. “I love the way you’ve grown.”
Kuminga, at the ripe age of 19, became the youngest player to start an NBA playoff game Saturday night and joined the elite company of Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, and Tony Parker as the only teenagers in NBA history to drop 18 or more points in to playoff game.
Overall, Kerr was pleased with Kuminga’s performance.
“He did a lot of good stuff out there,” Kerr said Sunday afternoon after practice. “His defense of him was good, around the floor, he attacked, he got a couple of easy buckets for us.”
But there’s still ample room for him to grow.
Kuminga had three turnovers in the first quarter. Kerr chalked up those mistakes as him being “overly aggressive and got a little bit out of control.”
“He was just trying too hard to make a play when he really didn’t have to,” Kerr said. “… But he’s a rookie and he’s constantly learning and growing but he did a really good job.”
Earning the starting nod was a mega confidence boost for Kuminga.
“It motivates me every single day because if he’s starting me and trusting me at this age, that puts me in a situation where… if I keep putting in the same amount of work that I put in, it’s even going to make me better, Kuminga said. “Just him trusting me and starting me, I feel like he put me in a situation where I need to keep up the work I do every single day because that work puts me in a good situation.”
Most players drafted near the top of the first round of the NBA draft see ample playing time during their rookie season. But then again, most players aren’t drafted to franchises with a championship-proven core and a stacked roster.
Kuminga, whom the Warriors picked No. 7 overall in last year’s draft, has kept his blinders up all season to prevent himself from comparing his situation to other 2021 NBA draftees.
“If I keep up with what other people are doing or whatever they’re getting, it’s just going to mess my mind up, it’s going to make me want to do certain stuff that’s not me or go out there to prove something that I don ‘t need to be proving,” Kuminga said Sunday afternoon after practice. “All I really need is just to be around here.”
Kuminga believes he’s the “luckiest” player of last year’s draft class since he has the opportunity to develop alongside future Hall of Fame players like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Those three players, alongside several other veterans like Andre Iguodala, Kevon Looney and Otto Porter Jr., have advised Kuminga all season as he tried to navigate the NBA being one of the youngest players in the league.
As Kuminga’s role fluctuated between starter to not playing at all throughout the season, the Warriors rookie kept asking himself the same questions.
“Do I deserve to go out there and play every single day? Do I deserve to sit out?” Kuminga recalled Sunday afternoon after practice. “That kind of helped me to put myself in a spot where I just need to keep working and listen to everybody, my coaches, my teammates, and just trusting the process.”
That patience and willingness to accept criticism from those around him have paid dividends in terms of his development this season. Kuminga started 12 of his 70 games during the regular season, averaging 9.3 points and 3.3 rebounds.
“I wanted to go out there and… play a lot of minutes every single day but in life you gotta be patient, you’ve got to wait for your moment,” Kuminga said. “I was just patient and staying true to myself and keeping working hard.”
And he views Saturday as another stepping stone in his career.