With just over nine minutes remaining in Saturday’s gripping matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers, 19-year-old Jonathan Kuminga made one play that left a big impression.
Posted up under the basket, defending LeBron James – he pressured the champ into an untimely turnover. With a wry smile, he exchanged a few pleasantries with the Lakers superstar as they made their way back down the floor.
The same LeBron James who on this very night had just surpassed Kareem Abdul Jaabar as the leading scorer in NBA history (including playoffs). A more seasoned player might’ve opted for a more low-key response, for fear of needling James into taking his game up a notch, but Kuminga is spontaneous.
At just 19, Kuminga radiates confidence and the fearlessness of youth. Unlike many of his teammates, this was his first match up against James. On Saturday night, Kuminga stared into the eyes of the tiger and didn’t flinch.
Jonathan Kuminga has entered the limelight in his rookie season for the Golden State Warriors.
If the Warriors’ marquee fixture against the Lakers taught us anything – it was that Jonathan Kuminga is comfortable in the limelight.
The rookie was handed his seventh career start against the visiting Lakers – and in 25 minutes of action, put up 18 points, 9 rebounds and 1 block on 71 percent shooting.
Commentators and Warriors fans alike, gushed, as Kuminga came from nowhere, over a sea of Lakers for an unbelievable put-back finish in the second quarter.
On defense, he was equally impressive. Tasked with guarding James for much of the night, a role typically reserved for the likes of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala – and in the past, even Kevin Durant, Kuminga refused to be intimidated.
"‘He definitely rose to the moment,’ Kerr said of Kuminga after the game. ‘He’s handling it beyond anything I could’ve expected even a couple of weeks ago. His rise this last month has just been brilliant.’"
Facing an opponent holding 19 seasons of experience on him – the 19-year-old rookie more than held his own. There was a touch of bravado in the way he danced toe to toe with James on national television.
Of course, Kuminga didn’t completely neutralize the threat of James. The Lakers forward still finished with 26 points, 15 rebounds and 8 assists for the contest. He did, however, force James into his least efficient outing since November. His 26 points came from 27 shots. He finished with a field goal percentage of only 33 percent, with four turnovers to boot.
‘He just guarded LeBron James for however many minutes,’ Klay Thompson said of Kuminga’s performance. ‘How many 19-year-olds or 20-year-olds are doing that?’
Saturday was by far the best game of Kuminga’s budding career. He relished the physicality of the contest and became a more potent offensive weapon in the open court.
Kuminga can be a factor in the playoffs
As we tick into the final third of the season, the Warriors will surely have one eye fixed on the playoffs that loom ahead.
The post-season is an entirely different animal – one that offers a new set of challenges. Games are played in cauldron-like atmospheres. Seats get a little hotter and palms get a little sweatier.
It is perhaps telling that Kuminga’s inspired performance against the Lakers came in a game with playoff-like intensity. He arguably established himself as someone the Dubs can turn to when the heat is on.
Steve Kerr echoed this thought in his post-game interview: ‘The plan was just, get him experience now. Let’s put him on LeBron now because he’s going to have to guard LeBron and plenty of other guys in the playoffs who are really, tough jobs, tough covers.’
Selected with the seventh pick in draft, many quickly summed up Kuminga as a longer-term project. Although blessed with freakish athleticism – the consensus was that he would need time to hone his skills.
These assumptions are now looking entirely off the mark. In just 45 career games, Kuminga has displayed an understanding and feel for the game far beyond anything even the best judges could have hoped for. Along with the tenacity in which he attacks the game, comes a poise that belies his years.
Beyond the physical prowess and obvious talent, Kuminga also does the little things well. He plays high-level defense for his age without fouling and is an elite screen-setter. Which are the necessary requirements in a Steve Kerr playoff rotation.
Kuminga’s touted bright future definitely seems to be arriving ahead of schedule. You could say he’s coming of age, before he comes of age. Warrior’s fans will be rapt that he looks more than capable of playing a role for the Warriors this postseason. As Klay said, he does things few other 19-year-olds can do on a basketball court.